ABOUT two months ago, your correspondent posted online what he thought was a ho-hum story he had written more than two weeks before and had appeared in print – “without incident,” I guess you could say – 11 days previously.
It told how, after a verbal battle with Sydney Roosters’ Sonny Bill Williams during a match, Gold Coast prop Ryan James had attempted to shake his hand and had been greeted with apathy.
“I shook his hand at fulltime and said ‘thanks for the game’ and he didn’t really appreciate it,” said James, 22. “So, yeah, that’s up to him.”
In other words, the usual fodder of the weekly rugby league media, which spends a bit more time in the dressing rooms, sweeping up what the dailies miss. Nothing to see here.
Or so I thought.
The reaction to the yarn online bordered on apocalyptic. There were more than 100 comments on one Facebook page. Typical of the sentiments were “you should be ashamed of this story and you should never have posted it”.
In discussions with the co-administrator of the Facebook page, it was pointed out to me that Channel Nine’s The Footy Show had only just run a sympathetic piece on Williams and “people will think we’re trying to turn them against him”.
But it was really just a quote story about one footballer discussing an encounter with another at fulltime in a football match I can honestly say I would have written it about anyone. It had not traded on Williams’ celebrity because it had been buried in the middle of a rugby league magazine, as I said, 11 days earlier.
I had not “beaten it up”. The readers had.
My website had been running for three years and the traffic for that one story was THREE times my total daily record for the entire site in all that time.
This got me thinking about the confluence of factors that makes Williams ‘Pro Athlete 2.0’.
One, people no longer trust the traditional press and start with the assumption of agenda and work backwards. This makes athletes who are polarising, and over whom rival media outlets have taken opposite sides, much bigger stars than they would ever have been before.
They are the opposite of collateral damage in media slanging matches – their brand gets “collateral enhancement” because it is always getting tossed up.
If a media outlet says someone is a good person, cynics will immediately believe the opposite while others will look at the evidence presented and agree. And if you have two media camps presenting opposite views, you can actually throw a net over everyone remotely interested in sport – a marketing feat no amount of money could ever buy.
But you can only leverage that frenzied, deafening media presence by changing employers constantly, maximising the effect when contracts expire. There’s no point being the talk of the town if your team gets all the benefits from your huge profile and you get nothing.
Secondly, since people began getting their raw information from other sources, newspapers have sought to entertain as much as inform. With this has come the tendency to portray public figures as pantomime heroes or villains – nothing entertains like conflict.
This also plays straight into the hands of those who are marketing Williams. When he does something good, as depicted on the Footy Show, a portion of the audiences refuses to believe it.
When he offers a wet-fish handshake to an opponent, the other half of the audience (which, by virtue of the process described above, is already huge) is also in denial and effectively put its digital hands over its digital ears.
Why do we refuse to believe both depictions could be true? Very few of us know people who are absolutely good or absolutely bad. But these days we are hellbent on believing everyone in the media is one or the other.
Khoder Nasser understands the forces at work, if not literally as stated here, then very instinctively. There were reports he wanted as many media outlets as possible to know about a $1 million fight offer late and less than 24 hours after someone from the BBC contacted me chasing his number (I couldn’t find it), Sonny popped up on the BBC World Service.
No doubt the person who contacted me knew he would have to use audience size to get SBW to submit to an interview, the way you do with rock stars or actors. Lots of people listen to the BBC World Service – it’s bankable exposure.
Stephen Kearney was put in the position this week of someone who wants to quit their job on principle. They start marching towards the boss’ office – and then think of their kids, their mortgage and their partner.
By Kearney doing the “right” thing and telling Williams it was too late to change his team, New Zealand rugby league and the tournament itself would be hurt immeasurably.
Nasser knows that. He and Williams hold all the cards. Sonny Bill Williams may not think he’s bigger than rugby league but events this week prove conclusively that he is.
That’s not a criticism, it’s a fact.
Williams is one of those rare cross-discipline athletes who pop up once a generation. It’s a perfect double-act – the athlete can be humble while his agent sell him as an individual, ignoring the norms of team sport economics, milking the 21 Century cult of personality and the death of newspapers for all it’s worth.
Of course, it is possible for Williams to genuinely do kind, considerate things and then do something unspeakably unthinking and selfish – because it is possible for you and me to do so as well.
Williams is just a real person who happens to be very good at a number of sports. Nasser is hoping we don’t wake up to that very boring reality until everyone’s parted with as much money as possible.
I WANTED to further discuss the US World Cup team here but we’ve run out of room. I think I’m taking over Sin Bin (at least in part) for the duration of the international season so I’ll throw something in there.