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Relations between athletes and the media are a necessar...

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Relations between athletes and the media are a necessary evil, but humour does help

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By Craig Ray
31 May 2021 1

Craig Ray is the Daily Maverick sports editor.

I certainly have sympathy for athletes who have to endure terrible questions at press conferences, but it's a two-way street and the media are not there as praise singers.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

This week tennis superstar Naomi Osaka posted on her social media platforms that she would not be doing press conferences at the upcoming French Open at Roland Garros to protect her mental health.

She is tired of inane questions, or worse, spiky exchanges with the media when probing about weaknesses in her game. Osaka believes that that kind of questioning can lead to self-doubt. “I’m not going to subject myself to people who doubt me,” she said.

I certainly have sympathy for athletes who have to endure terrible questions, but the media are not there as praise singers either. The media’s job is not to cheerlead, but to attempt to ask questions that will shed light on an issue, a moment or a single incident in a match.

The media sometimes fail, but it’s also a two-way street. Surly, obnoxious athletes (I’m not suggesting Osaka is one) ensure that exchanges become more negative. I can assure athletes, most of us in the media aren’t doing cartwheels at the thought of a risible “I’m honoured and privileged” reply either.

I’ve been in what feels like thousands of media conferences in my life, and often, there are some toe-curlingly embarrassing questions that leave everyone shuffling uncomfortably. One so-called reporter often asked visiting teams after a match: “Who are you playing next week?” He was the only one who appeared oblivious to his dullness.

That’s not to say I’ve never asked a bad question or embarrassed myself, but generally if you have nothing to ask, then keep your mouth shut. In fact, humour is the best way of defusing potentially awkward interactions, although it’s not everyone’s forte.

After one rugby match a reporter not so much asked former Bok skipper Bob Skinstad a question, as made a statement: “So, Bob, early in the second half, you picked the ball up off a scrum just inside their half. You broke down the blindside, beat the first tackle, dummied the scrumhalf and scored in the corner… talk us through it.”

Skinstad, who had his surly moments, blinked in surprise, but chose humour as his comeback. Without skipping a beat, he deadpanned: “Early in the second half, I picked the ball up off a scrum just inside their half. I broke down the blindside, beat the first tackle, dummied the scrumhalf and scored in the corner…” It brought the house down.

In 2007, after Frans Steyn had landed two drop goals to give the Boks a narrow victory over the Wallabies at Newlands, Australian skipper Stirling Mortlock was not in the greatest of moods when seated in front of the media 30 minutes after the final whistle.

A reporter, again choosing to make a statement rather than ask a question, said: “Stirling… in 1999, Stephen Larkham landed a drop-goal to beat the Boks in the World Cup semifinal and today Frans Steyn landed two to beat the Wallabies…”

That was it. The statement trailed off without a question mark and everyone in the room was left holding their breath. Mortlock glared at his interrogator, before drily answering: “So what are you saying mate? That we’re karmically balanced now?” Again, tension in the room dissipated as everyone giggled at the pithy comeback.

I was one of only two print reporters from Africa in Florence in 2016 when the Springboks infamously lost to Italy for the first time. Coach Allister Coetzee was in the firing line and social media was in meltdown. “He must be fired” and #Allisterout were already trending as I made my way to the bowels of the Stadio Artemio Franchi to face the coach.

I passed some SA Rugby bigwigs on the way into the press room. “Are you going to fire Allister or does he still have your backing?” I asked. “Why don’t you ask him,” came the reply. “I will, but I’m asking you as his bosses.” They chose to say nothing.

So it was left to me to ask the most unfair and hardest question in the most public of arenas to a very likable man with whom, until that tour, I had shared a good professional relationship. Make no mistake, asking hard questions is as difficult on the interrogator if they have a modicum of empathy, as it is on the athlete or coach.

The press conference is not an ideal space for honest and relaxed interactions because it can feel adversarial. One athlete, sitting up there alone, as (mostly) men, who have never played sport at the highest level, ask an array of questions that range from insightful and respectful, to unprepared and hurtful, is littered with potential pitfalls.

For introverts it must be an ordeal, but it is also a result of being successful and is part of the unwritten contract of being a top sportsperson. I’d imagine there are hundreds of tennis players outside the top 100 who would relish sitting at a table faced by a barrage of media, because it means they have done well.

One-on-one interviews are by far the best way to conduct exchanges and ultimately tell stories. But given the sheer volume of media outlets and interest in the big sports, there isn’t enough time to manage all the requests on athletes’ time, which results in the ubiquitous press conference.

From a media perspective, press conferences generally offer nothing more than an odd quote to back up a point. There are so many “passengers” who do not ask questions, yet benefit from the occasional deep insight offered by an athlete.

Whether we, as media, or athletes such as Osaka like or hate them, press conferences are here to stay. They are an unpleasant part of the athletes’ job and they are an unpleasant part of the media’s job. Let’s just get on with it professionally. And with a little humour. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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  • I have huge empathy for Naomi Osaka given that she is a self-confessed shy, introverted athlete, who is uncomfortable and awkward when the spotlight is shone on her alone. Whilst athletes are usually contractually bound (why??) to attend press conferences, one must remember and realise that Naomi is an athlete, not a public speaker or actress. Some players thrive on that kind of spotlight. She doesn’t. I applaud her courage to ‘go against the grain’, and speak out on a prickly subject.

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