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Should sports stars be judged purely on their sporting prowess or is the media right to expose their failings?

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On the 28th November 2009, Tiger Woods crashed his car outside his house in Florida (BBC, 2009). Questions surrounding the incident focused on the golfer’s personal life with wife, Elin Nordegren, and allegations of infidelity were rife. The number one golfer asked for press to leave his family alone, calling it a “private matter” (USA Today, 2009). However, by the time he admitted infidelity, the press had done everything except leave him alone. The matter highlighted the question, should sports stars be judged solely on their sporting prowess or does the press have a right to expose their personal failings?

It is a generally accepted view that, as public figures, sports stars should expect their lives to be strewn across both sides of the newspapers. As a general rule, the greater the sporting prowess, the greater the scandal and the more coverage it demands. However, it could be argued that their private lives are their own business and it is unfair to those close to them to expose it to the general public. A further point for consideration is the difference between affairs, harmful to only those directly involved, and views that could hurt a much wider range of people. The latter would appear to warrant a much greater public interest discussion.

In 2009, Tiger Woods was the best golfer in the world, even if it was his first major-less year since 2004. The following years were expected to be the ones where he overtook Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major tournaments (Corrigan, 2009), rather they have turned into a sad decline of a former great, which began with the allegations of infidelity. At the time of the car crash, Tiger Woods was the first billionaire in sport, with his money through sponsorship and tournament money only rising (Corrigan, 2009).

Although Woods said: “I am dealing with my behaviour and personal failings behind closed doors with my family. Those feelings should be shared by us alone” and later added: “personal sins should not require press releases” (Reuters, 2009), there was almost no scenario in which the press wouldn’t get involved with this story. It took two weeks for Woods to admit infidelity, mainly as a result of the 24-hour press coverage, which included many tales from women who claimed to have affairs with Woods (Dahlberg, 2009 (1) Associated Press, cited in Fox News). Woods’ ordeal highlights the view that the greater the sports star, the greater the coverage.

Journalist Tim Dahlberg said: “He could have tested positive for steroids and life would have gone on … begin having questions raised about your moral behaviour, though, and things change.” Dahlberg argues that the press response to the Woods scandal was a direct result of his image as a “good family man and father” (Dahlberg, 2009 (2) Associated Press, cited in Yahoo). Even if affairs are personal issues that deserve to be dealt with behind closed doors, the collapse of an image used partly to gain money through sponsorship is certainly worth exposing.

Adultery committed by sports stars is not a problem limited to America. In Britain, the two highest profile cases both involve footballers at the very top of the sport. Ryan Giggs won more club trophies than any other player in history and further collected many personal achievements, including Sports Personality of the Year in 2009 and an OBE for services to football in 2007. In May 2011, a case appeared before the High Court in London, entitled CTB v News Group Newspapers concerning the reveal of a sexual relationship between model Imogen Thomas and an un-named footballer (CTB v News Group Newspapers Ltd, 2011).

During the case, Mr Justice Eady said: “It will rarely be the case that the privacy rights of an individual or of his family will have to yield in priority to another’s right to publish” (CTB v News Group Newspapers Ltd, 2011, para 33), implying he holds the view that sports stars should be judged on sporting prowess alone, or at least not on their personal lives. However, Justice Eady’s view didn’t stop Giggs’ identity being revealed.

It could be argued that the media storm that followed would be harsh on Giggs, however this wasn’t the first time he had been involved in infidelity allegations. Between 2003 and 2011, he was involved in a relationship with his brother’s wife, Natasha, including after Giggs’ wedding in 2007 (Curtis, 2015). While there is an argument to make that both bear little news values, there is another which says Ryan Giggs is in a position of power, thus should be held to certain values. As Danny Wilson, Giggs’ Dad, said: “I don’t see how the players can trust him after what he did to his brother” (Akerman, 2014). There is a valid argument to allowing sport stars to be judged on their personal lives if their failings can affect their work life.

In addition, John Terry was England captain when a super-injunction was lifted which accused him of having an extra marital affair with teammate Wayne Bridge’s ex-girlfriend, Vanessa Perroncel (BBC, 2010). Ms Perroncel has denied the allegations (Davies, 2010), however that hasn’t stopped people speculating and judging Terry based on the story.

There is a view that people such as Terry, Giggs and Woods are role models and hence should be held to a certain standard. But it is also assumed that the average person is unlikely to commit adultery because Terry, Giggs and Woods did it. While Woods shouldn’t present himself as a family man if he isn’t, neither Giggs nor Terry has actively done that in their career and thus there is less of an element of need for their personal lives to be exposed. As we’ve seen, Giggs’ trustworthiness is worthy of consideration, however are there enough failings to judge the man? Infidelity shouldn’t happen, and should never be encouraged or swept under the carpet yet there needs to be a consideration of the merits of keeping personal lives personal.

John Terry’s failings have been in the news regularly during his career. From taunting American tourists following 9/11 (Clegg and Orwall, 2010) to allegations of accepting bribes to give known ticket-touts tours of Chelsea’s training complex (Fifield, 2009), Terry’s misdemeanours have never been far from the front pages. John Terry is at the top of the football hierarchy in England so it makes sense that his life is under more scrutiny than someone playing in a lower league. Thus, it would appear logical that his name appears connected to more news stories however it still seems like he is at the heart of more scandals than most. Wherever you stand on this debate, it would appear wise to let the media expose John Terry’s failings.

That is especially true when they could potentially harm a wide range of people. Terry was cleared of racially abusing fellow professional Anton Ferdinand on the 13th July 2012 (BBC, 2012 (1)) however he has been brandished a racist ever since. While the media was initially correct in exposing the story, it could be argued that they haven’t done enough since to quash the generally held belief about Terry.

Contrastingly, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry’s defensive partner for a long time with England, although one who appears in the front of a newspaper less frequently, didn’t face a media hounding for a potentially racist tweet. Indeed, he was allowed the chance to explain it rather than be judged for it (Kelly, 2012), although this may be because Ashley Cole, the subject of the tweet, refused to take any action against it. Whether that is the reason or not, the press has a clear duty to avoid favouritism. Failures are failures, no matter their sporting prowess and no matter their relationship with Fleet Street.

Freedom of speech is a fundamental principle in our society. However, it has always been limited to avoiding hatred or persecution. That limits what can be said between people out of the public eye but should, and indeed does, limit what people who are role models for young children say. There are two ways to stop the spread of discrimination, better education and better role models. Applying that logic, anything offensive said by a sports star has to be equally and universally condemned by all the media.

“There are only three things that need to be accomplished before the Devil comes home. One of them is homosexuality being legal in countries, one of them is abortion and the other is paedophilia.” Those are the words of heavyweight champion of the world, Tyson Fury (Kervin, 2015), and they are quite clearly offensive. He is comparing homosexuality to paedophiles, and saying it shouldn’t be legal. As Paul Hayward wrote for the Telegraph: “To argue for homosexuality to be illegal is not an “opinion”. It is a call for persecution” (Hayward, 2015).

Persecuting a wide range of people is not something that should be tolerated in life, especially not by someone who has the potential to influence how others think. It’s not like this was the first time Fury had aired inflammatory comments. He once said about his wife “sometimes she needs an upper cut” (Rayner, 2015). Fury, in arguing against homosexuality and seemingly in favour of domestic violence, is spreading hate and thus should be condemned for it. These are failures that need to be exposed, despite his prowess.

Despite this, a petition to get him removed from BBC sports personality of the year (Rayner, 2015) failed to work and BBC gave him the chance to speak at the event, the opposite of condemnation. There are those that say the BBC were right to do this. One blog compared it to Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time, saying that not being allowed to speak “would just have given him a martyr status” (jmsblogs, 2015). In the media, Julia Hartley-Brewer of the Telegraph wrote that: “just because Fury is an eminent sportsperson, it doesn’t mean that he is required to conform to a particular set of socially accepted views” (Hartley-Brewer, 2015). Both of these views are hinting that the media should judge sports stars purely on their sporting prowess.

While there is an inclination towards that view with extra-marital affairs, there is less of one when considering offensive views. Comparing sports to politics is commonplace nowadays, however far wing politicians are expected to have derogatory views of people, whereas sports stars aren’t. Hartley-Brewer also said that last time she checked: “boxers weren’t making our laws or teaching our children … so who cares what he thinks about anything other than boxing?” (Hartley-Brewer, 2015). While she isn’t wrong in theory, in practice children are more likely to listen to Fury than a teacher or a politician so the media has more of a duty to condemn failings that could hurt vulnerable individuals.

In this discussion so far, the sports stars talked about have all been at the top of their sports. That makes sense, as the higher the profile, the more interested the media are in their stories. However, sports stars failing are not limited to the elite few, shown by one of the biggest sports stars controversy in recent years.

Ched Evans was forging a decent, if unspectacular, career with Sheffield United when he was convicted of raping a drunken 19-year-old on the 20th April 2012 (BBC, 2012 (2)). He served his sentence, but hasn’t been able to return to football. Sheffield United honoured Olympic gold medallist Jessica Ennis-Hill by naming a stand after her, one that she threatened to remove if the club ever signed Evans again (BBC, 2014). Oldham Athletic then looked into signing him, at least until a petition with over 30,000 signatures was signed blocking the move (BBC, 2015) and he is still without a club.

Evans has always protested his innocence, and even if he is not, he served his time. The media have exposed his failings, but maybe because of it people are now refusing to let him get on with his career. While there are many sides to this story, it is a point for consideration, although it is hard to disagree with the initial media storm against the footballer. To understand whether the media blocked his future career, more case studies are needed.

Contrastingly, Luke McCormick (BBC, 2013) and Lee Hughes (BBC, 2007) both found clubs following prison sentences for death by dangerous driving. Interestingly, Hughes signed for Oldham, with the club asking: “supporters and the general public not to pass moral judgement” (BBC, 2007), although that question was not obviously posed concerning the Evans signing. Furthermore, Pakistani cricketer Mohammad Amir has returned to domestic cricket after serving time and a ban for spot fixing in 2010, with Pakistan saying he has been made available for international selection (ESPNCricinfo, 2015).

In all three cases, the media exposed and exploited each of the individuals before, during and a little after the jail sentences. This would appear to highlight the Ched Evans case as fundamentally different. His lack of a job would then mean that it’s down to the public reaction to the nature of the crime rather than the media’s role.

In the on-going debate between failings and sporting prowess, attention must be drawn to talented players who always had a darker side, players such as Paolo Di Canio, Eric Cantona and Duncan Ferguson. Ferguson was the first British football player to go to jail for an offence committed on the pitch, after he head-butted Raith Rovers’ Jock McStay in 1994 (Pattullo, 2014, 30). He was also one of the most talented Scottish strikers of his generation, even if that talent wasn’t always on show. Inconsistent in the extreme, the head-butt and strangling of Leicester’s Steffen Freund meant he featured in the front pages of the papers a lot. Clearly the media were right to expose his failings.

On the other hand, Ferguson had a reputation with those that knew him as being a quiet and shy but polite individual (Pattullo, 2014). Thus, should the media report on the other side in order to keep coverage fair? While Cantona and Di Canio are perhaps more positively remembered, outside of Goodison Park, Ferguson is not. Prowess took precedence for some, failings for others.

That lack of consistency can be explained in Ferguson’s case. He never helped himself on the pitch and, by refusing to talk to the press for the majority of his career, did little to pamper journalists. Alan Pattullo wrote in his book In Search of Duncan Ferguson, “It is easy to form the impression that Ferguson loved no one – except perhaps Everton fans” (Pattullo, 2014, 32). If the media has a right to expose failings, they should also perhaps have an obligation to paint a fair picture, as the Ferguson example proves. For players such as Luis Suarez, Britain’s media has failed to present even a slightly softer side.

Sports stars have always spent their working lives in the public eye, but nowadays, with 24-hour news and instant communication, their personal ones are scrutinised too. Every opinion, tweet or encounter is documented and reported, with the higher up you are, the more in-depth the coverage. The result of that is that people are closer than ever to sports stars, yet it has also meant more scandals and failings on their behalf. No longer are sports stars judged purely on their sporting prowess.

On the main, that’s been a good thing. Sports stars, as has been touched upon, are easier to listen to than teachers or parents, for children they are role models and thus any failings need to be exploited, so they aren’t put on a pedestal. In terms of extra-marital affairs, the press will only report on them if they involve a high-profile sports star. Although this is mainly down to profits and readership, it is also a reflection of how people in power need to be held to certain values. If you can’t trust your captain, it’s a fair argument to say the public need to know about that.

Although it could be argued that infidelity is trivial, harmful views such as homophobia, racism or misogyny certainly aren’t. If a sports star expresses such views in public it is the duty of the press to expose them, not simply a right. In such a case, the press should be used as a place to present the arguments as to why such views are harmful, wrong and out-dated.

Furthermore, the media is right to expose sports stars failings, like they are right to exploit anyone’s failures. Sports stars have the same failures that any normal person does, and if a person commits a crime they will be uncovered and shamed in the same way. On the occasions where a sports star has been arrested, the press has behaved in the way expected from them. Upon release, the majority of prisoners have found employment again, although there is an exception in the on going Ched Evans case. To repeat, the media is right to expose failings as long as they are consistent and fair while doing it.

To conclude, Tiger Woods, Ryan Giggs, John Terry are all examples of sports stars whose failings have been exposed by the media. For those three, it was mainly cases of adultery, and the media was right to expose them as they were in positions of power and trust. The media is just as right to uncover views that could harm people, any criminal activity or aggression on the pitch. Sporting prowess is only half of what a sports star brings to their sport. They also have a responsibility to be a moral, law-abiding citizen who does not seek to hurt people through words or actions, just like any other member of our society. As figures that people look up to, it is arguable that this responsibility is heightened. It is for these reasons that sports stars shouldn’t be judged purely on their sporting prowess. A free media gives the right for anyone’s failings to be fairly exploited.

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Author: GHardman42

Mancunian. Main passions are Sport and Mus(e)ic. Huge Everton, AM, Lancashire, JB and England fan! I play tennis like Dolgopolov (except nowhere near as good). Josh has said "You just don't know what will come next"

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