When it comes to writing, my heroes are American and I still get lost in pieces by Jimmy Cannon or Hunter S Thompson. I still wonder about the access they were granted to do their job because you could smell the stench of defeat or the bloom of victory when they put pen to paper. They were always right in there, in the dressing room, after the game.
I had lots of time to think about that when I sat in the weights area of Twickenham two weeks ago and wondered when the professional rugby players of Leinster and Ulster were going to arrive to administer some unremarkable patter.
Hours earlier, Leinster had just won the Heineken Cup final but the air was thick with silence and simmering with frustration. The Press weren’t apprehensive. By 9pm, we were just anxious to get copy away, get home, sup a pint, whatever.
We hung about, leaned on walls, waited for the press conference and got through that bit. Then, we toughed it out in an interview area called a mixed zone, which is just another extension of banality. Fixers from the European Rugby Committee buzzed about trying to arrange interviews. The players that agreed were far more guarded by way of word than they tend to be by way of play.
There they stood behind metal barriers, managed along a pathway busy with broadcast, print and TV journalists, watching every word.
This was never the world of Cannon or Thompson and I like to think they wouldn’t have stood for it. Probably, they wouldn’t have participated. I can’t imagine what would have happened if someone told Hunter S Thompson where to stand. Now that would be something to write about.
But this is the scene with the majority of high-level sporting occasions now. The bigger they are, the less access the Press get granted and the more difficult it is to deliver some insight to the reader.
The writing I enjoy reading is never suppressed by such conformity, but try getting around to John Terry’s house to chew some Champion’s League final fat over a mug of Earl Grey. It won’t happen. If you want to talk to a top-professional now you have to go through a press agent who is really only there to keep you out.
No one gets to smell the grass when that happens.
The thing is it doesn’t need to be this way. Players don’t need to be media managed. They just need to be themselves and make their own judgement calls. Either enter into the spirit of something fully, or don’t bother because mediocrity should never be celebrated or passed off as something better.
That is why some of the greatest joys in journalism are derived from dealing with people competing in less popular sports. Ruby Walsh would make time for you. He might do it reluctantly, but he’ll do it and speak candidly. That realism applies to almost every national hunt jockey I’ve ever had to interview in the line of work.
If they miss your call, they’ll ring you back. If you ask them for 20 minutes of their time, they’ll talk for thirty.
Take Cheltenham, one of the seminal sporting events of the year. It is possible to talk to a jockey five minutes before the off of the Champion Hurdle or the Gold Cup. If they win you can catch them coming back to the parade ring and get their thoughts while the experience is mint fresh and sweaty brow.
The point has been made before that professional sports people don’t need distraction. They need to remain focussed. But more focussed than a jump-jockey taking fences at 30mph? I don’t think so.
Boxing is another sport, particularly at amateur level where administrators will grant you access to where the fighters glove-up and taper down. They’ll invite you into their world and expect you to tell it how it is. If you don’t you won’t be invited back. The rules are simple.
I had time to think about all of this, sitting in the weights area in Twickenham and I missed those experiences for their realism; for the rough edges which no one felt necessary to smooth-off.
I guess that is what it was always like for Cannon and Thompson, they got to the kernel of the story and un-wrapped it layer by layer. In top-level sport, the chance would be a fine thing.