It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which losing six games in a row could be positive, but with the Toronto Maple Leafs currently stuck in a four-way tie for the two Wild Card playoff entries, the half dozen straight defeats that led the team to this point seem especially horrific.
On Tuesday night, Toronto suffered its most recent failure, losing 5-3 to the St. Louis Blues. Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf struggled mightily throughout the game, not unfairly tagged as a primary accomplice to his team being outshot 49-25.
It was a bad day at the office, and as a result, the defenseman opted out of his obligation to speak to the media following the loss. This, to the many pundits who weighed in following Phaneuf’s no-show, represented an atrocious lack of leadership, and partly explained Toronto’s recent struggles.
Things came to a head on Wednesday when Phaneuf phoned in to a local sports talk radio show to explain himself, after one of the hosts ranted about the player’s notable absence following his poor performance.
To be completely honest with you, I was emotional about the game. I didn’t want to let my emotions get the best of me. I feel bad about not being available. At that point in time, I was disappointed in the way that I played and I was emotional after the game. That’s why I did not talk.
As sports fans, we grow to accept the flawed “conventional wisdom” force fed to us by years of following our favorite players and teams through newspapers, television and radio.
If a baseball player doesn’t hustle down the line on a ground out, he’s lazy or lacks hustle. If a soccer player uses product in his hair, he’s more interested in endorsement dollars than winning. If a football player celebrates for too long in the endzone, he’s not a team player.
And the worst, perhaps most self-serving of all sports media creations is that if a player doesn’t speak to journalists following a game, he lacks leadership.
It’s nonsense. A fabrication on the part of sports media members, it’s built to sustain a reporter’s own existence and maintain a level of importance to the proceedings of professional sports.
It makes no difference to fans if athletes answer to journalists for a bad outing, as though the almighty sports writer is the only gateway to a team’s supporters. Those outraged over no-shows are more likely disturbed by their own fleeting significance than anything resembling a professional athlete’s attributes as a leader.
What exactly was being missed out on when Phaneuf didn’t bother to tolerate the boilerplate questions of the assembled media?
Would any real human beings lose a wink of sleep without a post game quote? Are sports fans today not savvy enough to get by without the cliché-riddled musings of a professional athlete following a bad game? What exactly was going to be discovered by speaking with Phaneuf? That he was — I don’t know — upset about the loss?
Eat your heart out, Grantland Rice.
In the age of media training for players, what insights are ever gathered from this dated process? The only time the vast majority of readers take note of a quote is when the athlete reacts like a bear that’s been poked with a stick once too often. In these instances though, the media themselves are the catalyst for the response. It’s hardly the recording of an unprovoked, natural moment.
Still, there are those among us who would suggest that a professional hockey player earning $6.5 million this season owes something to the people covering the game.
What keeps professional sports afloat — high salaries and all — is the public’s interest in the game and the relatively small cost that a lot of people can pay to satisfy their curiosity over seeing who the best is at a particular game. Yes, the media can shape and bend that interest, but their relationship to the game itself is like a waiter’s to what he’s serving.
Think of the NHL’s infrastructure, including the talented players, as a highly skilled chef at a popular restaurant. In this allegory, the meals that he creates are the games and the resulting stories that come from the games. The media then acts as the server, delivering plates of food to the customer, or in this case, the actual hockey fans.
If, from time to time, the waiter doesn’t feel as though he’s getting enough information from the chef to properly deliver that plate of food to the customer, it’s too bad, but the chef owes nothing to the server.
While a waiter is necessary for delivering the food, there are always a stack of resumes in the chef’s office from eager applicants wanting to fill that position. It’s not one that necessitates skill. And it’s far easier to replace the waiter than it is the chef, as long as technically, the waiter is paying to be the server of the chef’s production, which is what’s happening in hockey’s relationship with the media.
It’s not as though Phaneuf is avoiding all media contact. Only days before, the player was championed by another local journalist for the same leadership qualities that came under fire.
This was one game. It was one especially tough loss in which he played terribly and didn’t want to talk about what happened.
Do foreign correspondents grow despondent when their interview requests go unanswered by a dictator’s office? Do entertainment reporters expect actors to answer their questions immediately after their show is cancelled or their pilot isn’t picked up or their movie bombs?
Ultimately, a player’s availability makes a reporter’s job easier. I think the ultimate fear is that by not being able to easily gather quotes to fill out a summary, readers are going to start to realize that what a player has to say following a game is more often than not completely and utterly lacking in importance.
Suddenly with that knowledge, media outlets need fewer microphone holders in locker rooms, and instead require analysts and writers to — god forbid — actually form original thoughts and relay them to the readers.
That’s not to say that media access isn’t needed.
Insight is often gained from scrums around managers and coaches. Long form, personal interest pieces depend on being able to access certain players and have them talk about their past. But where’s the value in collecting post game reactions from the players themselves when those reactions are so rarely honest or unfiltered?
It’s as though a template was formed long ago, and reporters and editors continue to complete it to the point of dependence on no-brainer items. When that’s threatened, they scramble to classify the athlete not participating in their unnecessary ritual in a negative light — most frequently coming to the lazy conclusion that the player lacks leadership. A conveniently conjectural description, the accuracy of which is impossible to prove or disprove.
All the while, reporters completely ignore how uninformative the quotes that they’re collecting actually are. At some point, quotes from hockey players stopped being about attempting to support an idea proposed by the writer, and became an easy way to fill column space.
Perhaps it would be easier, if at the beginning of every season, players and journalists pick out quotes from a different sort of template, and then, those covering the team can play Madlibs with their stories whenever the athlete doesn’t want to talk. The value to fans would go completely unaffected.
According to Phaneuf, “We just had a tough day. That’s part of the deal.” The Maple Leafs captain continued, “Every team is going to have a game like this. We’re not out of anything. This team will bounce back. I know it. We have to forget about today. Get some sleep and come back ready to play.”