The decision to pursue a career as a member of the sports media requires certain sacrifices—your heart bleeds, I’m sure. Depending on the role one occupies within the space, there are a number of rules, both written and unwritten, that one is expected to follow in order to be taken seriously.
For example, taking selfies with your favourite athletes and wandering around with your autograph book open is unlikely to endear you to your peers. But perhaps more than any other rule, “no cheering in the press box” is considered sacrosanct. If you don’t believe me, I’ll allow Yahoo! Sports' Chris Jones to explain on his blog:
Cheering in a press box is the moral equivalent of s—ting on the floor beside a delicious Chinese buffet that’s hosting a children’s birthday party and then going outside and killing a kindly, mystical hobo and using his stiffened corpse to derail a speeding locomotive, spilling a tanker filled with toxic chemicals into the world’s last pristine river and killing all the fish, including the aged and orphans among them.
Too over-the-top? Maybe just a touch. However, sports reporters are expected to maintain a professional distance between themselves and the athletes they cover, and cheering for specific individuals is a clear violation of this code.
I have long subscribed to these rules, and continue to do so, but an incident during the UFC’s most recent trip to London caused me to question the prevailing culture of media disinterest.
Picture the scene, if you will.
The dust has settled on UFC Fight Night 37 and the post-fight press conference is underway. An emotional Cyrille Diabate, having just called time on a career that spanned over 20 years, takes the microphone and delivers a wonderfully eloquent goodbye. Applause breaks out amongst both fighters and media members, paying tribute to the Frenchman’s contribution to combat sports.
What’s wrong with this picture? Well, that depends on whom you ask.
Initially, few seemed to take issue with the press momentarily breaking character. Having now watched Diabate’s short speech several times, the thought of it being accompanied by the sound of crickets seems no more fitting than it did on first viewing.
It wasn’t until Sports Illustrated’s Jeff Wagenheim approvingly tweeted about the issue of breaching convention that anyone objected to this rare show of humanity. MMA Fighting’s Ariel Helwani responded to the tweet, stating that the applause “felt weird.” ESPN.com’s Brett Okamoto joined the conversation shortly thereafter, backing up the views expressed by The MMA Hour host.
@jeffwagenheim still felt weird. Unless that was the other people at the presser.— Ariel Helwani (@arielhelwani) March 8, 2014
Having witnessed reporters publicly thanking fighters for knocking out individuals they didn’t particularly care for, I sympathise with the belief that media members should refrain from betraying their neutrality.
Indeed, in some sense sports reporters give up the right to be a fan. It is the somewhat depressing price of covering the sport we love. USA Today’s Nate Ryan summed up this counterintuitive mindset:
Think about how you define 'fan.' I assume you would say it's someone who goes to an event or watches on TV and cheers. That is not what we do. I haven't attended a race as 'a fan' in more than 10 years (and then only once) and nor would I in my current job. … Writing/reporting is what we do for a living, and hopefully we love it. Getting to do what we do is enjoying the moment...not taking joy in what those we are observing are doing.”
However, is quelling one’s passion with a disposition of cold indifference the only alternative? While the goal should always be to report the facts, the notion of total objectivity is really an illusion.
Every time we voice an opinion, we fail to live up to such an impossible standard. In persisting with this pantomime, we also risk failing to communicate our passion for the sport and its fighters. That any reporter should feel shame for expressing his or her appreciation for a fighter’s career strikes me as needlessly clinical.
There is a reason why we choose to cover MMA, and it certainly isn’t the money. It’s because we love the sport. When we chastise reporters for the slightest hint of enthusiasm, it feels as though we have lost sight of that fact.