Posts Tagged ‘Objectivity’

The objectivity of a commentator

A comment on my last post about Lance Armstrong about Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen got me thinking about commentators, the nature of their task and what they owe the fans and the athletes, and possibly the sport itself.

The comment said that Phil Liggett should not have promoted Lance Armstrong’s charity events, and Paul Sherwen should not have gone into business with Lance, and generally they should not have tooted his horn so much as they are supposed to be journalists. They compromised their positions, and could no longer report on the sport when they held vested interests with individuals competing at the time.

So I thought a bit about what it means to be a journalist, and what it means to be a commentator. I have a gut feeling that they are separate entities, and that being a commentator does not necessarily make you a journalist, and vice-versa.

This post is by no means going to be a thorough description of a job from a normative standpoint. Moreso I am going to think as a fan. What do I want from a commentator? What, if anything, do they owe me as they call their sport. Also, I’m not particularly interested in the timbre of their voice, or any such aesthetic matters, as interesting those matters are to discuss over a beer of three on a Friday evening. The Ray Hadley vs Andrew Voss debate was a common one around pubs in Australia this year, and I would hazard a guess that your average non-2GB-listening punter would have backed Vossy all the way. If they didn’t then they probably share Hadley’s baffling political and social views. Tell me I’m wrong.

I’m more interested in discussing the objectivity of the commentator who shouts, whispers or drones (depending on sport and commentator) on in the background as we watch, no doubt jumping out of our seat every now and then to say things like “Offside! Are you fucking blind?” “Got him! Yes! Piss off. You’re out!” and my personal favourite “Shoooooooottttt!”

The best thing about “Shot” is it can be used in earnest to describe a good shot in tennis/cricket/ping pong/pool or can be used ironically to describe an abortion of an attempt by a player. Versatility is its strong point.

Should a commentator be objective? I suppose here is a convenient time to differentiate the “colour” commentator from the “play by play” guy.

The colour commentator, I think we can all agree, is not paid to be objective. He (or she) is paid to give his opinion on the game. If he doesn’t rate a guy’s (or girl’s) performance, he’s supposed to tell you about it. If he thinks someone is awesome, again, he’ll tell you all about it.

Sometimes we hate colour commentators because they drone on and on about the same thing every time they’re on air, or are just so openly biased that they frustrate opposition fans to the point of yelling at the TV, expecting a response, ala Ian Chappell and Murray Mexted.

Sometimes we love these commentators, and they’re the best or only reason to watch/listen to a certain program. I think Kerry O’Keefe would be a prime example.

It comes with the territory of being a colour commentator that you have to have a level of personal familiarity with players. They are often former athletes or coaches themselves, and to expect them to relieve themselves of these relationships before taking up commentating would be unnecessary and possibly harmful to their craft. The right balance and level of familiarity can be discussed, but eventually it will just come down to who the individual is and who is friends are, and up to the fan to recognise the potential biases.

The play-by-play guy, which category Phil Liggett, Ray Warren, Gordon Bray and Darryl Eastlake fall into, is the dude who rabbits on, constantly describing the action. If it’s going to be anyone, the burden of objectivity is going to fall on him.

I think Greg Clarke, the Aussie rugby commentator, does a reasonable job of this. Hugh Bladen (I know I promised not to talk about timbre of voice, but indulge me for a moment), with the best voice of any commentator, ever, maintains a fairly objective point of view throughout the matches he calls.

Even in these more objective casts of fixtures more emphasis is placed on the home country. Greg Clarke loves talking Wallabies, and knows more about them than any other team because he gets paid to call Australian games. Whether it’s deliberate or not, both he and Hugh concentrate more on their team than the opposition.

Phil Liggett, on the other hand, is a guy who has been calling cycling races for forty years, and it probably the best ever English caller of cycling. He has earned, and I mean earned, the tag of “The voice of cycling.”

Do we expect objectivity from Phil? The person who commented no my blog certainly thinks we do, or at least should.

Personally, I’m not so sure. I think commentators have a relationship with the athletes that demands some accountability in the way they talk about them on air, but not objectivity necessarily.

If you take away the personal feelings commentators have about players, you don’t get as much emotion in a broadcast, and surely it is the commentator’s job to inject emotion into the game. Otherwise the hype around players, the screaming when a certain player comes from nowhere to make a crucial tackle, or score the winning try, or kick the winning gaol, would be either lost or it would be disingenuous.

Sport is all about subjectivity for the fan, even for those who commentate. I treat the commentator as a salesman more than a journalist, and it’s his job to tell you why the sport is so great, why the athletes are great, and why you should be watching them.

He shouldn’t tell you why these things are objectively good either, instead why these things appeal to him personally.

I would separate sport reportage from commentary, and say that there is more burden on a reporter to be even-handed, if not objective in his or her coverage of a sport. I think that commentators going with their gut, having their favourites and telling us what they really think about an individual on a personal level is more than warranted.

As for whether there is a conflict of interest in a commentator supporting someone they commentate, say, in their charity endeavours, well, maybe that is more interesting. Should Phil Liggett endorse Lance Armstrong’s charity and MC events for him? I think he probably could, being that not only is he a cycling commentator, but more generally a cycling personality. He should separate his work as a commentator from his work as journalist as well as his work as a personality.

As an analogy, I think it would be appropriate for Ray Warren to MC a Darren Lockyer foundation event, or Ritchie Benaud a Ricky Ponting Foundation event.

I suppose what muddies the waters in Phil’s case is Lance being caught committing an awful crime. He stood by Lance for longer than most, but I don’t begrudge him that. Nor do I begrudge the best bike race caller I’ve listened to having an opinion on individuals in his sport.

It adds to the call. It adds to the spectacle. I don’t think objective coverage is necessarily par for the course in the case of the play-by-play guy.

I watch sport because it tugs the heartstrings. My heartstrings. Not the heartstrings of the neutral observer inside me.

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Rugby League “too subjective” for those that play

“It’s just so subjective. I don’t know how they came up with the grading. Just how things are graded…it’s so subjective, and to have that subjectivity in myopinion altered from case to case is very disparaging for the players.”

These are words from the mouth of a real, existing and currently functioning NRL coach. ‘The game I coach is too subjective,’ he says. ‘The rules are up for interpretation. Not everything is black and white.’ Perspective and subjectivity Geoff. Google it. Then google objectivity, and see for yourself whether any referee or judiciary rulings will ever be objective.

Geoff thinks Steve Matai and his banned of brothers (get it?) need to have a place in the NRL judiciary system.

It’s when you see quotations like this that you bemoan the time that you do spend sitting on the couch watching the telly as those big boys run at each other, belting each other quite spectacularly, scoring some miraculous tried and yelling at the referees like confused apes. Those nasty men in pink and the ones who review the tape, meanwhile, sit and plot to undermine everything done by the players and coaches.

I don’t think, unlike my mate Geoff, that coaches and players should have a place in the judiciary system. Everyone knows that players and coaches will try to cheat to gain advantage. If they get away with it, they call it good tactics. When they don’t, they cry like three year olds who don’t get ice cream and TV for dinner. The disingenuous behaviour that flaunts the spirit of fair competition between teams happens because players and coaches are biased, and want to win. The laws that have been implemented in Rugby League, including two referees, video refs, and judiciaries have been put there to combat illegal tactics dreamed up by Toovey and his predecessors.

So who really has the more ‘objective’ view of the game, its spirit and its laws?

Wrestling? Invented by players and coaches to undermine the other team’s progress, and many consider it to be against the spirit of the game. Play acting, telling the ref you scored when you didn’t, taking a dive; all these are inventions of players and tactics of coaches to gain unfair advantage over the opposition. These are against both the laws and the spirit of the laws.

Players are told to intentionally belt a player over the head so they won’t come back because of a concussion that may affect them for the rest of their lives. It’s against the law, yeah, but they do it anyway. This wasn’t invented by the NRL judiciary or the referees, and its their job to say ‘hang on a minute, that seems a little off to me. Let’s ban the player who did it.’ We don’t need players hanging around saying that it was a good hit, and that maybe it was a little high, so we’ll give him a warning. Some players and coaches don’t listen to warnings.

So when Geoff Toovey asks for players to have a say in the judiciary system that judges them and their actions, I say no. What will players and coaches who have shown themselves to be self interested and self serving coaches desire in a judiciary system? Probably a system that allows them to spend as little time off the field for the maximum amount of illegal damage inflicted on an opponent. Probably a system that doesn’t punish Steve Matai for being placed on report every second week for a swinging arm to the head.

I’ll probably stick with the neutral-ish arbiters currently tasked with handing out suitable punishments to players and coaches who misbehave. However subjective Toovey finds their rulings to be, I think it would be vastly preferable to the punishments (that will also inevitably be subjective) handed down by players to their colleagues.

And now to Toovey, and why he and his fellows clearly don’t get the nature of officiating and probably never will.

The structured world is still an uncertain place. Laws are put in place to indicate which behaviour is acceptable and which is not. For example, the offside rule is in place to ensure defenders don’t have an unfair advantage by being in the face of the ball carrier before he can take a step. Simple? Very.

What is not simple is the  decision to rule on an offside infringement. The referee can only have one perspective. He must make a call within the space of a couple of seconds. For this to happen he must make a decision of his own as to whether a player infringed, and by how much. The actions of the players, illegal or not, are contingent and very, very situational. No two situations are exactly alike, and the fact that the referee can only ever have one perspective, his own (even with the help of cameras and linesmen who also only have one perspective) makes it so that he will not make the inch perfect decision every time.

This makes his ruling, by definition, subjective. He cannot rule as an omiscient observer. It is beyond the limits of human capability. Just  as Andrew Johns and Darren Lockyer sometimes made the wrong decision and had their pass go to the wrong player or to ground, referees sometimes do not view the world as the Lord (or Dean Ritchie or Paul Kent) does.

So please Geoff, when you say something is subjective have a look at Wikipedia first. What you said in that interview was subjective. The laws themselves are up for interpretation, so embrace the uncertainty and stop taking it out on the referees, the linesmen, your dead dog, the judiciary and the fans when you lose.

Cement.

Stand, spray and deliver.

Critiques from the arm chair