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June 12, 2012
The history of the relationship between the media and football players is as tumultuous as it is long. The system is simple, though. The press, radio and television bestow fame on footballers, the consequence being direct material benefits (notably through sponsorship deals) for the players; in return these players help the media attract an audience and earn money. At times the relationship goes awry. Once famous, players may get criticised – this might even attract the media a larger audience than positive reporting. ‘Star players’ rarely enjoy this, no matter how justified the disparagement may, at least sometimes, be. A strong reaction normally follows…
There are numerous examples of times when the press is shunned by players – or even whole teams: say, just before their 1996 victory in the Cup Winners’ Cup Paris Saint-Germain became entirely incommunicado.* The latest example is Samir Nasri who reportedly sent a vehement « Ferme ta gueule » (‘Shut your mouth’) to the press stand last night in Donetsk after scoring in the France-England game. Nasri later confirmed his words and went on to comment that they were directed to journalists at L’Équipe, France’s (and arguably Europe’s) foremost sport newspaper.
More interesting for the social scientist is the reaction that has followed the Nasri incident. A flurry of furious articles has appeared in the French (and on a smaller scale, the international) press, criticising the player for his behaviour. Nasri even got insulted in exchange! For instance, La Voix du Nord called him a « petit génie arrogant » (‘arrogant little genius’). The general tone of this criticism of Nasri is most important: fundamentally, journalists and pundits seem to ask two questions ‘What example does it set for our children? Does anyone have the right to attack the freedom of the press?’ This may sound naïve: children do not forever model all their behaviour after the antics of a football player (think of the many generations who would otherwise constantly be talking about seagulls, à la Cantona); Nasri’s very own words were not very violent either (they barely qualify as an insult) and thankfully parents as well as educators are able to explain to whichever children they are in charge that this is not proper behaviour. Moreover, one would hope that the French press will not all crumble and disappear because of a few badly-chosen words said in the spur of the moment by a kid in their twenties.
What is happening is that society reacts disproportionately because one of its key institutions, the media, is seen as being under attack. The values of society (to use an old-fashioned word, something akin to its moral) are seen as being under threat too. This out-of-kilter reaction is what sociologists call a moral panic (after the works of Stanley Cohen, Folk Devils & Moral Panics). This is moral panic at its best: the objectively disproportionate societal response is essential for society to uphold its coherence around some core moral values and institutions. No doubt there will be other examples of football players misbehaving in public (and what is more, displaying far worse behaviours); no doubt they will attract the same amount of attention, other moral panics. The history of the footballers-media relationship is fundamentally tumultuous. Fundamentally, this relation serves (modestly) to strengthen a society’s core beliefs and organisations. Long may it last? Why don’t you find out for yourself?
*This is narrated in more details in my book: Foreign players & Football Supporters: The Old Firm, Arsenal, Paris Saint-Germain.
** Quoted from Morrissey’s ‘Why don’t you find out for yourself?’ from Vauxhall & I.