Too Big For Their Boots?

04/07/2013

Too Big For Their Boots?

By Ben Everill

I read with keen interest Big League magazine editor Tony Webeck’s column last week… in my opinion it was a beauty. The very astute journalist asked if the NRL was doing everything possible to promote the game of rugby league, using two high profile other sports as a point of reference. If you haven’t guessed already I am of the opinion the NRL does not do enough. Here is an excerpt of what Webeck had to say. Please remember Big League is the official magazine of the NRL and as such should probably be getting more access than anyone!

“At a game last weekend one of our staff writers asked for interviews with two bench players who are just trying to make their way in the game. One of them I am sure would only be recognised by fans of his team, and even then perhaps only the most ardent ones. It was late, wet and our man was told both were off limits and we could speak with one of the seasoned first-graders. In isolation, probably not a big deal, but our writers often go to games hoping we will be able to speak with our player of choice. And, of course, when there is a losing team in every game, that proposition often becomes 50/50.”

Webeck went on to mention how Tim Cahill and Archie Thompson of the Socceroos were able to front a talk show less than two hours after their qualification for the World Cup, the biggest sporting event in the world and LeBron James sat with live television for near 10 minutes not long after clinching a second NBA title with the Miami Heat.

You may ask what gives me the right to judge whether or not NRL stars are accessible enough to the games media. First of all I have been covering the NRL since the year 2000 but over the past few years, while based in the USA, I have had the pleasure of covering the National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Hockey League (NHL), the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the US PGA Tour among many assignments. As much as I love the NRL (ask any of my mates, they’ll tell you I usually argue to the death protecting the sport), it strikes me as unacceptable at best the current access journalists are given.

I don’t think many can claim the major American sports, whether you like them or not, are not placed on a much bigger scale than the NRL that is played in a couple of states in Australia. Remember the population of Australia is around 22 million and the USA is about 314million. Teams like baseball’s Boston Red Sox, football’s Green Bay Packers and basketball’s Dallas Mavericks have played in sold out arena’s for years… yes, years.

Why is it I can walk up to Peyton Manning after he has orchestrated one of the greatest second half comebacks in NFL history last year and have a great chat about the feat without an issue but if I wanted to talk to the likes of Darius Boyd I’d be on a hiding to nothing?

Why can I take my pick of any of Manning’s teammates, including rookies, to discuss things further, yet a rookie NRL winger making his way into the grade is off limits? It is actually written into NFL rules that media get 45 minutes with teams on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and ALL players be available. The rules also state ALL players are available in locker rooms post games. This is one of the biggest sports leagues in the world and it doesn’t even have direct competition like the NRL faces with rugby union, aussie rules and soccer. If they can manage this there is no excuse on earth NRL clubs can give me that will fly.

I have yet to cover a Super Bowl but countless media opportunities in the lead up are created and every single player on both teams is put out to take questions for at least an hour on the Tuesday before. Every single guy must stay there and take questions, for an hour.

I’ve sat down with NBA star Kobe Bryant post-game, after he scored 40 points, with a serious case of the flu, and his Lakers were beaten on the buzzer and he spoke openly and honestly for some time.

I have dealt with the winning and losing players in Stanley Cup Finals without issue, specifically asking about critical plays that won or lost matches.

Recently Adam Scott won the Masters, the first Australian to win one of golf’s major titles, perhaps the last sporting Everest Australian sport needed to climb short of a soccer world cup win. I was lucky enough to be covering the event for Australian Associated Press, bearing witness to history and writing a place in it. Within hours of winning the coveted green jacket, while I was still writing around midnight, Scott emailed me and asked I round up the remaining Australian journalists to come have a quiet celebration beer at his house. That’s right, Australia’s most famous current golfer, went out of his way, to invite a handful of journo’s around for a beer.

The same man talked to me each and every day of the tournament, from the previous Sunday through to his win a week later, as might I add, every other Australian in the field.

You may remember the 2012 British Open where Scott threw away victory. Well just a few days later when returning to play in the USA he fronted up to the world’s media, answered every question with poise, then gave further answers outside to a handful of us looking for more insight and THEN spent time with just me, one on one as he practiced putting. This is akin to a league player throwing an intercept to decide a grand final and then spending as much time with us ‘lowly scribes’. There is as much chance of that happening as there is of me dusting off the boots and captaining the Kangaroos. I’m not saying we need this level of cooperation, but it shows it is possible!

So why is it rugby league players are sometimes shielded from the media? What purpose does it serve? Shouldn’t all players and coaches be trying to build the game up as much as possible? While there are certainly those in the media game who are up for the ‘gotcha’ moment or who run on agendas there are a bigger majority who just want to tell the good stories about the people involved in the game to the countless fans who crave insight.

I should also say there are plenty of players and clubs who are very forthcoming. This is not a situation where everyone is awful. I just don’t think the clubs and players are doing everything they can to help grow the sport. The world is becoming a smaller place every day and sports need to get as much interest as possible to compete for the corporate dollar and fans. More media means more exposure and that equals more sponsor dollars and value.

Currently the NRL clubs have to provide three media opportunities a week and one of those needs to include six players. They are supposed to rotate the players so they are all available sometime in a three to four week period. Frankly, this is garbage as they can shield guys who are part of a story in the weeks the story is relevant. Also, clubs are getting around it by putting up a star player when they travel to Auckland, or Melbourne, or even a country town where there will be a limited media presence. Also, at most of these scheduled media events the situation is what is called an ‘all in’ so television is filming, radio is recording… any print journalist looking for a great story is unable to get anything worthwhile without giving it away.

Perhaps the biggest issue a coach would find with the Big League example is timing. With rookies, coach Smith tells me the heat of the moment interview post game is not ideal and he would have preferred a mid week sit down to ease them in. Now I can agree to this in principal… As long as the players ARE made available. When I worked at Big League a few years ago my best stories often came from sitting down to lunch with a player, having a real chat, and trying to actually get to know them. But this isn’t always practical for the player or journalist! And sometimes the game is the only place to see a player with deadlines approaching. Plus, at the end of the day, if they are ready for the rigours of NRL football then a few questions from a journalist shouldn’t scare them.

The answer perhaps lies in media training. Players need to be made aware of how to interact and how to deal with interviews from a young age and I’m sure those in the Holden Cup system are getting some, but is it enough?  And should it stop? Perhaps clubs need refresher courses often, and they need to take them seriously. One thing writers might need to remember is most players have been focussed on the game ahead of education and learning anything other than the game has taken a back seat for years. So if the clubs could help their players be more savvy and confident, and put them out into the ‘wild’ rather than shielding them, we could all benefit.

With the current system a huge flaw developing is the lack of relationships between media identities and players and officials. When a journalist has a relationship with a player, when he knows about the person, when he has some idea of background etc then he isn’t so quick to judge when things might go awry. If the same journalist has no connection, no idea about potential mitigating circumstances, he has no filter and only sees something at face value, and will report as such. The NRL is breeding in a new wave of journalists with little or no real access to players taking away the place the best stories come from. There will soon be a complete disconnect and that would be beyond a shame. It’s time to open up the lines of communication again.