What sports journalism really means to athletes

Chronicling the often adversarial relationship between athletes and the media
LeBron has expressed frustration about media scrutiny over in-game mistakes. 
LeBron has expressed frustration about media scrutiny over in-game mistakes. ERIK DROST/CC FLICKR

While the relationship between the media and athletes can be a mutually beneficial one, in which the media sells headlines and the players receive a platform and personal branding, it can also be incredibly strained and turbulent.  

For instance, the relationship between the media and the England national football team has been crumbling for years. After an early exit from the Euro 2016, England’s soccer culture appeared to be in crisis. Instead of celebrating the team as representative of English national identity, diversity, and values, the media singled out players and the manager as scapegoats for England’s lacklustre performance. Players like Adam Lallana, Dele Alli, Frank Lampard, and Kyle Walker have claimed that the media was partially at fault for the low morale in the squad and among the fans. According to the players, the overwhelming negativity from the media interferes with the team’s mindset and instills a fear of backlash from having a bad game.  

Fans voiced their agreement when they accused the media of continuously harming the team’s chances to perform at their highest level. Among the criticisms were claims that the media tries to “get them when they’re at their weakest… where the public can resonate with it and point fingers.” Many went on to say that the media hypes the team up just to knock them back down once results stop coming in. 

The overly critical nature of sports journalism is not the only issue: athletes often lose patience with what they perceive to be redundant or excessively pointed questions in post-match interviews and press conferences, leading to dramatic walkouts and frustrated outbursts. 

At the 2018 NBA Finals, LeBron James walked out of a post-game press conference after being asked about JR Smith’s notorious blunder running the clock of a tied Game 1, which the Cleveland Cavaliers would eventually lose to the Golden State Warriors in overtime. Current Juventus and then-Real Madrid soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo similarly walked out from a post-game conference in 2016 when he was asked about his away-goal drought despite his team’s winning streak. 

The pressure placed on athletes by the media can harm both their professional performances and their mental health. After victory, athletes are portrayed as heroes; losses are frequently accompanied by criticism and judgment. In response to fears that negative media backlash could distract athletes, official committees such as the Canadian Olympic Committee and the Japanese Skating Federation have organized media training sections and sent formal requests to newspapers respectively. After the 2004 Athens Olympics, Chinese diver Peng Bo reminded audiences, “We’re ordinary people. We feel pressure, and sometimes we can’t help having distracting thoughts. Please understand us.” 

Sports media coverage becomes even more troubling for athletes when it involves baseless claims and rumours about their private lives. Responding to newspapers’ suggestions of affairs with his teammates’ wives, Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp said, “When people delve into your personal life and make up rumours and things that are completely false and untrue, it takes a toll on you.” On the subject, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rick Morrissey explained, “Just because you can write something doesn’t mean you should.”

Players have also been quick to call out biases in media coverage. For example, Manchester City striker Raheem Sterling has criticized the racist undertones of soccer coverage in a recent Instagram post. Sterling, who is a frequent victim of racial abuse from soccer fans, compared the media’s treatment of teammates 21-year-old Black Tosin Adarabioyo and 18-year-old white Phil Foden. Sterling juxtaposed two Daily Mail headlines, with one remarking on Adarabioyo “splash[ing] out” on a mansion for his mother “despite having never started a Premier League match” and the other reporting on “starlet” Foden “buy[ing] [a] new £2m home for his mum.” Through their tone and word choice regarding lifestyle choices and form, the media “helps fuel racism [and] aggressive behaviour,” Sterling claimed. 

Sports journalism has the power to connect athletes and fans, analyze games and plays, and celebrate the sport. This capacity, however, is only truly fulfilled when the media holds itself to a high standard with dignity and respect for both athletes and themselves. 

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