Nothing left to chance
Footballers must speak to the media
Living in the spotlight
By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES
IMAGINE the scene: Manchester United and Manchester City players are handed booklets containing the names, photographs and details of the football writers covering the clubs. Ditto every club in the Barclays Premier League.
Yet at the start of each season the players and coaches of all 32 teams in the National Football League are told who the beat reporters following them throughout the coming season will be. Names, photos and some background.
Covering English football is a wonderful job, a paid hobby in many ways but far from easy compared with our Stateside colleagues. For players and the English press it is too often them-and-us with access to players and managers limited, at times almost censored.
Reporters who follow the NFL shake their heads in disbelief when they hear of our working conditions, not least because each day after practice they enjoy 45 minutes for media access. It is not so much a different world but a dream world for FWA members whose only chance to speak to the manager and maybe one player is usually the day before a match.
On Sunday February 5 the New England Patriots play the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI in the Lucas Oil stadium, Indianapolis. Around 5,000 reporters from 25 different countries will be in Indiana and as always, the Super Bowl media operation will be professional, slick and as error-free as possible.
David Tossell, director of public affairs (Europe) for NFL International, will be working at his 17th Super Bowl. A former Slough Observer sports editor and executive sports editor of Today before switching codes, Tossell knows the problems football reporters face here and how the NFL usually succeed in making the Super Bowl a moan-free media event.
He said: “There are two areas where the NFL are particularly good. One is if something isn’t working they will try to refine it and secondly, once they find a system works they stick to it. Outside of the advance of new technology many procedures are the same as when I joined the NFL.
“All 32 teams send their PR directors and staff to work at the Super Bowl media centre undertaking various roles. There are always more than enough people to work with the media. They would rather have someone sitting there for a while not doing anything ready to help a reporter than a press representative not being to find anybody available.”
The Super Bowl hosts are chosen three or four years in advance, after Indianapolis it is New Orleans and then New York for the first time. The bidding process is like the Olympics, the city puts together a presentation and the NFL owners make the decision.
The media operation moved into overdrive the week before the Conference Championship games played a fortnight before the Super Bowl.
Tossell said: “The guys who head up the NFL PR operation in New York met with representatives of the four remaining teams in Indianapolis to run through media requirements for the Super Bowl. Nothing is left to chance.”
Super Bowl media week begins on the Monday when the teams arrive in Indianapolis. Tossell said: “Both head coaches and four or five players must be available soon after they arrive at their hotels for a 30-minute session.”
Must be available?
“Yes,” said Tossell. “Media obligations are in their contracts.”
And if they don’t?
“They are fined. Marv Levy, head coach of the Buffalo Bills, was so busy going through game film once he forgot about a press conference. I think he was fined $50,000.”
Tuesday is media day, organised chaos with every player available for an hour in the stadium. “It’s an opportunity for everyone to speak to everyone. Over the years the media day has become an event in its own right.”
But occasionally the lunatics take over the media asylum.
“You might get a reporter dressed as a bride asking a quarterback to marry her. Each year someone from a Mexican TV station conducts his interviews through a glove puppet.”
The head coaches and selected players have to do further one-hour press conferences on subsequent days which inevitably has led to some memorable questions from reporters bereft of ideas later in the week.
When Doug Williams of the Washington Redskins became the first black quarterback to play in the Super Bowl he was asked: “Doug, how long have you been a black quarterback?”
He replied: “I’ve been black all my life and a quarterback about 20 years.”
However, John Elway of the Denver Broncos was stumped, excuse the pun, when he was asked: “If you were a tree, which tree would you be?”
The inevitable comparison with the Super Bowl is the FA Cup final but the competitiveness between English national newspapers and their desire (or demand) to have material not available to agencies makes an open house policy difficult.
Apart from USA Today there are no national newspapers in the States, most cities having just one or two papers and no fierce rivalry like the tabloids, particularly, are involved in.
Tossell said: “The first commitment the NFL requires is for teams to be in town on the Monday. I’m not sure how Sir Alex Ferguson would react if the Football Association told him United must be in London five days before the final.”
Players in the English leagues do not have the media experience and therefore not the necessary communication skills of those in the NFL, clubs preferring to keep the press at arm’s length (a long arm, too). Those who play in the NFL have a slow but effective learning curve starting at high school.
Tossell said: “A 16-year-old playing soccer in England would be virtually unknown. High school football in the States is hugely popular and the kids are media stars from the age of 16 so they grow up speaking to the press.
“At college level coverage is more intense and if they reach NFL level players are given specialised media training.
“The system in England has gone so far down a certain path I’m not sure if, realistically, it could be changed. The players wouldn’t necessarily be equipped to deal with it plus there is the competitiveness between national papers. Would they want a situation where everybody gets everything? I’m not sure.”
If the NFL remains the barometer for media access, referees would also welcome English football following the lead of grid-iron where head coaches are discouraged, if not actively banned, from speaking about match officials.
“By and large everyone sticks to it,” said Tossell. “A coach might say they were unlucky with a call but you won’t find a personal attack against an official because they know what happens to any official who makes a mistake.
“On Monday morning in the NFL TV studio every play of every game is reviewed and scrutinised. Every official’s calls will be checked and they are marked. If someone makes a couple of bad calls the league will contact him and help him eradicate any errors. The seven officials with the highest marks take charge of the Super Bowl.”
One aspect of the National Football League many would like to see introduced into English football is replaying controversial incidents. Broadly speaking, in the NFL each coach has two challenges per half. If the challenge is not upheld they are penalised with a time-out which is a significant loss. One of the coach’s assistants monitoring the game on TV in a booth will see the replay and advise the coach accordingly.
However, subjective decisions, such as a holding call or illegal blocking, cannot be challenged, only issues of fact.
Tossell said: “It’s only whether the call is wrong or not, such as a player being out of bounds, that can be challenged. There has to be incontrovertible proof the call was wrong otherwise they stay with the original decision.
“I think goal-line technology would help football because whether all of the ball has gone over all of the line is a fact. But I can see problems in stopping a game for other decisions.”
At a time when managers and players are too often in the news for the wrong reasons, the tolerance level of the NFL and the FA could hardly be more marked.
Tossell said: “The NFL is massively protective of its image and anything that could damage that is punished. Coaches bad-mouthing officials and players misbehaving on the field won’t be tolerated and are dealt with quickly. If a player is deemed guilty of an illegal hit he receives a letter the next day from the Commissioner’s office telling him he’s been fined $35,000 or whatever. There are few appeals.”
David Tossell’s latest book, about the life of Derek Dougan, will be published later this year.