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Fluffy Boundaries

by Nick Pawson / 13.02.2012

I attended a post-match press conference at Newlands two Fridays ago, following the Stormers’ 28-6 win over the Lions. I was always told not to read into the results of these pre-season games. Nevertheless, the battles on the field seemed just as fierce as they are during the Super Rugby season, and the press conferences are exactly the same – restrained, predictable and full of the old rugby clichés.

Prior to becoming a freelancer, I was a sports reporter for one of our national broadcasters. I landed the job with luck and good timing, considering I had very little experience – which might explain why I went into these media gatherings with a different mindset. What stood out, from day one, was how reluctant most South African sports journalists are to ask the tough questions.

I was reminded of this during the above press conference. It took place the same day that Heyneke Meyer was elected as the new Springbok coach, and, considering Stormers’ coach Allister Coetzee had been touted as a firm favourite to take over from P Divvy, I was expecting a barrage of questions on how Allister felt about the new Bok appointment.

Nothing. Not one Bok-related question. Just the usual “were you happy with your defence?”…”How is so-and-so’s injury?”…yawn.

So I took the liberty of asking Allister his thoughts on the new Springbok era under the tutelage of the former Bulls coach. He gave us a pretty pragmatic answer, and felt Meyer was the right choice. Allister Coetzee is known for his diplomacy; he really is a good oke – so I wasn’t expecting anything different. The point is, it was a question that needed to be asked. Too often I’ve walked away from press conferences that were merely match post-mortems.

I’m sure there are loads of purists out there that care about the finer details of the game, myself included, but what I’d really like to know is what Andries Bekker – the tallest and most identifiable human being in the Western Cape – was thinking when he courted a young student in public last year, and how his extra-marital affairs have affected him as a player. South African sportsmen and coaches are wrapped in cotton wool by their administrators, and our journalists, for whatever reason, respect those fluffy boundaries.

What really put perspective on the conservative nature of South African sports reporting, were the times when I shared a press room with British journalists – namely during the British and Irish Lions Tour in 2009, and England’s inbound series against the Proteas in 2009/2010.

British journos fear no one. Sure, the British media industry – print in particular – is a lot more competitive than ours, and many of their reporters are just looking for tabloid fodder. But they actually voice the questions that are on everybody’s minds. They’re also veterans of the game – confident men and women in their 50s who have made a career out of reporting, versus our journalists who seem to have a collective age of 50. No doubt media jobs pay far better in Europe, which makes the investment worthwhile.

Other than that, I’m not sure why our sports writers are so obedient, but I suspect it has a lot to do with freedom of speech being a relatively new concept in the context of our political history. We (sports journos) also seem to have this ‘buddy buddy’ relationship with our sports stars that we’re determined to uphold, for fear of being denied future interviews and losing access to the inside track. The irony is that the majority of these journalists don’t use that inside track to tell the full story.

Well I say bollocks to that.

*Opening image © The Stormers.

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