Sports people are quickly castigated if they say anything interesting, so most soon learn to say nothing at all
It’s a surprise that one of the most inflamed debates on Gaza has taken place between Joey Barton and Yossi Benayoun, erstwhile team-mates at QPR. Barton, the first professional footballer to appear on Question Time (insulting both politicians and “ugly girls” in the process), has been repeatedly tweeting on the deaths of women and children in Palestine under hashtags such as stopisraelkillinginnocents. Benayoun, an Israeli who recently left Loftus Road for Maccabi Haifa, didn’t appreciate the sentiments and replied: “mate things can never change you have been stupid and you will stay stupid all your life..embarrassing.”
The specifics of their argument are charged, but Barton’s rejoinders to Benayoun and beyond did contain a couple of points with which it was hard to disagree. One, ripostes are always more stinging when you spend a couple of seconds picking over your grammar first. And second, these are Barton’s opinions, he has a right to express to them reasonably and, if you don’t like them, don’t seek them out.
“Being criticised for using my profile to raise awareness of fellow human beings being murdered rather [than] tell you what new product is cool,” he wrote after a spate of abusive messages, “or what I ate for breakfast or that I have just played with a colleague on a video game. Fucked up World at times.”
This has not been an auspicious week for sports people expressing opinions. On Monday, Moeen Ali wore discreet and yet also highly conspicuous wristbands that read “Save Gaza” and “Free Palestine” in England’s third Test against India. He was backed by the England and Wales Cricket Board (“Moeen has done nothing wrong”) but quickly censured by the International Cricket Council’s match referee, David Boon, because it does not allow “political, religious or racial activities” during matches.
On a less consequential note, in Glasgow, Usain Bolt either did or did not describe the Commonwealth Games as “a bit shit”. He may have had legitimate reasons for making these comments – the weather is worse in Scotland than Jamaica; the food is different; bunking in the athletes’ village is assuredly less comfortable than the digs he’s used to – but we are unlikely to find out his real feelings now. After two weeks of journalists asking everyone to make silly and irrelevant comparisons between the Olympics and the Commonwealths, London and Glasgow, we finally had a big-name scapegoat.
If you were a prominent sports person, how would you respond to the experiences of Barton, Moeen and Bolt? Most, naturally, would decide to keep their heads down and their mouths shut. Fall back on their media training and say nothing that is remotely interesting or revealing ever. For evidence of what this looks like, seek out the interview that the NFL running back Arian Foster, a philosophy graduate and after-hours poet, gave this week where he repeated the same line 11 times in a 90-second interview: “I’m just out here trying to be the best team-mate I can be.”
This is a shame, partly because it’s tedious, but mostly because there’s more at stake. It’s impossible not to connect the reluctance of athletes to speak out on important subjects with a whole series of deeply ugly problems that continue to embarrass professional sport: from bananas still being thrown at black footballers in Europe’s top leagues to the reluctance that many competitors have in publicly acknowledging their homosexuality.
But the message is clear: if you speak out, you are potentially alienating fans, invoking media censure, jeopardising endorsement deals and damaging your career prospects. Why take that risk?
To put it another way: do you want to be Steven Gerrard or Joey Barton? Gerrard, who recently retired from international football, will be remembered for many things, but the quality and insight of his public pronouncements are unlikely to be among them.
It wasn’t always that way. In 2001, I interviewed Gerrard when he was a coltish 21-year-old making his name at Liverpool. On a blissful, shirt-sleeves afternoon, we sat on the grass at Melwood, the club’s training ground, and spent an hour talking about all sorts of odd subjects. The feature was called 50 Questions and the fixed set of enquiries ranged from “Describe the way you dance” to “Have you ever seen a dead body?” – Gerrard answered everything.
Gerrard was very funny; he was smart, self-aware and clearly ambitious, too. When I wrote up the interview, there was only one problem: in one of his responses, Gerrard had made a comic reference to a Liverpool team-mate who had the most extensive collection of pornography. He was at best semi-serious, but the magazine’s lawyers were worried that we would be open to litigation. “Could we verify with the player named that he did in fact have the largest stash at Anfield?” they, in essence, asked.
I made that rather bizarre phone call and predictably the media team at Liverpool freaked out. One of Gerrard’s sponsors became involved as well. Why did I want to know if he’d seen a dead body? (He hadn’t; his answer was so unrevealing that I was not going to include it anyway.) So the club was apoplectic, and Gerrard would go on to develop his signature interview technique, both highly economical and reliably unedifying.
Perhaps as Gerrard edges towards full retirement, and an inevitable spot on the pundits’ line-up, we will see more of his personality come out again. Or perhaps, like some ex-pros on the sofa, he’s buried it so deep that it will never truly resurface. But it’s easy to see why most athletes choose to reveal so little during their careers. And so, as Barton warned, the only crumbs we’ll get are how much they love their new fluorescent boots and how they’ve just destroyed Dazza at Fifa 14.