As someone who’s worked in pre-match press conferences, the mixed zone at full-time, and traditional newsrooms, I’ve had a front row seat to witness the changing relationship between pro players and the media. Far fewer are drawing for the same run-of-the-mill answers we’d hear regurgitated 5-10 years ago and far more are choosing to be their true selves in front of the camera.
I know from first-hand experience that players just want a proper opportunity to express themselves freely. Sitting across the table from many young ballers in interviews, I’ve seen the way their faces change when I ask them what kind of music gets played in the changing room, who is always in the middle of the rondos in training, what it was like experiencing LFW for the first time – questions that shake them out of auto-pilot and establish a level of understanding that hasn’t always existed between players and the media.
There’s been a big push within the industry to get more people from underrepresented backgrounds into football media to better relate to players and create more meaningful content. As a beneficiary of this push, I’ve made it my mission to extract as much personality and identity from players as possible. To view footballers as people, rather than people who are footballers.
"I think he was saying Maddison's goal was excellent I think" 😅
James Maddison, never change 😂 pic.twitter.com/zMoYcj4W00
— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) October 23, 2023
Just have a look at James Maddison’s warmer, more charismatic approach to see why this works so well – bantering Bukayo Saka after the North London derby and joking that he could hear Marco Silva compliment his goal after the Fulham game. The likes of Bukayo Saka, Eberechi Eze and Declan Rice are also embracing a more natural version of themselves in the public eye.
Given how players are routinely over-scrutinised and abused, this refreshing expression of self is even more powerful. But at a time when football media is becoming more representative of ballers than it ever has been, this evolution towards more engaging player content must grow too. While the improvement is very much noticeable, it is vital that football media ensures the Maddisons and Ezes become the rule and not just the exception.
The more this happens, the more our favourite players get the proper platforms to undo the lazy narratives around them being over the top and out-of-touch – which is a massive reason why some feel it’s OK to hound them the second things go wrong. We only have to look back to 2019 when Raheem Sterling called out a section of print media for their racial undertones and how that directly contributes to the abuse he and other Black players receive. With greater representation among writers, broadcasters, producers and podcasters – from similar backgrounds to the players we adore – we get more space to tell stories through a more sincere lens.
Players are generally more expressive on TV with ex-pros because there is a familiarity there which allows for freer conversations and these moments of exuberance we see on CBS and Monday Night Football. But, in a similar way, non-traditional media outlets can relate to players on a deeper level and get a truer depiction of who they are off the pitch. This is why I joined VERSUS.
People are no longer that interested in player performances, they want to know what inspires them, what issues are close to their hearts, what they do in their spare time.
Football today is so much bigger than what happens across 90 minutes and the surrounding culture is swelling every day. Rappers are competing to make the most niche football references in their bars, clubs are making increasingly ambitious partnerships with high fashion houses. The players are at the centre of all of this and we need to see a media landscape that understands these crossovers and empowers this break from tradition.
“The relationship between footballers and the media has been strained for decades, so there is still a lot of work to do.”
If we take it a step further, we as fans can often get wrapped up in the commotion of the spectacle and lose sight of the character elite players need to defy odds in the way they do. Who wouldn’t want to take a trip inside the mind of someone who has been told no more times than the average person can stomach and still make it to the top of their craft?
Instead of trying to catch players out and use out of context quotes to sell stories on social media, we should be exploring new ways of telling their stories. The more footballers are humanised in the media, the harder it becomes for bad faith actors to dehumanise them later on. Now more than ever, it’s crucial we have an insight into who players are beyond these commodities of our entertainment – making them more relatable which changes the way they’re perceived by the public.
The relationship between footballers and the media has been strained for decades, so there is still a lot of work to do. Believe me, I know how difficult it can be to get players to open up on record like they do on the pitch. But things are moving in a positive direction.
This is exactly why it’s important for us here at VERSUS and the industry as a whole to continue to reverse that damage. There are too many cultural overlaps to ignore, too many stories still to be told, too many untapped personalities waiting to be uncovered.
It’s about time football media properly gives its athletes the freedom to be the authors of their own narratives.