Saturday, 22 January 2011

Speaking Their Mind: Why footballers should be allowed to express their own opinions

Today I was alerted to the fact that Clarke Carlisle appeared on Question Time on Thursday night. Immediately this connected with an issue which is becoming increasingly prominent in football and is something that I have considered writing about for the last few weeks. With the recent Twitter outbursts and the subsequent consequences of them, I think we must assess the role of the footballer within the media, not simply about the use of 140 characters as other people have talked about, but the wider and more important issue of their right to speak their mind.

Today the Guardian began a new weekly column called 'The Secret Footballer'. This column features the news and views of an unnamed insider, someone playing the game now and reporting on its issues. The latest member of the Guardian's writing team clarifies why it is that his identity must remain a secret due to his contractual agreement:

The Player agrees that he will not knowingly do, write or say anything or omit to do anything which is likely to bring the club or the game of football into disrepute, cause the player or the club to be in breach of the rules or cause damage to the club or its officers or employees or any match official. Wherever circumstances permit the player shall give to the club reasonable notice of his intention to make any contributions to the public media in order to allow representations to be made to him on behalf of the Club if it so desires.”

Now, the first half of this is understandable. It stands to reason that a footballer, like anyone employed by a business or company, has to act within the rules of said employer. Thus, it seems only right that they are contractually obliged to not speak out in such a way that will comprise those who pay their wages. We must accept that.

There is, however, a fine line to be drawn on the matter of a football speaking their mind and the idea that a club must be forwarned if the player wishes to say anything publically seems unjust. We cannot and should not expect for footballers not to have opinions on all the same matters that we ourselves spend much of our time discussing. For a player to be criticised when offering an opinion on something, whether it be on Twitter or to the Press, seems intolerant and undemocratic. They may represent a club but they are also their own person and, shock horror, they have their own views on things. Playing footballer should not mean that you have to live in silence or, at least, in an uncontroversial state, until you are wheeled out to deliver the usual drivel in front of the cameras.

Glen Johnson recently had a controversial incident on Twitter. Having been criticised by Paul Merson on Soccer Saturday, Johnson replied by saying that he was not going to concern himself with the criticisms of an 'average' player who has suffered from addictions. This cannot be condoned insofar as he has launched an attack on a person's past private life having himself been criticised in a professional sense. That being said, I remain adamant that a player, like any other person, has the fundamental right to speak their mind as long, of course, it is conducted in the right manner.

Ryan Babel just a few days later put up a picture of Howard Webb skilfully photo-shopped to be shown wearing a Manchester United shirt (see above). He was fined by the FA. Is this fair? Thousands of people had commented on Webb having a poor refereeing performance at Old Trafford that day. Again, like Johnson, he may have voiced his opinion in the wrong way. Nevertheless, he is fully entitled to say if he feels aggrieved by something as Johnson has the right to reply to criticisms made by Merson.

The repercussions of both of these outbursts, in terms public reaction and FA action, were relatively harsh. I fear we may be setting a worrying precedent.

There are few things more frustrating than the pre-match press conference or the post-match interview. They are constructed like Frankenstein's monster using a collection of hideous clichés and standardised comments straight from 'The Footballers Guide to Dealing With The Press'. “At the end of the day... we played well today... it was a game of two halves... I am happy to have scored but the most important thing is that we got the three points.” Words that have become almost void of meaning.

There seem to be automatic responses to predictable questions. There may be truth behind the same old lines we hear but a fear of offering an opinion in front of the praying Press, who are hungry for the slightest bit of controversy, has rendered players mere puppets in a very boring show. The more that players were to speak their mind, the more use to it we would become and, in turn, the less of a shock it would be when a player did stray from the status quo. Let them speak their mind and then judge them on the merit of their point, do not criticise them for simply offering an opinion.

Clarke Carlisle; Burnley defender, Countdown Champion and Chairman of the PFA, appeared on Question Time last weekn and acquited himself, in my opinion, very well. His intelligence is well known and I am certainly not advocating that footballers featuring on Dimbleby's show becomes a regular occurrence. For me though, it highlights that footballers do, of course, have opinions on things outside of the game and the fact that just because they are under contract at a club ought not to mean that they are unable to express their opinions.

We may deem their opinions to be wrong. Sometimes they may not voice them in a way we believe to acceptable. But could the same not be said about any other member of the public doesn't everyone? My views on this blog are sometimes criticised. That is the simple joy of differences I opinions. It is what we want to hear, it is what helps save us from the mundane. In the modern game I think that a player trying to expressive his views, whether it be about footballer or any things else, should be embraced and encouraged lest we continue the monotonous trend of predictably dull interviews. This is, after all, why we all share a love for characters like Ian Holloway, because they are both rare and refreshing.

After today's set of fixtures must of us will sit and Match of the Day and the repetitive set of post-match chat. I think it would be great to see a player come out and speak their mind, not in a way that would harm their club but in a way that would give us some actual insight into their thoughts and feelings about a particular incident or issue.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...


  1. Like politicians, you can see why footballers think it's safer to stick to banal comments and non-committal responses. When Joey Barton speaks out he get a deluge of opinion pieces criticising him - usually, for stating the obvious. It's also fairly difficult to be articulate when you've just been running around a football pitch for over ninety minutes. The real shame is that so many retired players talk such absolute bollocks half the time.

  2. Yeah, the blame does not lie with the players but with the system around them which makes it so difficult for comments to be made without them causing controversy. I would not expect players to be articulate after a game, just honest. For them to speak their mind and express their own opinions rather than using premeditated, tediously boring cliches would be a refreshing change.
    Yeah the retired players do often talk bollocks but if they have an opinion it at least makes things interesting. Paul Merson, for example, is not the best pundit by any stretch of the imagination but he says what he thinks and he is entitled, and indeed paid, to do so. But this post was obviously focused on the actual players. The retired do not have a place in the team to try and keep. It is a shame that players are discouraged, through either forewarning or reactions and repercussions, to never stray from the status quo.
    It seems that with all the opinion that surrounds football, the game itself remains strangely vacant of any meaningful views. Instead, every Saturday we receive the same rubbish in the pre, during, and post match chat.

  3. Agreed. That's what made the interview with Barton and Nolan after Chris Hughton's sacking so memorable. I think the blame rests with the interlocutors as well as the system. Don't know if you saw this the other day, but I think her complaint applies to football just as much as tennis:

  4. I have to admit that Twitter opens the doors to say almost everything and teams restricted but I think that they should add a disclaimer like movies have.


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