Saturday 14 December 2019

You get more insight from sportsmen when they're naked

Kildare's Glenn Ryan. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
Kildare's Glenn Ryan. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

Tommy Conlon

Blair Walsh didn't get to shed his tears in private because in American football, the professionals don't even get to wash themselves in private. And neither do the pros in baseball, basketball or ice hockey either. In America the teams are contractually obliged to allow the media into the locker room after games. Every sport is vying for market share, every franchise is looking for publicity, and media access is part of the selling process.

Walsh is a specialist goal-kicker with the Minnesota Vikings. Two weeks ago he was brought on to kick a field goal with 26 seconds left against the Seattle Seahawks. The kick, a mere 27 metres, would in all probability have won it. He shanked it badly and Minnesota's season was over.

We know that Walsh afterwards sat and cried at his locker for 15 minutes because there were reporters who witnessed it. Then he went to the showers for ten minutes, came back and faced the microphones with considerable dignity.

"It's my fault," he stated. "I'm the only one who didn't do my job. . . The whole thing is on me and I accept that. It's shameful. I've got to do better." This was a vulnerable man and any reporter present with a scintilla of compassion must have felt somewhat like a voyeur. But Walsh was sanguine about the ­intrusion on his grief. "I want you guys here when I make the game-winning kicks, and I realise that I got to have you guys here when I miss them."

Day in day out, the top Americans share their space with posses of media personnel. They don't enjoy it but they accept it's part of the gig. They even accept, wrote David Ubarti in the ­Columbia Journalism Review last week, "that strangers will see them au naturel." Because ultimately it helps to put more money in their pockets - when they've their trousers back on again.

Basketball pros play 82 games a year at least, baseball players almost twice that number. So a lot of the reported content will inevitably be bland and formulaic. "It's basically the same interview, over and over," Anders Lee told Ubarti who was, of course, interviewing him in the locker room. Lee is an ice hockey pro with the New York Islanders. His team-mate Brock Nelson was sitting next to him and threw in his tuppence worth. "They get mad at us for giving the same answers. But it's the same answers to the same questions."

So, they're not getting Pulitzer Prize-winning copy every week in the US, despite the exalted standards of sportswriting there. But they enjoy the sort of access that can only be envied on this side of the Atlantic. Basketball supernova LeBron James possesses the wealth, fame and mystique of a Hollywood god, but even he must frequently endure the unedifying fragrance of the newshounds around his royal person. Not so, Cristiano Ronaldo.

The dressing room has traditionally been off-limits in professional soccer and since the advent of the Premier League, the players are even more sheltered behind the glass bubble of the League's self-importance. It's not just in England. Soccer across Europe is so dominant that it can set the terms of engagement with its public. In America the competition for the sporting dollar is so fierce that no sport can afford to keep its players, its prime market assets, so aloof.

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It's pretty much the same model in other sports such as rugby and tennis. Some ten years ago the GAA also decided that the sanitised, stage-managed press conference was the way to go too. It was the modern thing to do. If progress meant turning players and managers into soundbite bores, then so be it.

The unlicensed old days when hacks were ushered into dressing rooms may have been chaotic and indeed intrusive. But from my memory most players didn't seem to mind answering questions, even whilst simultaneously spraying their torsos with veritable clouds of the old Lynx deodorant.

And those encounters frequently ­yielded up insights and emotions that came directly from the players' flesh-and-blood hearts. The back pages of old ­newspapers are littered with these vibrant despatches direct from the battlefield.

Take for example Glen Ryan's memorable exchange with Vincent Hogan of the Irish Independent in August 1997. Kildare had just been beaten in an epic trilogy of championship matches with Meath. An aggregate 160,000 people had attended the three games. Ryan, the commanding Kildare centre half-back, had been heroic and was now distraught.

To compound matters, he'd just been handed a voucher that entitled him to one free pint of beer in the bar. "Here," he said to Hogan, handing him the slip of paper. "That's what you can write about. That's what we get out of three games here. A kick in the fucking arse." His team-mate Niall Buckley rowed in. "One drink. That's the GAA. Just think what's been made out of these three games and we get sweet fuck all."

The Gaelic player is a more ­media- trained animal these days; but he's a lot more house-trained too. So also is the American pro. But the American pro still has to face the press in his locker room, often with just a towel wrapped around his hips.

And as the veteran New York Times sportswriter Gerald Eskenazi said last week: "When a guy is naked, he's ­probably more honest than not."

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