x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Talk is far from cheap in sport

One of the top stories in the NFL recently was the reported feud between the Dallas Cowboys receiver Terrell Owens and his quarterback Tony Romo.

One of the top stories in the NFL recently was the reported feud between the Dallas Cowboys receiver Terrell Owens and his quarterback Tony Romo. The media went with the story that Owens was upset with Romo because he was favouring his tight end and good friend Jason Witten during games. It sounds like a teen drama, but this was an NFL locker room. The reason a story like this makes air is that professional locker rooms, in the NFL and other sports, are wide open for media access.

A reporter sets up shop at one player's locker, gets him to comment on another player and then strolls across the room to get some reaction. It's interactive journalism. Think of it as passing notes in a classroom, but with multi-million dollar athletes doing the gossiping. In an era of 24-hour sports television and radio, the sports fans' appetite is ravenous. This puts the pressure on the media to jockey for more and more access to fan favourites. The leagues know that this unfettered access is akin to a commercial for their product. Professional sports teams have media relations staff in place, their job is to control the message while getting their players on TV and radio as much as possible.

Next time you watch a game, check out the star player from the winning team moments after the game ends. You will see a team PR person in a suit ushering the player from TV interview to radio interview and back again. Leagues such as the NFL, NBA, MLB and NASCAR all have rules in place to ensure their athletes give time to the media. The days of a disgruntled player ignoring interviews for the season are over.

NASCAR driver Tony Stewart skipped his media obligations after a race last season. This cost him $10,000 (Dh36,700) and he was put on probation. At the Super Bowl, NFL players are routinely fined for not staying the entire time of media day. One year the Chicago Bears Brian Urlacher was docked $100,000 for wearing a hat that was not approved by the league office for media day. This conflux of rules and personality has put in place a scenario that our media, this writer included, greatly benefit from. If Stewart or Kobe Bryant or Tom Brady has a rough game, they are obliged to speak moments after.

Now, if you ask the right question, pinch the correct nerve, the player might explode. He might say things he will regret. He may rip into his teammates at an emotional time instead of shutting up to avoid a situation. Shutting up is rarely an option. This is what we in the media call gold. Our system, where athletes are under orders to speak is in direct contrast with football across the pond in the UK.

According to the reporter Mick Dennis, Premier League players are "protected" by team PR personnel. He added that media access to players during the week and on game days was structured and not as ramshackle as in the States. "On the days we visit the training facilities, interviews with the players have to be arranged in advance," he said. "During training and on match days, the team will put up a player for the press to talk to, but they choose who it is. There is no obligation on the part of any coach or player to talk to the media."

The question is: which style works best? In a controlled system, the media has less access which seems to limit the ability of the journalists to fully cover a team and a story. However, the American system opens up the possibility of shoddy journalism by irresponsible reporters who are looking to create a story instead of reporting one. ppabst@thenational.ae