To what extent should scholars of sport be involved with journalists, be they tabloid hacks or senior editors of respected media outlets?
As a rule, academic deliberation mixes uneasily with feverish scoop hunting. Of course, most scholars wouldn’t mind their, or our, epoch-making discoveries being disseminated by the media, and some journalists do have a keen eye for academic discussions. Yet the risk of abuse is always there, as I recently learnt (though not for the first time).
A youngish Estonian radio journalist asked me to comment on the case of two Estonian athletes. In the wake of the skiers’ illicit, self-confessed blood manipulation, the entire nation had suddenly plunged into the depths of ‘national trauma’ – or so I was told.
According to this line of thought, Finland had undergone a similar trauma in 2001 and Finnish scholars could therefore show the way forward to the grief-stricken people of Estonia. What ensued was an incoherent, more than slightly frustrating phone interview conducted in halting English. Whether a single snippet was actually broadcast the following day is something I prefer not to know.
You see, my only contribution to the sports-related ‘trauma’ debate has been a negative one. War, famine, torture and terrorism lead to traumas, not foul-smelling urine samples or suspiciously elevated blood values. In the latter case only personal trauma might occur, a trauma largely caused by irresponsible and plain sensationalist media coverage.
Soon after hanging up I realized that the Estonian journalist had never acquainted himself with my musings on the use of drugs in sport. Most probably, he had carried out a simple web search and come across my name, thinking that I should be able to provide ‘expert’ advice or even alleviate the Estonian people’s collective pain.
The lesson I learnt from the radio incident is not a new one, but as I shamefully and of my own free will stumbled into a familiar trap, let me repeat it with capital letters. Beware of Friendly-Sounding Journalists! Verify their credentials, ask what they actually need you for, find out whether they have done their homework or not.
If they only seek to advance their own agenda, politely excuse yourself, get back to the ivory tower and enjoy the loneliness of the detached observer.