The Silence of the Slams.
It all started with an apology.
“We are very sorry, we have been asked by the International Tennis Writers Association not to release the transcripts of post-match interviews this year so as not to disadvantage the reporters here at the French Open. You can find many of the relevant quotes in the articles posted on our website.” – Roland-Garros team
The arguments against has been made by bloggers far more eloquent than I, so I won’t repeat what’s already been said. What follows is simply my self-serving musings on the Scriptgate.
There was a time when I wasn’t so obsessed with tennis. I mean, I enjoyed it at school. I watched religiously every Aussie Open, sometimes during Wimbledon too. I talked about it with friends when a slam was on. But was it the primary entertainment of my life? No.
And then, the interwebs happened.
Suddenly, not only could I watch tennis on TV, I could live stream it, download it. I could log onto a forum and chat to passionate, opinionated people across the world about it. There were arguments, debates, there was much teasing. We developed a common language, our own nicknames for players that acted like secret handshakes between friends who have never met each other. Instead of relying on a commentator to introduce a player I’ve never heard of before, I log on to wikipedia. Instead of reading about how a player reacted after a match in the newspaper the next day, I refresh the tournament website until the press transcript comes up. Because of the democratisation of media and information, a lively, inclusive online tennis community has emerged to all of our benefit. The most interesting and passionate debates, observations and opinions on tennis are not in fact found in the Tennis Magazines or newspaper columns, but in online forums, on Twitter and in the comments section of tennis blogs.
Which is precisely why this recent decision by Roland Garros to embargo press transcripts really, really seethes me.
In an age where people continue to demand faster, more transparent, more comprehensive information through new media, tennis has decided to take a step back. The ITWA has decided that we should only hear the story through its mouth – processed, interpreted, spun, analysed. And then we should just accepted it. Simple as that.
But don’t you see? There is no going back.
Tennis writers play an important and (mostly) respected role in offering their “expert view” and contributing to the interaction between formal and grassroots social media, but gone are the days where stories can be monopolized by a few with accreditation. Through transcripts and a variety of media, readers now treat media coverage of the sport with more suspicion than ever. We’ve all compared a press transcript with a news report and seen the half quotes, misquotes, the sensationalised quotes, the paraphrased quotes, the reinterpreted/spun/edited quotes, all used to generate headlines, profit or to make an unnecessary point.
Moreover, given the determination of certain tennis writers to provoke, agitate and surprise attack players into committing media blunder, it has become more important for fans to contextualise players’ words in relation to the question asked.
In other words, fans are no longer satisfied reading processed information and taking it at face value. We want to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth. We want to do the processing and the interpreting ourselves, and this embargo on press transcripts is an attempt to reestablish traditional media’s monopoly over who gets to “tell the story”, or – in the words of Roland Garros – who gets to print the “relevant quotes”.
A second aspect of this hasn’t been mentioned, which is that tennis is a sport driven by personality, and personality is rarely evident in the reports of formal media. It was through the minor, “irrelevant” questions asked during press conferences that I got to see the light, dorky side of Roger Federer. It was while reading broken English answers to fluff questions that I grew to love guys like Davydenko. It was through perusing entire transcripts, not just “the relevant quotes” that I saw something sarcastic, intelligent and level-headed about Maria Sharapova, beyond her PR-savvy, glamourous facade. And what about Marat Safin? Press transcripts made him legendary.
What I’m trying to get at here is that fans need access to press transcripts because it is precisely the silly side of press conferences, the stuff that never makes it into the mainstream press, that eventually become the clearest indicator of a player’s personality and fan base. And this culture of personality is what drives spectators to tennis tournaments and consumers to Nike stores.
So how anyone could think withholding press transcripts from fans is good for the commercial success or level of active participation in the sport is simply beyond me.
Now, I’m not going to dump it all on the ITWA. Given the prominence of more “national” sports in many countries (e.g. AFL in Australia, and football in Europe), I can imagine how hard it would be to persuade an editor that you need to fly around to some fantastically expensive destinations at least 4 times a year to cover tournaments involving yellow fuzzy balls. But what’s interesting and I think the biggest downfall of the ITWA’s argument is that it blames its difficulties on the democratising effect of social media. The argument seems to be that the availability of transcripts contributes to the death of tennis coverage rather than its continuing relevance and viability.
Really? If anything, transcripts have played a part, as I have argued, in creating a greater market and an active community of followers for tennis coverage. Instead of harnessing the opportunity and adapting to the changing media landscape, the ITWA decided to take protectionist measures to actively reduce transparency.
What’s more disturbing is how easily Roland Garros accepted the ITWA’s request. So much for “fan interaction” when the most substantial way for fans to gain a glimpse into the sport is now embargoed. What we’re seeing is a move by the tournament website and journalists, the supposed “bridge” between players and the general public, to arbitrarily decide on who tells the story and how they’ll tell it.
Where do the fans and the players (who owns copyright over their own answers) feature in all of this? What is now going to be deemed “relevant” and worthy of press coverage? Who is to notice and report about the views and words of those lower ranked players only a few hardcore tennis fans care about?
While voices within the ITWA resort to a persecution complex to defend their position, the silence from tournament and from players is deafening.
There are things you can do: write to ITWA and let them know that YOU demand information straight from the source, not filtered through whatever colour tinted lenses their writer members wear. Tell Roland Garros on Twitter and Facebook that if they really did take tennis fans seriously, they would provide press transcripts.
But most importantly, be reasonable, be constructive, acknowledge the difficulties for the other side. If I, a slightly hysterical and rude fangirl, can write an entire post without resorting to shrilly, sloganistic personal attacks, so can you.
Play nice, kids.