No three modern athletes could be more different than Victoria Pendleton, Maria Sharapova and Adam Johnson. The first is a double gold medal-winning Olympic track cyclist; Sharapova a Grand Slam tennis champion; and Johnson a footballer whose skills earned him 12 England caps and £60,000 a week.
Yet they share one thing in common: they all are – or were – considered role models in society.
Like all role models, their actions are meant to set a standard for the rest of us. So when Pendleton, who until 2015 had never ridden a horse, came a creditable fifth in her first race at Cheltenham, she showed how a determined, ambitious person can overcome the odds.
However, when Sharapova, a former Wimbledon champion, tested positive for a banned, performance-enhancing substance, and Johnson was convicted of sexual activity with an underage girl, these disclosures revealed how our role models can let us down.
After Johnson was jailed for six years, detective inspector Aelfwynn Sampson of Durham Police said: “Fame, celebrity and a position of power does not give you the right to break the law… In our football-obsessed region Adam Johnson had a responsibility to be a role model, a role he did not fulfil.”
The new global icons
In an increasingly sceptical world, sportspeople are courted by marketers to endorse their goods and services. The athlete is presented as a person of higher moral values. A great tennis shot from a seemingly impossible position becomes a demonstration of courage. A simple matter of superior sporting skill becomes a sign that we are in the presence of a greater human being.
Sporting icons are filling the vacuum vacated by traditional role models such as church leaders, men of science and letters, and teachers. Religious language is commonly used when communicating sport: athletes are immortal or godlike; stadiums are sporting cathedrals. By contrast, governing elites are held in contempt, as the rise of Donald Trump in the US shows.
Sport is also a common global language and experience that can be understood by people all over the world, regardless of language or culture. We identify with sporting heroes partly because we’re more inclined to talk about ourselves and why we are important. In The Social Animal, the American social commentator and author David Brooks points out that Americans of the present generation talk about themselves more than previous generations did: “In 1950, the Gallup organisation asked high school students, ‘Are you a very important person?’, and 12% said ‘Yes’. They were asked the same question in 2006, and the proportion was 80%.”
The rise of the sportsperson as a role model is the biggest change in sport since many world games were codified 200 years ago, yet this has come about without any debate as to whether sports stars can bear the burden we are imposing on them. We are sleepwalking into a situation fraught with danger. We have conceded huge power to these role models without understanding the efforts they make to control the news agenda.
Seizing the story
Nowhere is media management so deeply entrenched and scrupulously practised as sport. Pendleton’s switch from cycle to horse came about because Betfair paid her an estimated £200,000 to ride. Betfair backed this up with such an effective public relations campaign that Pendleton became the story of Cheltenham.
Betfair doesn’t sponsor Cheltenham but, by backing a sporting role model, it got more publicity than any of the races’ official sponsors. On the day of Pendleton’s race, many of the racegoers proudly wore Betfair scarves, turning what is normally Gold Cup Day, the festival’s blue-riband race meeting, into the Betfair Pendleton Day.
Pendleton was, of course, selling a success story, but, for sporting role models, even a bad news story can be turned to good effect.
When athletes fail drug tests, they normally go into hiding, claiming they know nothing about it and were victims of foul play. Maria Sharapova, expertly advised by her comms team, decided to hold a press conference. What is more, she gave advance notice of the press conference, leading to feverish speculation that she was about to announce her retirement or at least reveal a new sponsor.
Remarkably, even after announcing her own downfall, Sharapova remained in charge of the story. Her defence was that she had always been taking the drug, and only failed the test because she had been unaware that meldonium had recently been banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency. Sharapova was so successful in turning a doping offence into a more everyday story that she generated much sympathy, if not support.
Adam Johnson and Sunderland also tried to manage the narrative. Johnson initially pleaded innocence, and his club allowed him to play even after the police had told the club’s chief executive, Margaret Byrne, much of the evidence that eventually damned him.
Then came the truth. Initially, Byrne asked Sunderland manager, Sam Allardyce – who had no part in making the decision – to explain why Johnson was allowed to play. Then new evidence emerged and she was forced to resign. In this instance, the judicial authorities took matters out of Sunderland’s hands, but that doesn’t always happen. Lance Armstrong nearly succeeded in outgunning the media. Even after being revealed as a drug cheat, he went on The Oprah Winfrey Show to control the news agenda.
Back page news, front page story
Sports stars have been helped by a dramatic change in how the media reports on sport. Back in the 1970s, when I first started working for The Sunday Times, the paper devoted four pages to sport, but had a separate business section. Now all major papers have separate sports sections, and on certain days The Times and The Daily Telegraph even have a separate section on football; not all papers have dedicated business sections. It is not uncommon to see sports stories on the front page of the Financial Times or as the subject of Economist leaders.
Despite wielding such prominence and social influence, sporting icons and institutions are seldom held to account. While the governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney can be summoned to the House of Commons for a grilling, David Beckham (who hasn’t played competitive football for years, but is still one of the world’s most famous people) and his ilk are allowed to control the news agenda.
You can only get access to them if you accept their terms. Even then, the interviews they give carry echoes of how the Kremlin managed the news in the Communist era. It’s not uncommon for sportspeople to demand – and get – copy approval before agreeing to an interview. Often the article will carry a plug for the star’s sponsor, who probably facilitated the interview in the first place.
I was reminded of such message control when doing an article on a major international sports event to be held this summer. The story was fascinating, as it gave me a chance to meet a 94-year-old who had won a medal in the same event back in 1938, beating a Nazi team sent to London to use sport to prove the superiority of Hitler’s ideas. At the same time, I met a present-day British competitor in the same event, which provided a wonderful chance to reflect on how sport had changed.
Drugs was an obvious subject to discuss, but the public relations agency got very worried when I started along this line. And when my piece appeared, including a reference to drugs, the agency was very upset – even though my piece accurately reported the athlete’s view that, whatever may be happening in other sports, drugs was not an issue in hers.
The PR agency could do nothing about the printed article in the London Evening Standard, but demanded that I remove it from the paper’s website as it was not the ‘soft focus’ interview they were looking for. I had to tell them that if they had wanted an advertorial they should have contacted the paper’s marketing team, not rung me.
At least I got an interview. The big barons of sport, the rich men who own football clubs, never give any. We have simply never heard from the owners of Chelsea and Manchester City – Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour – and many other owners of Premier League clubs. Mike Ashley? Schtum. Randy Lerner? Not a peep.
Ironically, many of these owners are from the US, where the media gets fantastic access. There, even female reporters (!) are allowed to go into teams’ dressing rooms after a game. Before every Super Bowl, the players from both teams and the owners all make themselves available for interviews.
In Britain, these same owners have found a culture that is instinctively more secretive.
The perils of unaccountability
One of the great ironies of modern sports coverage is that, as more pages are devoted to sport, there is less scrutiny of sports stars and less understanding of what is really happening. This would be fine if sport were still a gentle amateur leisure activity, but it’s not. It’s a multibillion-pound industry whose ‘role models’ are meant to ‘inspire’ our children.
Most of the comment pieces by former and current sports stars are ghost-written. Until recently, some newspapers would add the name of the journalist the star was talking to at the bottom of the article. Now, what is presented as a world-class player giving invaluable insights that only he or she could offer is usually nothing more than the star spending a few minutes talking to a journalist who then cobbles together a piece and puts the star’s name against it.
This is a colossal deception of the reader.
The Sunday Times’s investigative stories that exposed the FIFA corruption scandal and proved that Lance Armstrong was a cheat were only possible because the paper backed the journalists and took on the UK’s libel laws.
Often such investigative journalism is frowned on by politicians. Armstrong was fêted as a hero by former US president George W Bush. When The Sunday Times started looking into corruption at FIFA, many political voices argued that the investigations would offend FIFA and harm England’s bid for the 2018 World Cup. For the politicians, what mattered most was that these sports administrators owned the rights to coveted sports events such as the Olympics and the World Cup.
Hitler and Mussolini were the first to appreciate the political power of major sporting events. Now all politicians do. The World Cup and the Olympic Games attract vast audiences, particularly on television. In Queen Victoria’s day, political leaders used exhibitions to advertise national achievement, as Prince Albert did in organising the Great Exhibition. Today, ‘expos’ are two a penny and pass by unnoticed; only hosting an Olympics or World Cup can proclaim a nation’s pre-eminent status. When Rio won the 2016 Olympics, former president Lula of Brazil shed copious tears, describing it as the moment that Brazil reached the top table of world powers.
Politicians will do anything to curry favour with the sports administrators who decide where the event will be held. During England’s bid for the 2018 World Cup, the British prime minister David Cameron made a nauseatingly fawning speech in welcoming then FIFA president Sepp Blatter, now banned from football, to Downing Street. I even saw Nelson Mandela, the only truly saintly politician of our times, courting some of the sleaziest executive members of FIFA, one of whom was Jack Warner, now banned for life by FIFA and awaiting extradition to the US. In his quest for the World Cup, even Mandela didn’t mind who he kowtowed to.
This change in attitudes is important. Clement Attlee loved cricket and was persuaded to have a telex installed in Downing Street when he discovered he could get cricket scores on it. But he never advertised his love for the game.
These days, public figures see sport as a safe, wholesome and easy way to prove they are normal human beings like the rest of us. Politicians routinely use participation, or at least interest, in sport as a metaphor for their ability to do the job. Corporate bosses promote their ‘passion’ for rugby/cycling/running and Manchester United on Twitter in order to humanise themselves. A guest appearance on the lunchtime Test Match Special ‘View from the Boundary’ interview is public relations gold.
But if I were a PR professional, I would tread carefully in trying to borrow sport’s aura of nobility. While we should honour great sporting achievement and take pleasure from the success of sportspeople and teams, we should be wary of them telling us anything about society, let alone providing guidance as to how to run a good life. FIFA corruption scandals, cycling’s drug shame, Russia’s state-sponsored doping, match-fixing in cricket, even rugby union’s numerous injury scares, have shattered the myth that all those who participate in games somehow occupy a higher moral plane.
The old world cannot be put together again. To provide convincing evidence that not all sports administrators are corrupt and all athletes cheats, we need politicians to recognise that sport cannot continue to self-regulate. It must undergo the reformation that Lloyd’s of London went through when it accepted that it had to come under legal control.
And sports administrators and stars cannot go into knee-jerk denial every time a major scandal breaks, trying to brand every damaging story as a media witch hunt. If politicians don’t step in to regulate sport, and people in sport do not accept that athletes, like all human beings, are capable of wrongdoing, then sport will continue to make the headlines for all the wrong reasons, and the cancer of rotten role models will spread. Sport has to come clean, but it’s my hope that it can do so with honesty, openness and grace.
This article was originally published in Influence magazine, Q2 2016.