A Loss of Mutual Trust: Adventures In Modern Day Sports Writing

FIGHTING THROUGH TEARS while speaking about the struggles of Tom Boyd, Luke Beveridge’s vulnerability revealed the depth of care he had for his young forward. It also served as a brutal foreword to a cutting, contrasting barb towards an unnamed football journalist who had a “black soul”.


The consensus – including from the journalist himself – is that Beveridge’s remark was directed at AFL.com.au reporter Damian Barrett, who last year suggested in an article the club had made up a story about a back injury to Boyd as the player battled his ongoing issues with mental health.


“With mental health such a significantly sensitive issue in our game, for (Barrett) to infer we were making up (Boyd’s) injury and that there is something else wrong,” Beveridge said at the time. “Whoever contracts and employs (Barrett), I’m inquisitive to know what the driver is from a moralistic point of view, and a contentious point of view — there’s not much there.”


The contrast of the caring coach and the black-souled reporter is a glaring example of the break-down of the relationship between clubs and the media, albeit a dramatic, biased one. This is in no way a defense of Barrett who last year wanted to pick at the Boyd situation like the vulture at Prometheus’ liver, after the then 22-year-old Bulldog took prolonged leave as he dealt with clinical depression—by then on the public record.


Two recent books – The Great American Sportspage, edited by John Schulian and Electrifying 80s: Footy’s Outrageous Decade in the Words of its Best Writers, edited by Russell Jackson (to be released soon) – elucidate the growing rift between athletes and coaches, and those who write about them.


It must be disheartening for someone to go into sportswriting as I once did,” said Schulian to the LA Times last week. Sports has changed so much, having gone corporate, and athletes becoming more remote. It’s harder for writers to do the kind of pieces that make sports sections special. There was a time when a columnist could do a real character sketch of someone.”


There are two seismic shifts at the heart of Schulian’s lament, both of which are picked up in the introduction to Electrifying 80s.


The first is the lack of access and with it the loss of mutual trust as part of the relationship between reporters and their subjects. As Jackson writes: “In the 1980s, that environment of trust—and informal, off-the-record briefings—enabled journalists to report on something close to the reality of each club’s affairs, rather than just guessing.”


He refers to former Carlton coach David Parkin, who despite calling the post-game press conference “the fifth and hardest quarter”, would furnish journalists with generous off-the-record explanations of the day’s play. Parkin’s contemporaries — giants of the game like Tom Hafey, Ron Barassi and Kevin Sheedy — adopted similar approaches, speaking candidly and trusting reporters to exercise some discretion in what they wrote.


Today, rather than letting reporters huddle around players and coaches in smoke-filled hallways, every club employs a team of media managers, to whom the very concept of “off the record” is anathema, and every media appearance is an exercise in corporate stage management. Football clubs have become machines. The machine might awe you, but it is harder to love.


It has reached a point when journalists struggle to respond when the script is upset. Today, there is little upside for the professional athlete who provides lively or contentious copy — all it does is make people hate them, in a world where binary “takes” win the interminable pursuit of clicks.


Which leads to the second shift in modern-day sportswriting – a disrupted media landscape that rewards immediacy and sensation.


Jackson writes that there are plenty of journalists who, with greater access to their subjects, more accommodating deadlines and supportive editing, would doubtless produce far more rewarding reads.Clarifying further, he said that present-day football journalists and their subjects live in completely different stratospheres to their 1980s equivalents, and as opposed to their forebears, today’s football writers confront a“ceaseless imperative to win clicks and hits, which often makes for fairly shallow, baseless and even puerile storylines.”


Part of the current divide is simply the market forces and the sheer commercial scale of the game.


“Current coaches earn ten times as much money as the people writing about them. That isn’t the be all and end all, but the two parties are not on level footing anymorein any sense,” says Jackson.


“In the early 80s, Allan Jeans was earning $20,000 a year. At 6:30pm the night before a final, an Age footy writer called him and asked if he could arrange some tickets for him, and access to Jeans’ pre-game address the next day, and he did it!


As well as having a salary closer to that of ASX 200 CEOs, a coach’s job requirements are more complex than simply having an understanding of the game and the oratory skills of a carnival barker.


To be blunt about it, a hell of a lot of players and coaches in 2019 are more cerebral and articulate than a lot of the people writing about them. Nobody wants to admit it, but in many press conferences, what you’re seeing is an intellectual mismatch. Some coaches will approach that scenario with more tact than others.


Just as clubs could stop acting like they’re protecting nuclear launch codes, journalists should perhaps better consider their line of questioning, and the relevance of what they’re reporting. Is it in the public interest that we know a player has a mental illness and not a physical injury? And that’s before we even get to the question of whether that player’s treatment would be better served by the world not knowing.


Jackson believes it goes back to the issue of discretion, and journalistic conscience.


We talk a lot about the greater levels of ‘awareness’ of these issues now. Ironically, it wouldn’t have been reported in the supposedly un-PC 1980s.”


Tom Boyd is an athlete and a person worthy of something more rewarding than muck-raking, though any self-respecting reporter would point to the fact that his original story was vindicated. That Boyd was open and honest enough to reveal his battle with depression owed him reporting that was more considered and at the very least, bore even a hint of self-reflection as to how a vulnerable person may respond.



The book to which Craig refers is to be published soon. More info HERE.


The Book

About Craig Little

"Faith without works is dead" -- James 2:17


  1. citrus bob says

    Thank you Craig Little. I am not normally interested in “pressers” (as they call them now!). Normally you get the same old waffle from the same people. When was the last time Alex Keath or number 8 for Geelong appeared after a game?
    I did watch a media conference of a game that Channel 7 controlled and 90% of the questions (no doubt heavily edited for starters) came from the Channel 7 reporter. A bit like “who takes care of the caretaker’s daughter when the caretaker is busy taking care?” It was laughable and no doubt is a regular for channel 7 games.
    Wouldn’t it be lovely if we introduced another “week” in the season The week when the non-descript player and a line coach (now that we have another US version of our game) came on board without talking the usual club waffle.
    In fact there should be an award for the player who does not talk the club talk and speaks his own opinion. Now that would sharpen today’s journos pencils, sorry, mobile phone.
    Thanks again Craig

  2. Dave Brown says

    So much noise, so little of worth (whereas this is Little of worth). I remember reading or hearing a journo somewhere suggesting that Australian sports in general were a fair way behind our American cousins in terms of access to players. The example they gave was American Football from memory where journalists could pretty much access every player on the roster. I don’t know if this is (or remains) accurate. Access is one thing, it leading to quality product is another. Trouble is I don’t reckon Crocmedia has a quality measure and it’s just sad that the unmanageably conflicted AFL does so poorly with its own media unit.

  3. Chris Weaver says

    An excellent article and I’m looking forward to Electrifying 80s – Russell has a great editing eye.

    The rift between participants and journos has been widening for a long time, but the setup of in-house media (AFL Media, club comms staff) and multimedia partners (Crocmedia, McGuire Media) has led to a raft of problems. Footy media was always too chummy and clubby back in the supposed good old days, but the access was better and the vested interests less noticeable. As it stands, the best investigative stuff continues to come from those outside the AFL accreditation bubble (cf Baker and McKenzie on the Essendon supplements scandal).

    Ultimately the best thing to do is to ignore modern footy’s hyperbole and sameness. Anyone know of a site with alternative footy views and fan writing?

  4. Its interesting isn’t it that we “mic up” players to get closer to the game. We catch players running off the ground at half time to get closer to the game. We talk to coaches moments before the bounce to get closer to the game. And yet we are further away than ever before.

  5. Luke Beveridge and the AFL doth protest too much. Pay megabucks to an unproven man child? How much deferred pressure does that put on him? If that’s the price of getting talent then there’s something wrong with the cattle market perpetrated by the AFL and the 10% player managers. Opportunity is a curse if you are not emotionally prepared for it.
    Mental health and substance abuse are often intertwined. One causes the other in both directions. In sensibly wanting to remove stigma and taboos around depression; bipolar; PTSD etc we have created a “get out of jail” card for problem children. Better that we call the drinking/drugging/gambling/sexual predators out early (as Bulldogs did to their credit) and not shield them behind the mental health veil (as too many clubs including my Eagles have done). Barrett picked the wrong target, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an issue that requires investigative reporting in the real community interest.
    Mainstream media is shallow and going broke? Journos are doing it tough? Taxi drivers and motels don’t get much sympathy for the effects of technology change. The caravan has moved on.
    It’s a narrow casting world of finding credible and interesting critical voices. There are plenty out there.
    Speaking of critical friends – it’s one of the problems of the Almanac – too many unquestioning “fans” sucking up “my club right or wrong”. Yawn. I’ve stopped reading a lot of the match reports because they are teenage love letters. If you won’t say what’s bad about your team; don’t expect me to be interested in what you think is good.
    Time to open another bottle………………..

  6. Really PB?

    I’m happy to defend the writers at the Almanac, and the process, and the purpose. We all write in good faith. And with the banner in mind. I dips m’lid to them all.

    And I’m happy to throw my two bob’s worth in on unpicking arguments as well. But is it worth spending time doing it? There’s a lot in your comment which is contestable.

  7. Many are hard hearted and hard minded. In media, life and politics (they get jobs with Murdoch/Fox). Many are soft hearted and soft headed (they don’t). Hard hearted and soft headed is dangerous (the plausible ones get elected).
    The best ones that I choose to read and follow are soft hearted and hard headed. It is a difficult path to find and navigate with many slips. But it is something to aspire to in life or as a writer. There are many on the Almanac, but in being supportive we should not become uncritical.
    I like Howard Jacobson’s maxim that the world doesn’t need more writers, it needs more readers. The insight and originality of their thought and expression is why I follow writers. Tough gig.
    Worth keeping in mind for everyone that takes to the keyboard. The Almanac is a generous and open forum that can get your voice heard. What will keep it being heard?

  8. I think it has been thus for quite a few years Litza. It’s one of the reasons I love chatting to the past players – especially the real oldies.

    So many writers coming through the system are so keen to work in footy media that they are willing to become mouthpieces for the so-called industry – the clubs and the league and the media organisations which are effectively stakeholders. Each to their own. For me, I’m not interested in being a functionary.

    And what of history?

    And the social context of it all?

    And the meanings contained therein.

    So here’s a question for me: when young writers come to the Almanac looking for a place to publish and to talk to someone about how to make their way in sportswriting, do I encourage them to be critical thinkers? Or is that doing them a disservice? Of course I have strong view on this.

  9. Good question and I am confident you know and employ the answer, John. Become a critical thinker first. Employment in paid media disqualifies that avenue. Employment makes you an indentured vassal. No scope for independence or innovation.
    The golfer Mike Clayton is the best critical writer/broadcaster/thinker example of someone I follow assiduously (even as a 60 something fanboy at a Cottesloe pro-am yesterday).
    Become successful/experienced in your profession. Clayton as a successful professional player and then course architect – with a wide interest in society beyond golf. Then you can think/write from a position of wisdom, empowerment and independence. In paid media, twitter and multiple podcasts on issues far beyond the golf course.
    Or just keep it as a hobby. Works for me.

  10. John, As a rule I much prefer to read the Almanac’s writers’ opinion pieces than those from the press giving the expected line. For example Rulebook’s articles about Norwood and his players’ profiles are always, in my opinion, outstanding – way better than in the footy budget etc.

    As for myself, I write from my heart. It often pains me to say what I really think about a Crows’ performance instead of soft soaping it like many writers do. The same goes to cricket – praise where it’s due but I won’t hesitate to call out bad sledging or chuckers.

    Politics side, I love to listen to Jacki Lambie, whilst not always agreeing with her, she is like a breath of fresh air with her honesty, not like others, no names mentioned, who stick to a strict script – so much so that you can join in with them as they speak.

  11. Chris Weaver says

    “I like Howard Jacobson’s maxim that the world doesn’t need more writers, it needs more readers.”

    Peter, to extend that maxim – Simon Barnes (former chief sports writer at The Times) says that the best advice you can give to an aspiring journo is to read more. Reading builds insight, empathy, subject knowledge and helps devise the ‘voice’ that is critical to good writing.

    Do the current wave of footy journos read much? And if they do – how narrow is their reading?

  12. Litza,
    An interesting analysis of the changing coverage of the game. So much has changed since I was studying journalism back in the 80’s.
    I recall that, as a kid, I loved Alf Brown’s Friday night preview in the Herald. I often wonder what it would be like to revisit those columns.
    For me, the post-match pressers are just a huge waste of time: 99% of the coaches do not want to be there, and are just fulfilling their club’s obligations. I have certainly never seen a Brad Scott post-match presser that was remotely interesting, but that might say more about him.
    And yes, the amount of control and spin that the AFL (and by extention, its clubs) exercises is at the heart of this entire issue.

  13. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Bring back the People’s Elbow !!
    Not like you’re short of material at the moment, Litza.

  14. E.regnans says

    G’day Litza,
    The personal aspect for me is this: As an adult I have never been more disengaged from AFL(VFL) football.
    And yet there are more reporters (as opposed to journalists) than ever.
    More access.
    A proliferation of articles/ podcasts/ sites/ apps.
    As my interest waned, I noted a relative absence of critical thought (or even story-telling).
    Puff piece after puff piece after Monday’s-expert hindcast after impossible-to-verify forecast.
    These were produced even WITH the access.

    I remain very wary (as others indicate, above) of vested interests.
    Why would I read an article published at AFL.com.au? I would not.
    Why would I read an article published by A Club? I would not.

    As an aside here – I think the Almanac stands apart as a place of creativity and daring and support and ideas.
    It is rare that an Almanacker has access to a player/ coach. But when they do, ideas presented are often those of a fan. Which is great. It is uplifting. And that’s fine.
    Most Almanac writing is done by the fan, I think.

    In any writing, ideas carry the story.
    And without thought, ideas are scarce.
    Loved your writing. You’ve got me thinking. Thanks.

  15. John Butler says

    Litza, I think Dips is onto something with his comment. But it doesn’t just apply to sport. More and more commentary on everything, but less engagement from many punters. A growing cynicism pervades. Saturation of the senses? The natural condition of the ‘consumer’?

    Nice piece, and an engaging discussion.


  16. https://www.latimes.com/sports/la-sp-sports-media-20190512-story.html
    Red Smith “writing is easy….just sit down at the typewriter……….and open a vein.”
    Anything worthwhile means spilling some blood.

  17. Couple of quick thoughts: the mystery surrounding sportspeople has been stripped away by modern tech and thus the space for a writer to work has vanished. It was way easier to write about a small, unknowable figure on a b&w screen than a close-up colourful dude whose thoughts you can read in his eyes as he lines up for goal, or hear on a chat show afterward.
    There is a great piece today in online mag Quillette by a young yank who came to Oz to study journalism at Melb Uni. If you want to know where the craft is going wrong, well, here it is. It’s called When The Authorities Tell You To Dissent, by Zachary Snowdon Smith. I actually spoke to his class at Uni after they’d studied Gay Talese’s piece on Sinatra. Just proves you never know who you’re talking to. Two minutes hate!! If I’d known he was in the audience I’d’ve made a better stab at profundity… or coherence.

  18. This is the article that Anson refers to. https://quillette.com/2019/05/22/when-the-authorities-tell-you-to-dissent/
    Unbelievable – except I believe what he says about the dangerous drivel served up as journalism “education” in our tertiary sector.
    “Extremism in defence of liberty is no crime”. How did that translate from Barry Goldwater’s Hard Right in 1964 to Bob Brown’s Hard Left in 2019? The Green’s “freedom march” on Adani probably guaranteed 5 marginal seats for conservatives and more polluting coal mines in Queensland for minuscule jobs and economic return. Ho hum. Ideological purity is its own justification.

  19. Thanks PB. How do I not know how to post links?

  20. E.regnans says

    I searched “scarred tree” on the Almanac site search just now.
    The search returned a piece I wrote in 2017, Collingwood v Brisbane.
    I had a look – the piece included a link to Timothy Boyle, writing about sportswriting.

    Interesting these years later.

    Timothy Boyle, May 2017, The Age:
    “There’s already been a loss of important sports voices who are able to exercise their craft as writers and given space to do it. The shift away from those writers to those who don’t require as much thinking or as much talent or as much practice or craft. So whatever remains of those spaces needs to be nourished or supported despite the fact that it may not initiate as much online interest or reflect as obviously in the numbers.

    “What will sports fans be left with? Scandal, outrage and pseudo drama for the sake of creating interest.”

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