Tuesday 27 September 2016

Tommy Conlon: Viewers being treated as drooling idiots by corporate TV

Tommy Conlon

Published 10/01/2016 | 16:00

Reporter Mel McLaughlin’s controversial pitchside interview with West Indian cricketer Chris Gayle
Reporter Mel McLaughlin’s controversial pitchside interview with West Indian cricketer Chris Gayle

Like the two masks of classical drama, the television sports industry has a happy face and a horrid face. But unlike classical drama, it pretends to only have one: it is all about shiny happy people.

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It keeps the ugly underbelly locked away in an attic. The often seedy realities are right there, in the next room, but they are sealed off and kept in the dark. The bright lights are focused instead on the simple narrative of sporting heroes, dramatic action and family entertainment.

Televised sport is in this sense another corporate confidence trick, a grand illusion selling tickets and subscriptions to the industry of human happiness. All the myriad issues from doping to corruption, money, greed, racism, misogyny, cheating and venal behaviour, are pushed to the margins like snow on a pitch that is brushed to the sidelines. The game must go ahead, the show must go on.

And one of the abiding myths, which long pre-dates television but which TV people love to promulgate, is the sporting hero as human exemplar, the shining symbol of noble mankind. Obviously this is nonsense. If anything, the Darwinian system that produces great athletes actively demands a degree of selfishness, oddness or basic social immaturity.

Team sports in particular generate a group dynamic, a herd mentality that can seem downright peculiar, if not actually dysfunctional, to ordinary civilians.

The Australian writer Anna Krien investigated this issue in a book which won the UK's prestigious William Hill Sports Book of the Year award in 2014. The full title fairly describes its subject matter: Night Games - Sex, Power and a Journey into the Dark Heart of Sport. Krien mostly confines her research to the culture around Australian Rules football. But of course her observations apply equally to other sports and other countries.

Writing about young professional recruits, she says: "Although on the verge of adulthood, these footballers are about to enter a state of prolonged adolescence. For most of their peers, the social world is set to expand, but for these select few their already insular existence has just contracted. They will be expected to live, eat and train with their team, as if part of a single organism."

This organism will sometimes have a predatory approach to women; on nights out it tends to hunt in a pack. But the current embodiment in Australia of this exploitative attitude is a Jamaican cricketer. And at the age of 36, Chris Gayle is surely the epitome also of the "prolonged adolescence" within pro sport's overheated cocoon. He apparently had a reputation for lascivious behaviour long before the controversy that engulfed him last Monday.

A superstar batsman, Gayle had played a big innings for his Melbourne team in Hobart, Tasmania, when he was interviewed pitchside for Australian television by reporter Melanie McLaughlin. She asked him about the game, he complimented her on her eyes and asked her out for a drink. Her discomfort was immediately apparent. "Don't blush, baby," he joked.

Gayle clearly made a fool of himself. It's one thing to utter naff chat-up lines in a bar or night club. But to come on to a woman like a second-rate lounge lizard on live TV was to hand himself the comeuppance that some other female reporters felt was long overdue. Gayle was hammered for it.

But while he exposed the arrogant entitlement that is fairly commonplace within elite teams, he also inadvertently exposed the hypocrisy within big-time television sport.

The immediate reaction among McLaughlin's male colleagues in the Network Ten commentary box was telling. They laughed and joked about it. "Mel McLaughlin with an amorous Chris Gayle," chuckled presenter Mark Howard. "Well done Mel, I thought you handled that very well, as she scurries off with bright red cheeks." "Playing shots on and off the field, Chris Gayle," chimed one of the pundits. But presumably someone in the control room had a word in Howard's ear. Within minutes he was backtracking. "It must be pointed out that Mel is . . . a valued member of Network Ten. And on reflection, I don't think that's (Gayle's attitude) appropriate . . . I think he probably went a bit too far there."

Howard had just given his authentic reaction, followed by the panic-stricken official line.

These days TV sport is strewn with female faces. But oddly enough, they tend to be very attractive and highly groomed young women. There seems to be something of the lad-mag culture at the heart of this recruiting policy. The audience for TV sport, although changing, is still predominantly male. And the male viewer understands at some level that he is being played here; he is being gamed.

It is one unfortunate reason why there was a lot of anger towards McLaughlin on social media last week. Many of the comments were horrible manifestations of unadulterated misogyny. But some at least arose out of an inchoate resentment at being treated for drooling idiots by corporate TV. Television executives will argue that they are promoting role models for women in sport, encouraging female participation, etc, etc. But their role models shouldn't have to be actual models, or approximations thereof.

Mel McLaughlin was patronised horribly last week, and not just by Chris Gayle either. She was patronised by her own colleagues too. But the big sports broadcasters have been patronising their viewers for years. Last week the mask slipped and it was not a pretty sight.

Sunday Indo Sport

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