Athletes and the media: We need to talk

By Caley Wilson | June 14, 2021

Naomi Osaka’s decision to skip press conferences at the French Open – and ultimately skip the tournament itself – put a spotlight on the pressures both athletes and the media are under. When powerful stories are shared through the media, it’s a win for all of us. But those stories rarely emerge from press conferences. So, why have so many sporting organisations persisted with them?

Elijah Taylor was leading a ‘player revolt’ against his newly appointed club coach, Matthew Elliott. And Matthew’s first job at the NRL’s Warriors would be to address the ‘player mutiny’. A day before the Kiwis v Kangaroos rugby league international in late 2012, those revelations were the big media story.

Never mind that they were bullsh*t.

I was the media manager of the Kiwis at the time and Elijah was one of the younger players in the squad. What unfolded before that test match came back to my mind when Naomi Osaka raised her concerns recently.

Elijah’s sin was to offer an honest opinion when asked, in front of six journalists, who he thought should be the next coach of his Warriors NRL team. The club was in the process of making an appointment.

"The players all want Tony (Iro) to be the coach," Elijah said.

Later that same day, strong reports came out that Matthew Elliott had the role and it would be announced the following day. That set of circumstances was too tempting for one Australian newspaper. They could really spice their story up by implying that Elijah’s comments were made after he became aware that Matthew would get the gig. So, that’s just what they did. They invented the player mutiny, got more clicks, and Elijah was thrown under the bus.

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Social media wasn’t kind. "Elijah needs to pull has damn head in" was a milder version of the general tone. I remember being in my hotel room and hoping that, just down the corridor, Elijah wasn’t online. Perhaps the situation even permanently affected his relationship with the Warriors. He’d been tipped as a future club captain, but plans changed and soon he was moving on.

Elijah’s scenario highlights one of the downfalls of well-intentioned sporting organisations – such as New Zealand Rugby League and the French Open – having athletes speak to the press in groups. It ticks ‘fair’ and ‘efficient’ boxes, but it leaves a lot to be desired in other areas.

The press conference environment is ripe for either chaos or nothingness. Most athletes don’t want to generate chaos around their performances – especially if they’re part of a team. So being perceived as being bland is a clear winner in that contest.

There are exceptions, such as in many combat sports where chaos has been encouraged to the point of making it normal, or when you get a rare individual who can keep things interesting and under control. Liverpool FC’s manager Jürgen Klopp is one such person.

Jürgen Klopp

But they’re few and far between. Most people will choose to operate within narrow lines to avoid the risk of causing a scene and of derailing their – or their team’s – performance.

And that’s just one of the shortcomings of press conferences.

With all members of the media lumped in together, everyone gets the same info at the same time. You can see how that appears a great leveller. But keep in mind that it creates at least three unwanted by-products:

  • You’ve now got the media in a drag race to get the information out. So factors like accuracy and decency are far from top priority.
  • Those not caught up in the drag race, need to find fresh angles on material that potentially hundreds of other media outlets are working with. So journalists are tempted to be creative in their interpretation of what’s been said. Just ask Elijah.
  • If a journalist does ask an especially brilliant question, which extracts an especially insightful answer, everyone can ‘steal’ that thinking. So you’re not rewarding good journalists, which is part of the reason many media organisations send juniors to cover press conferences.

You’ve also set up a situation for competing journalists to get more aggressive with their questioning. Some feel the need to out-jostle their ‘rivals’ in the room. I regularly hear that it’s the media’s job to ‘ask the tough questions!’. I don’t think hard questions should be avoided but the real skill is in extracting the fascinating answers — and those rarely come in press conferences.

When I headed communications for New Zealand Rugby League, I wrestled with this issue. It wasn’t hard to see that interviewing was almost always better one-to-one.

And I had athletes telling me they generally struggled with press conferences. A key contributor to that was questions leaping from one topic, and one asker, to another. That was unsettling for the athletes. They couldn’t develop rapport with the journalists they were speaking with – and that connection meant something to them.

I recall Jared Waerea-Hargreaves – one of the on-field tough guys for the Kiwis – saying he’d rather spend an hour after training doing one-on-one interviews than throwing everybody together for 15-20mins. Jared would happily run the ball back from a kick-off into a wall of 100kg+ blokes, but a press conference was a significantly less appealing experience for him.

Jared Waerea-Hargreaves

The team environment has some obvious differences and advantages over that of Naomi Osaka and her tennis world. But eventually, with the Kiwis, we concluded that press conferences should have only a small role in our communications mix. A far better way to engage our athletes, media people and especially our fans was to create as many one-on-one interview opportunities as possible.

That led to building technology to allow a communications manager (like me) to make their entire playing squad simultaneously available, through their own handsets, for one-on-one interviews with the world’s media. Before or after a big game, sporting organisations could now make 20 athletes available to remotely speak with 20 different journalists in a 20 min window. For everyone involved, that was nothing like a press conference.

We created the tech to make it safe for all parties (no personal contact details would be exchanged), simple (everyone could use it straight away) and smart (with recordings captured and time zones calculated). That created buy-in from the athletes, it rewarded good interviewing, and resulted in more productive interviews. It also opened the door for stories to be told in different ways, including one-on-one conversations between athletes and fans.

Among the sporting organisations who now use this tech (which we called Blinder) to tell their stories are US Women's Soccer and NZ Rugby, along with teams from the NCAA to the NFL.

Having worked alongside many of the world’s leading athletes and sporting organisations, I don’t have the impression that athletes in general hate the media. But I do think they often dislike and resent the press conference situation. It's broken.

Sport can handle this issue better than it has been doing. And I suspect that Elijah and Naomi, and scores of others, would have the confidence to share far more if we created better situations for them to do just that.

A ray of light around the Elijah Taylor situation was when one of the six journalists present for Elijah's comments decided they couldn’t stomach the ‘player revolt’ storyline anymore. If you’re interested in the ethics of the athlete/media relationship, you might enjoy Steve Deane’s article.

If you manage media relations for high profile Talent, and you want to save time and stay on top of everything, then Blinder is for you.