Did the sports media drop the ball?

23 April 2010

Written by: Matt de Neef

The revelation that the Melbourne Storm has been stripped of two NRL premierships for systematically breaching the salary cap is already one of the biggest stories in Australian sporting history. I watched it unfold by clicking onto the home pages of news sites in the hours after NRL chief executive David Gallop’s press conference.

One of the many stories came from The Age, which predictably pointed the finger at News Ltd. who own the Storm. ‘Who knew what? When did they know it? Why didn’t they know sooner?’, asked Andrew Stevenson.

Certainly, it should be asked how News Ltd. was unaware of long-term rules-flouting by a branch of their own company. But these questions should also be directed toward the entire sporting media.

This salary cap rorting, as Gallop said, amounted to at least $1.7 million over five years. The NRL’s own investigation has been going on for weeks and yet, we only discovered the extent of the Storm’s cheating yesterday. Why?

Back in March, it was reported that the Storm were under investigation for possible salary cap breaches. Yet today’s revelations came through the NRL, not through the media. Had there been no follow up of that story by the sporting media?

One of the better-known jibes directed at sports journalism is that is the ‘toy department’, ‘an oxymoron’ even. A harsh view, but one that the Australian sporting media has done nothing to dispel on this occasion.

Earlier this year, Dave Kindred, formerly of The Sporting News, looked back at how he and the rest of the American press ‘ignored’ the warning signs of widespread steroid use in baseball in the midst of the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home-run-chase of 1998. A bottle of androstenedione was found in McGwire’s locker while he was breaking records, and nobody made the leap to consider other steroids, Kindred wrote.

The Melbourne Storm has been one of the NRL’s most successful teams ever since the league’s expansion deep into AFL territory. They have missed just two finals series in their 12-year history and were named ‘Team of the Decade’ late last year. And yet in March, when there was talk that the Storm were being investigated for a potential breach last year, it appears so far that nobody looked further back.

Yes, four weeks is much less time than America’s baseball press had. But this is the internet age, where news moves so much faster.  The speed of news combined with staff cutbacks have meant that investigative journalism is becoming harder to do The modern journalist simply might not have time to hunt down the salary cap story if he or she already has three other league stories to write, a video element to add and Twitter and Facebook links to include.

And anyway, what’s the point of getting the scoop when everyone can re-report it within minutes? Jason Fry of the National Sports Journalism Center in the US says true scoops will still grab readers. But this isn’t a true scoop. Any NRL punishment was always going to come out eventually. The Herald Sun didn’t beat The Age to the punch, or vice versa. Rather, it seems that both just dropped their gloves.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of the Storm scandal — so far as the performance of the press is concerned — is that the sports news media were scooped by the NRL.

Evan Harding is a Master of Global Communciations student at La Trobe University.