Silly notions

by Paul Thomas / 13 December, 2012
You don’t have to have played the game to be able to report on it.
Sydney Morning Herald

It was a moment for connoisseurs of unintentional irony to savour: a dinosaur using Twitter to advertise his failure to adapt to changing times. When the Sydney Morning Herald sent reporter Georgina Robinson on tour with the Wallabies instead of long-serving rugby writer Greg Growden, former Wallaby great David Campese tweeted: “Why does the SMH get a girl to write about rugby? Growden who was a great journio (sic) and now we have someone who has no idea about the game!”

(Growden is probably best known here for revealing that New Zealand has a Minister for Bad Manners, a Cabinet member who supposedly behaved appallingly in the VIP lounge during a World Cup pool match. One News called this a “ministerial scandal”, even though the story appeared in Growden’s Ruck and Maul column, a weekly helping of tittle-tattle heavily reliant on unidentified ratbags being fingered by unidentified sources, and barely qualified as a 24-hour wonder.)

Wallaby flanker David Pocock’s tweet typified the reaction: “Really sad to see journos attacked based on their gender, or a grown woman referred to as a girl.” He linked Campese’s outburst to misogynistic shock-jock (and former Wallabies coach) Alan Jones’s recent claim that female politicians were “destroying the joint”.

Sally Loane wrote about rugby for the Sydney Morning Herald in the 1990s and is now on the New South Wales Rugby Union board, but maybe Campese gave her a pass because she was once married to former Wallaby captain Mark Loane. Although Campese’s sexism was quite rightly the focus, the controversy also highlighted that some participants still cling to the manifestly silly notion that only those who have competed at a high level are qualified to write about the sport.

“How many tests did you play?” was once a standard All Black putdown of uppity rugby writers. Andy Haden used the same taunt on fellow former All Black Wayne Graham during a TV panel discussion. (The answer was one, which was Haden’s point. He played 41 tests, and all up wore the black jersey 117 times.)

What sexists and athletes who have parroted this and similar lines don’t appear to grasp is that whether the job description is sports reporter, sports writer, sports commentator or sports columnist, the second component is far more important than the first. To put it another way: how many All Blacks have knocked out a match report and a colour piece and conducted and written up interviews with both captains and coaches under extreme deadline pressure?

That said, the public’s appetite for supposed “been there, done that” inside knowledge based on experience is apparent in the number of ex-players who land media gigs.

With some honourable exceptions (in rugby, former England flyhalf Stuart Barnes and former Springbok prop Cobus Visagie come to mind), their output merely reinforces what sports journalists learn very early in their careers: that many notable sportspeople play the game far better than they talk, let alone write, about it.

Notwithstanding Irish writer Brendan Behan’s famous witticism that critics are like eunuchs in a harem – “they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they are unable to do it themselves” – in other walks of life we seldom encounter this insistence that you can’t be an acute observer, thought-provoking analyst or entertaining commentator unless you have had first-hand experience.

For fairly obvious reasons, if you were to apply it to New Zealand politics, for instance, we’d be limited to a diet of Michael Laws, Willie Jackson and John Tamihere.
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