15 March ~ Every football fan in the English-speaking world knows Bill Shankly's (probably ironic) quote about football being "far more important" than life or death. The main reason is that every football writer has, at some time, quoted it in full as though it's a universal truth, not an off-the-cuff witticism. Looking at the websites of Britain's premier broadsheet newspapers at the weekend, you wondered how many editors have it framed above their desks, causing them to take it literally on a daily basis.
Sport used to know its place in the news cycle, and was firmly held on the back pages unless there was an exceptional result, achievement or tragedy. You knew something extraordinary had happened when sports news dominated or even fought for space on the front page. Now, both in print and (especially) on the internet, we are asked to accept, for example, that live online coverage of an FA Cup sixth-round tie between Manchester United and Arsenal deserves a prominent place alongside Japan's deadly, devastating tsunami and the ensuing nuclear plant explosions.
Here's how the websites of the four major UK broadsheets looked on Saturday afternoon. In the Guardian, the main headline was about a Japanese town "missing" 10,000 people. But just below it, and higher up the page than the latest news from north Africa (Libya rebels appeal for air strikes) was the link to Manchester United v Arsenal Live! The impending civil war in the Ivory Coast had disappeared off the front page completely. In the Telegraph, the top headline read: Nuclear disaster feared in Japan after power plant explosion. Just down from that story and to the right: Man Utd v Arsenal: Live.
In the Independent, the main story was Japan earthquake: huge explosion at nuclear plant. Directly below, above all other news in big block capitals: LIVE FOOTBALL SCORES AND RESULTS. LIVE was marked out in red. The Times proclaimed Thousands lost to Japan earthquake and tsunami, and just below, in among the equally crucial Stephen Fry and Caitlin Moran columns, was the link to FA Cup Live, and the exhortation to Follow the action with our match-tracking service.
Now it's clear why the links to sports events are given such prominence – it's because they're very popular with readers. By Saturday night, the Man Utd v Arsenal story on the Guardian's front page boasted 671 comments (God help anyone who read them all, let alone contributed). Yet to juxtapose a news story about mass tragedy with a mere sporting event sends the perverted message that the two are at least as important as each other. And it gives the reader the excuse to turn away from the one story that is harrowing, and escape instead to another that should be entertainment, but which thanks to minute-by-minute coverage is being treated as breaking news of breathtaking significance. If you think I'm exaggerating, explain the 671 comments in the space of a few hours – a staggering number for any online story.
I often read and genuinely enjoy rolling in-game coverage, but what is wrong with a single Sport or Football link at the top of the main page to take me there? Sports headlines should be demoted to the lower reaches of the page alongside arts, entertainment and lifestyle columnists. It only takes a fleeting scroll or one slight finger movement to get me there. That would remove the perception that we should be treating war, earthquakes, revolutions and environmental catastrophes with the same heed and concern as the recent blips in form of England's top two football teams that have apparently vexed so many over the past week or two. When football's a matter of life and death, then it can become front-page news. Mostly, though, it's much less important than that. Ian Plenderleith