Professional football has developed its own ‘mad-house’ culture in recent years and a separate set of rules seemingly exist in the way it is reported. But have the ethical boundaries in the relationship between footballers and the press shifted? Charlie Croasdale investigates whether the incessant reporting of footballers’ private lives is having an adverse affect on the way the beautiful game is covered by the British media.
Professional football in Britain has suffered a tumultuous 12-month period. There has been a succession of racism rows, as one of Britain’s most deeply resented social problems once again reared its ugly head, with names like John Terry, Anton Ferdinand, Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra becoming synonymous with an incident separate to their footballing prowess. Sheffield United striker Ched Evans was sentenced to five-year imprisonment in April having been convicted of rape. Furthermore, there has been a seemingly endless list of assaults, drinking offences and general stupidity of footballers since 2011 became 2012, the Olympic year, the year to celebrate sport.
Yet despite its misgivings, football remains a sport with a fanatical following and a vast readership in our national media. The British football supporter opening the back pages of their newspaper wants to know about players’ form, fitness, contract arrangements and latest transfer rumours. Crucially though, the appetite of the British public to hear and read about the private lives of top-level players has now grown to such an extent that it draws an ethical line in the sand for journalists, and questions how far they should go to extract a good story out of a footballer.
Former professional footballer Robbie Savage, who had successful spells in the Premier League with Leicester, Birmingham and Blackburn, has seen tabloid intrusion in his life ever since he made a £300,000 move from Crewe Alexandra to Leicester City in 1997. He says he feels the press have a tendency to go overboard.
“It happens all the time. In my opinion, you have to accept personal abuse from the press. Footballers who gain a celebrity status must accept that rubbish will be written about them, it’s the way of the world.
“I understood as a player that the press have a job to do and if that meant crossing the line then so be it. Footballers must accept that at times the press wants to knock you down. You’ve just got to deal with it as a player.”
Savage has first-hand experience of the way the press can spin a story. When he made an acrimonious move from Birmingham to Blackburn in January 2005, the press labeled him a mercenary whose claims that he was moving closer to his ill parents home in Wrexham were falsified. Several national newspapers ran the story that Birmingham was in fact geographically closer to Wrexham than Blackburn is, yet completely ignored the fact Savage would be able to move to Cheshire, a stone’s throw from his parents.
When asked about recent tabloid intrusion into his private life, Savage became increasingly apprehensive, pulling his red cap down to cover his eyes and asking whether the question was ‘relevant’. He dismissed tabloid speculation as pure rubbish and remarked that as long as the people involved ‘know the truth’ then that is all that matters. Yet his reaction posed the question: is a constant diet of footballers’ private affairs in the tabloid newspapers doing a disservice to them as a profession?
Current BBC 5live radio broadcaster Darren Fletcher, who cut his teeth reporting on the late Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest, believes the tabloid coverage of top-level footballers in Britain massively reduces the ability of the football media to provide a positive reflection of the game.
“Whatever your profession, if you’ve been in the papers with things wrongly written about you, of course you won’t speak to that newspaper or broadcaster again. Instead they’ll use Twitter, which is great from a fans perspective.
“The sports and gossip sections of newspapers are worlds apart and it is hugely frustrating. Yet this is the world we’ve created. Now The News of the World has been exposed then it may improve, but until we change and stop buying tabloid newspapers, that will remain constant.”
Speaking at an after-dinner function, Savage and Fletcher, now colleagues on BBC’s 606 football phone-in, echoed each other’s sentiments regarding journalists who use footballers as a springboard for their own careers.
“As a player you get fed up of journalists who just want to use your status to propel them into the media”, remarked Savage.
Fletcher added: “Too many people in the media try and use footballers as a platform for their career, but if you are honest and genuine, players respect you.”
At the function in his hometown of Wrexham, Savage faced a series of audience questions about the way he has been portrayed by the press, which he handled with increasing awkwardness as the evening progressed. At the heart of his answers was the advice to ‘not believe everything you read in the press’.
Veteran defender Efe Sodje plays for Bury Football Club and has made over 600 appearances in English football, gaining eight promotions during his career. As a successful lower-league player, he has seen former teammates go onto to achieve Premier League stardom, and find their lives intruded on by the press as a result.
“The youngsters in the academies, after a few first-team appearances they feel they’ve made it, like they are making big money. When they display this kind of arrogance then, in my opinion, they are fair game to the press. I look at these players and just laugh because they will only make good money for a small time.”
Sodje, like Savage, appeared to appreciate that journalists have a job to do but questioned their ethical reasoning behind some stories: “Sometimes footballers are harshly treated by the press. Sometimes the articles are fair. Take the John Terry racism case: the media went way overboard. But if they don’t get their stories, they won’t sell papers.”
Sodje, a teetotal man himself, explained how pictures of footballers exiting nightclubs are a great example of how the media fabricate stories. “Most footballers now don’t drink on nights out, but the press finds a shot which suggests they are drunk or drinking. It is often untrue.”
When it was suggested that a positive spin on these sorts of stories or pictures might bring newfound admiration for English footballers, Sodje nodded in agreement.
“They are entitled to go out. They are human beings. I go out and keep quiet in a corner of a bar. Others don’t, but why can’t we enjoy ourselves? Other people make this amount of money and aren’t scrutinised in the press, is that fair?”
There is a strong case that the good off-field charity work that top-level footballers in Britain do is almost never covered by the media. The Craig Bellamy Foundation, a charity providing football equipment and education to thousands of children in Sierra Leone, is an organisation which Bellamy himself has invested millions of his own money into. Yet in the past 12-months, the Chichester Observer and the Ulster Star are the only two British newspapers to report any of the remarkable work this charity does. Instead Bellamy is portrayed as the ‘bad-boy’ of British football, an attitude largely manipulated by the press.
Sodje believes this is an utter disservice to one of British football’s most charitable individuals and neatly summarises the way the press influence the way the public perceived footballers: “It is a great example, why can’t we have a back page about Craig Bellamy’s Foundation? I would agree that the press is unfair in these cases, but, they are paid to sell papers.”
The Sodje Sport Foundation (SSF), which Efe and his brothers set up to provide football kit for children in the UK and Nigeria, has been covered by Sky and ITV which the Bury centre-half appreciates, but he feels media coverage of SSF and other charitable football foundations “could be better, then people’s perceptions might change.”
In October, the England Footballer’s Foundation, set up by the national side in 2007, reimbursed all 2,500 England supporters who made the trip to Poland to watch England’s World Cup qualifier be washed out in Warsaw. The Foundation, which has raised over £2.5m through England players donating their match-fees to the cause, received virtually no column inches in the national press after the 1-1 draw that followed, with each paper or broadcaster focusing on a stinging attack on the performance of the side. This, according to football historian Professor Robert Colls of DeMontfort University, is typical of a media who have to satisfy the needs of its readers.
“Football coverage is a mad-house, like no other. The views of supporters are molded by journalists. The fans love these players, but also hate them, jealous of their huge wages and the fact they don’t care about their crappy, little club. Draw away to Poland and they all should be shot.”
Colls believes a 1963 court ruling changed the relationship between the press and footballers forever: “The press have always talked about football, but in late 19th century, the actual players did not matter. There was no interest in their personalities. This changed in 1963, a high court ruling which reduced the powers of the clubs and introduced absolute professionalism amongst the top players.”
Colls spoke nostalgically of this era, where footballers’ lives became workplace gossip, and enabled the press to begin reporting on their actions off the pitch, aswell as on it. Colls grew up on the passionate terraces of St James’ Park, Newcastle, and spoke of the way footballers were regarded by the supporters and the press: “Up until 1963, the players, as pillars of the community, needed the press, and the press needed the players to sell papers. Then the lid came off and the relationship altered.”
The professor highlights a second key moment in the changing dynamic between player and journalist, the 1995 Bosman Ruling: “Suddenly, the player dictates his movements. The unlimited amount of money a player can earn changes them and the way the public perceive them.”
He feels many of the current issues regarding the media’s portrayal of footballers, can be put down to the fact that there has been a failure to modernise the game from the top: “Footballers are expected to abide by a code which is archaic in its existence. The FA treats the players in the same way it did in 1966. This code is alien to the celebrity lives they now live in, but the press has failed to serve them well in this regard. The media fails to understand that an upbringing into the game is very different to what it was pre-Bosman.”
However, fundamentally the public has a democratic right whether to purchase newspapers or gossip about footballers as celebrity. Colls agreed to an extent with Fletcher’s notion that it is a world ‘we’ve created’: “Top-level English football has become a moving-feast and it becomes a good target for the press. The public feed off it, but it is crucial to cite the two key rule changes as reasons to why the press goes overboard in search of a story.”
Interestingly, when asked about the treatment of British Olympians by the media, in comparison to their football counterparts, both Fletcher and Colls referred to the ‘temperature’ of the nation dictating media coverage.
Fletcher said: “The temperature of the nation is crucial. If the press tried to write negatively about the Olympics, it would be rejected by the public. The media have to pitch it right.”
Colls agreed, stating how the Olympic heroes of the summer reminded him of “the way footballers used to be treated by the press” suggesting the last time sport truly captured the nation in that way was the 1966 World Cup.
It is hard to imagine such success for the current crop of English footballers easing the relentless stream of media pressure they endure to this day. For the foreseeable future, football’s ‘mad-house’ seems here to stay.