Home Features MacKenna On Monday: Sports Coverage Has Become Vacuous Pap To Fill Space

MacKenna On Monday: Sports Coverage Has Become Vacuous Pap To Fill Space

The week of Diana Spencer’s death back in 1997, the phones in the magazine Private Eye started ringing and the query was repeatedly the same. “Why can’t we buy your publication anywhere?”

Those in the office initially had no good answer so they started to delve into the matter. Calling key and over-arching buyers, they were told that the issue had been taken off the shelves as the governing policy had been not to show the photograph of the crashed Mercedes.

“We haven’t,” employees retorted only to be told it was right there on the cover.

“It isn’t,” they retorted only to be told in a speech bubble it had merely been mentioned.

In essence, it was a ban on talking about a truth that everyone already knew. The public had placed its hands over its ears and were screaming like spoilt children, and those that ought to know better and ought to teach rather than follow were indulging them.

And still, it took days before some normality was again allowed amidst a grotesque, copy-cat, nonsense hysteria.

By then the excellent Francis Wheen was ready to hit back at a massive and often faked bullshit. He wrote his column on the before and after, with his personal favourite being courtesy of the late Lynda Lee-Potter who just months on from that 1997 event would actually be awarded an OBE for services to journalism.

Leading up to the accident, in her Daily Mail column, she had written: “The sight of a paunchy playboy groping a scantily-dressed Diana must appeal and humiliate Prince William. As the mother of two young sons, she ought to have more decorum and sense.”

Right after the funeral, her words became, “Throughout their childhood, she gave her sons endless loving cuddles, she adored her children”. It was wind-sock media; following as if a sheep the overdone candle in the wind mentality; doing what society did, rather than thinking and questioning why society does it; giving people what they wanted but never what they needed.

She was far from alone, but look at what was allowed onto the shelves versus what wasn’t.

It was a tell-tale moment and, while not the beginning of the decline in the relationship between the news and the reader, it was certainly one of the better examples of where we were headed. On the cusp of a wave of new media, those same little seeds have now grown, high and mighty.

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If the real world didn’t stand a chance in this modern age, little old sport was doomed. After all, the latter is lazily chalked down as the escape route, the Sunday afternoon on the sofa, the holiday away. In that sense, while Rome might be easy to get to, Benidorm is always easier.

And easy is what we repeatedly go for.

A story to illustrate this. Last October, a friend sent an email that contained a photograph of Amal Hussein, an eight-year-old Yemeni child.

It was as abhorrent as it was breath-taking, as she was emaciated, left like a starved animal to rot away. Worse, what created such brutality and cruelty could be directly linked back to those celebrated in Manchester City’s boardroom.

To Mohammad bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi who doesn’t let anything including football governance fall outside his dictatorial reach. To his right-hand man and the club’s chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak given that experts say he has his fingerprints all over not just Yemen but now Libya as well.

To de facto owner Sheikh Mansour given his political role as deputy prime minister of the UAE and his place in the royal family there. Even to director Simon Pearse who along with Mubarak is in leaked emails discussing policy.

How often is it discussed though? How often does what’s so important crawl ahead of gossip columns and transfer rumours and bland quotes that reveal nothing and take up so much space?

It doesn’t because, in an era of clickbait and where the news is one more commodity, you decide what’s on shelves and most of you don’t care about anything other than cheap entertainment.

You want easy, you get easy.

It’s why the serious allegations against a global star and one of the world’s best footballers are bypassed so long as one says something outrageous and the other scores something outrageous. It’s why Maria Sharapova’s lying eyes don’t matter when her beauty is front and centre. It’s why Team Sky’s nonsense and reputation rarely popped up when there was jingoism to be had. It’s why the Olympics and World Cups destroy nations as you want to see a game. It’s why sport at the elite level has been sold away from under us and used by humanity’s worst to launder and profit.

Had the X-Files come a couple of decades later, it would have failed from its very introduction. The truth might well be out there, but that sounds like a whole lot of effort to deal with.

And so instead you sit on your sofa and take in what you are given. Fast food to the door; Alexa to answer your belched out queries; sport to satisfy your slovenly needs via a vacuousness of Sky Sports News and their ticker and their agenda that hides away what might hurt investments.

It’s all tailored for you.

Tiger Woods who can’t just win but has to be responsible for the greatest ever comeback. Golden State Warriors who can’t just be a stunning team but have to be the greatest basketball dynasty of all; the most valuable game in football to draw gazes, rather than the stature of a play-off final being enough. Everything is even in more chew-friendly bites as its goals, not games.

You sit on your sofa in your boxers, laptop on legs, shielded from thinking. There you skip past any detail. You see a headline and that’s what outrages you. You see a byline and that’s what outrages you. You might even skip all of that and go straight to the comments so you can reduce what is serious to a row over a team and make a point that’s already been made in the article you haven’t read. All the while those behind the scenes keep on making money.

You moan about there being no time in modern society for any more in this realm, when the technology you use has created more time than ever, only it’s also created an inherent laziness as if Wall-E. The dream. Simplified to red or blue for you, so you don’t have to think about anything outside of the four walls and anything that doesn’t affect you in any negative way.

Well done. It’s on you.

By last November Lewis Hamilton was doing a rare sit-down interview, one-on-one on US TV and was talking about how “children are the future”. It was the stuff a couple of generations back The Simpsons used to parody and now it chalked down as hard-hitting with the journalist sitting there fascinated.

But you loved it. So much so that Graeme McDowell lately popped up on the PGA Tour official site, the most obnoxious of sports, walking around his pool table in his luxurious home, letting the viewer gain a little insight on the man.

“Who is G-Mac, I don’t know. He’s Irish, plays a little golf, drinks the odd beer from time to time, likes to hang out and just be himself really… My favourite movie, there’s so much to choose from. My favourite movie lately would probably be Social Network. All-time, I don’t know, Shawshank Redemption Gladiator, something along those lines… I’m a big sports fan, mainly football, British football, soccer as you guys like to call it. I’m a big Manchester United fan. But all sports, going to the events, TV, movies, just hanging out really. Golf’s such a busy life out there I just love to come home, chill out, drink a couple of beers… My favourite superhero would be Batman. He’s got all the toys, he’s got all the cars and he gets the girls too… Typical day-night for me, dinner and a movie. Definitely dinner. Dinner and drinks. Something along those lines.”

Go on, admit it, you got what you want and had your fill. What sport has become about as has so much more is vacuous pap to fill space while the serious stuff happens far away from your thoughts.

On 1 November meanwhile, Amal Hussein became one more of the estimated 50,000 children starved to death per annum by those linked with the Premier League champions, but that’s too much as well.

So instead we get analysis of their triumphs. Absence of any pride didn’t just come before, but has caused this plummeting fall.

You ought to be disgusted.

About Ewan MacKenna

One of the country's top sports journalists, and a recipient of Irish Sports Journalist of the Year.