Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A Plea for the End of Footballer Profiles on Sports Websites

Reading through my daily football feeds, I noticed the Guardian proudly included notice that several of its journos got awards from the Sports Journalists' Association.  Well, you know, congrats (what's with the sad faces in the photos?).  Yet I am a big proponent of recognizing both good and bad in any profession—hence I tend to take more interest in the Razzies than the Oscars.

Giving awards to the worst football journalists is out the purview of this simple Canadian blog, but I can offer you a sample of the sort of article designed to make me hate sports journalism.  So today we look at Jim White's story for the Telegraph, for which the headline reads, "Theo Walcott hopes trophies at Arsenal can book him World Cup place with England."

Let's start there, shall we?  I imagine Theo Walcott is a probably very pleasant young man.  Certainly that's what his dad told the foaming-at-the-mouth reporters who invaded his living room days after his son scored a hat trick for England in Zagreb those many moons ago.  But of all the beans spilled in his chat with White, this is the headline we're left with?

Now we all know journos don't often write their own headlines (a perk left to we happy few slogging away in blogger hell), but if I were White I would have insisted on either of these: "Little Girl Tottenham Fan to Theo: Lennon is Better than You", or conversely, "Walcott Blames Dad for Injury Woes" (said Walcott to White, "My shoulders come from my dad, he's to blame").  A stretch?  Definitely, but already miles better than incorrectly linking Walcott to the vague hope that Arsenal winning trophies will somehow blind a Champions League-winning Italian tactical master to the fact Walcott's not playing very well at the moment (Walcott actually said, "If I perform for Arsenal, that will get me on the plane. Simple as that," which is so dully obvious you wonder if the editor mangled the quotation in the headline to make a point about the general pointlessness of the article).

This is a puff piece, plain and simple.  De-syllable-ize some of the adjectives and this thing could go in one of those weird, comic book football mags for kids who aren't cool enough to read When Saturday Comes.  Walcott is "endlessly polite," he is "unruffled by attention," he has "instinctively...grasped the fact that a footballer of his standing becomes a role model," he is "easy, kind, thoughtful."

White lets us in on why he isn't very good at the moment— it's "karma," manifold injuries to "his shoulder, his back, his side, his ankle, almost every part of his body...enough to furnish a medical text book." "Every time he seemed to have recovered this season," White scribbles unconvincingly, "another setback came his way."  Theo is football's Job apparently, a living saint beat down by an angry god for reasons only known to the divine mind.  The hearts of the world's stricken burn with empathy. 

The problem isn't with White.  I can picture Jim at his London bureau desk, pleading for his editor to send someone else to North London as he's busy cracking the case on Leeds' shifty owners.  And later, Jim finds himself sitting at his desk, head in his hands, a few minutes to deadline, itching to write that Walcott confessed to being a chronic masturbator and to recreational LSD use while on international duty.  Jim's editor comes over to reassure him there is an audience for this sort of thing, perhaps Arsenal supporters, or the more sentimental England fans, I imagine.

And then Jim looks up at him with indignant, red eyes, sore from spinning bullshit, and cries out that these empty player profiles litter the English dailies.  From whence, Jim asks, comes this need for sports pages to remind us they're not just footballers, they're people too, and we should care about their feelings?  Why did I have to go to some elementary school in North London just so I could come back and write about what a humble and wonderful a young man Theo is? Was it to try and convince our readers what a shame it is that this nice guy who earns more money than just about everyone else on the planet won't be able to play on the English national soccer team, but will have to settle for just playing for one of the most famous, best-supported sides in the entire world instead?  Is that the deal Theo's agent struck with the Telegraph so Jim could get his notebook within three feet of the Arsenal forward?

The editor shrugs and walks away, but Jim isn't done, and yells after him, "only you have the power to stop this!"  The door to the editor's office closes and Jim is left alone with his thoughts.