Why footballers are targeted by the media

Can you remember what you were doing on 28th May? If not, it’s no surprise because that must have been one of the most boring days in world history. How else to explain the fact that a report about the damage to an aeroplane carrying the England team back from their Far East tour should have made the second item on News at Ten that evening?

ITN were so keen on on the story that they phoned the WSC office a few hours before transmission wanting to know if we could think of anyone, anyone at all, who would go on the programme to express their outrage at England’s players setting such a bad example for supporters.

We suggested they might have their own newsreader make a comment to that effect if they were so sure that was what the nation needed to hear. They wouldn’t countenance that, of course, their role being to simply report the news. Except that they are already passing judgment simply though choosing to give the story such prominence.

ITN were by no means alone, of course. The BBC went to town on it, too, and the tabloids, naturally, devoted acres of space. So what exactly did the coverage tell us, apart from the obvious, that some England players are not very bright and don’t need much encouragement to make pillocks of themselves, especially when they’re pissed – something that anyone who has the slightest passing interest in football, and many who haven’t, will already know?

Firstly, it once again demonstrated the FA’s utter cluelessness when confronted with bad news. You would have thought that an organization that has staggered from one calamity to the next in the past couple of years might be at least familiar with the concept of damage limitation.

But no. Instead of saying straight out that yes, OK, there had been damage, but of course the players involved would pay for it out of their own pockets (and a few thousand is less than a week’s work for most) they decided to stonewall. None of their officials heard anything; there was a bit of a mess in the cabin but that was normal for any long haul flight; Terry would ask the players what happened when the squad got together again in a few days’ time.

As if that would calm the ratpack. Instead, the reverse happened. The Sun duly took up the challenge and put out pictures of several players drunk and dishevelled in a Hong Kong nightclub, and from there the story spun out of control. Next, readers polls, and the ubiquitous baying Tory backbenchers, are calling for Gascoigne to be dropped from the squad, while the airline, annoyed that no-one seemed pre-pared to foot the bill for damages, threaten to gatecrash the FA’s next press conference brandishing a large bill, like a telethon donation in reverse.

Leader articles, meanwhile, take the FA to task for double standards: suggesting that they would come down hard if the player involved was a reserve, but that Gascoigne the star will escape censure because he’s too important to the team.

Another thing to be revealed, or perhaps reiterated, by the story is the media’s desperation currently to dig up as much bad news as they can find about football. Granted they won’t have to do too much digging in some areas, but TV producers will be rubbing their hands at the thought of all the studio discussions after Euro ’96 in which an invited audience will be given ten seconds to explain why England did so badly, why football is overrated, why hooliganism is back (“and on the front row we have Brian, a self confessed hooligan from Norwich . . .”).

While we’re not suggesting that anyone follow the trail blazed by Sky, whose brainless hype of everything attached to the Premiership makes the TV news output of a one party state seem broadminded and fair, it would help if things were kept in perspective.

Yes, footballers behave badly in public and often refuse to accept that they have any responsibility for any damage or insult caused. But so do other sportsmen, so too do pop stars, politicians, members of the royal family, even – steel yourselves – some journalists, but they are rarely taken to task for setting a bad example.

Much as we’re loath to say it, given that it has been said so often, the gleeful rush to be judgmental about footballers surely has much to do with social class. Rugby players who let off fire extinguishers in public places might be medical students, farmers or solicitors by day and so are just indulging in high spirits. Footballers doing the same thing are yobs, thugs, probably not brought up properly.

But the principle reason why such behaviour seems to be widespread can’t be put down to class. They carry on much as they like because, apart from when it gets into the papers, no one tells them not to. The comments made by current England coach Bryan Robson about his boozing days at Man Utd during BBC2’s recent George Best Night added to the already large body of evidence to suggest that our players seem to be actively encouraged to unwind with the odd pint or ten.

Footballers from other countries don’t seem to drink anything like as much as many of their English counterparts, not least because they think it’s unprofessional, a sign of not being serious about what you do. By contrast, football people here, and not just the players, seem to live in a world governed by one of the tenets of the old gentleman amateurs – don’t take yourself, or your sport, too seriously, otherwise people will think you’re boring, and what could be worse than that?

When the culture they’re part of seems so mixed up, when the daily papers eagerly talk up tales of players or supporters bringing ‘shame’ upon the nation, it should be little surprise that footballers are often baffled by the adverse reactions they provoke. We want to enjoy our ‘mavericks’ (a wide category, stretching from screwed-up geniuses like George Best to smug second-raters like Rodney Marsh) but we also want to be able to pillory them for every indiscretion.

It’s ludicrous, mad even, but there’s no telling some people.

From WSC 113 July 1996. What was happening this month

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