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It’s Complicated: Sports Stars & The Media Rarely Have A Smooth Relationship

Detective Sgt. Dignam once said in Martin Scorsese’s 2006 crime classic The Departed that “my theory on Feds is that they’re like mushrooms. Feed ’em s**t and keep ’em in the dark.”

Sgt. Dignam was a straight shooter. A witty, hard-ass detective who called it how he saw it and a police sergeant that thrived on instinct, but his theory on Federal police officers can also be applied to the relationship between athletes and the media. In essence, the attitude of most professional athletes towards the media is “feed them s**t and keep them in the dark”.

You see professional athletes by nature are skeptical of the media. There’s no doubt about it, and to a certain degree they should be. For the most part pro athletes often have more to lose from speaking to the media than they have to gain.

LILLE, FRANCE - JUNE 22: Roy Keane, assistant manager of Republic of Ireland looks on prior to the UEFA EURO 2016 Group E match between Italy and Republic of Ireland at Stade Pierre-Mauroy on June 22, 2016 in Lille, France. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane is a classic example of an athlete and coach who at times lost more speaking to the media than he gained.

Keane’s razor sharp tongue more or less cost him his job as a Manchester United player after an explosive rant on MUTV in 2006 and 10 years later as a coach, Keane still struggles at times to bite his lip. The Cork native was a passionate player and sometimes passionate players have passionate opinions.

The media love guys like Keane because they call it how it is. He cuts through the tape, he calls a spade a spade and he’s not afraid of confrontation with fellow players, reporters or managers. He kind of embraces it.

It’s a fearlessness that saw him rise to the top of European football as a player, but as an international assistant manager, it’s a trait that at times has caused internal restlessness within the Irish squad.

LILLE, FRANCE - JUNE 22: Aiden McGeady (1st R), Richard Keogh (2nd R) and Ireland players celerbate their team's first goal by Robbie Brady (obscured) during the UEFA EURO 2016 Group E match between Italy and Republic of Ireland at Stade Pierre-Mauroy on June 22, 2016 in Lille, France. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

There was no better example of Keane’s ability to cause a stir than in the aftermath of Ireland’s shock 2-1 defeat to Belarus in a Euro 2016 warm up game in May. The former United captain said of Ireland winger Aiden McGeady that the player ‘could do a lot better but maybe that’s the story of his career’.

A strong statement to make about a player who has been marginalised by both Everton and Sheffield Wednesday over the past season but Keane wasn’t necessarily wrong either. McGeady did need to play better to force his way into the Ireland team and even if Keane didn’t say it, the majority of us were thinking it.

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We like Keane for this quality because he’s genuine and authentic. What you see is what you get with him but sometimes what you get can be too much to handle for a professional footballer, especially when the majority of those professional footballers are pampered and coddled by their clubs.

Media members can routinely talk to any player or coach at a League of Ireland level but if you wish to do the same at international level, you better be prepared for a few players walking through a mixed zone taking a phone call, or even worse, pretending to be taking a phone call. It’s a different level and at a different level players are used to different standards.

But in the case of McGeady, the Glaswegian was far from pampered and coddled by Everton and Sheffield Wednesday, but some players are, and they don’t take too kindly to criticism.

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 24: Gareth Bale of Real Madrid talks to members of the press at the mixed zone after the team training session at the Real Madrid Open Media Day ahead of the UEFA Champions League Final against Club Atletico Madrid at Valdebebas training ground on May 24, 2016 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)

Ireland rugby legend Brian O’Driscoll learned this very quickly after making the transition from professional rugby player to analyst. Speaking on comedian Jarlath O’Regan’s Irish Man Abroad podcast earlier this year, O’Driscoll told O’Regan that some players wouldn’t return his texts after he commented on their performances for Leinster.

If Brian O’Driscoll can’t criticise players’ performances then who can? O’Driscoll is one of the most accomplished and decorated rugby players in history of the sport and if players are going to take exception to his opinion, then what chance does the media have?

NOTTINGHAM, ENGLAND - APRIL 24: Brian O'Driscoll, the former Ireland international looks on during the European Rugby Champions Cup semi final match between Leicester Tigers and Racing 92 at the City Ground on April 24, 2016 in Nottingham, England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

For some athletes the press is merely an obligation, something they have to do as part of their job. The key is to say as much as possible without really saying anything at all and Ireland midfielder James McCarthy has it down to a science. McCarthy could give speeches on media training if it didn’t actually require formulating original thoughts.

Stock standard phrases such as “we’re taking it one game at a time” and “that’s up to the manager” are bread and butter for players like McCarthy, while for guys like Keane, the concept of media training must seem like an unnecessary punishment, a restriction of expression.

The media needs co-operation from the players in order to write stories and the sports teams need the media to help them generate interest. At its core it’s very much a business relationship but sometimes it gets personal and relationships can develop.

DINARD, FRANCE - JULY 03: Wales player Hal Robson-Kanu faces the media at the Wales press conference ahead of their UEFA Euro 2016 semi final against Portugal at their Dinard base on July 3, 2016 in Dinard, France. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

The most famous athlete-reporter relationship was between Howard Cosell and the late Muhammad Ali. HBO boxing analyst Larry Merchant told USA Today that the two shared “a kind of symbiosis in which he and Cosell recognised how they could use each other in a positive way”.

“Ali did not feel threatened by Cosell. And Cosell recognised, as we all did, that there never had been another athlete quite like Ali.”

The duo developed a friendship and Cosell was one of the first mainstream broadcasters to recognise Ali’s name change from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, as well as being one of the first to defend Ali’s decision to forgo the Vietnam War.

Ali trusted Cosell and knew that he wouldn’t set him up or intentionally put him in jeopardy, and as a result, the two shared a relationship that benefited both parties.

19 Apr 1991: Muhammad Ali looks on during a bout between Evander Holyfield and George Foreman at Caesar''s Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada. Mandatory Credit: Barry Jarvinan /Allsport

Distrust can begin to emanate when athletes end up on the front pages of the newspaper instead of the back pages, and unfortunately for journalists, much like athletes, they can often all be painted with the same brush.

The media plays an integral part in the growth of sport and while media training can help players avoid the ‘deer in headlights’ moment they dread, it can also make for difficult reading – an issue, of course, which is of zero concern to the modern athlete.

Every now and then the likes of Keane, Joey Barton, Charles Barkley and Conor McGregor will come along and feed the media with a couple of raspberries. However, for the most part, as Sgt. Dignam would say, it’s a strict diet of s**t and darkness.

Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.