Blinkers required for TV's prying eye
Sunday 31 July 1994
At Lord's last weekend there was more interest created by whoever it was that caught Michael Atherton doing whatever he was doing than there was for the South Africans, whose historic victory was always limping behind in the attention stakes, suffering a scandal deficiency from which it was impossible to recover.
Running simultaneously with the Atherton incident on our screens was the footage, or should it be teethage, of Johan Le Roux biting the ear of the All Blacks captain Sean Fitzpatrick during New Zealand's rugby union international against South Africa in Wellington. It was a piece of sporting villainy so blatantly and deliberately performed that Le Roux omitted only to tuck a napkin down his shirt front.
Both sequences made sensational television, causing intercontinental uproar and putting the players' futures in jeopardy. Le Roux is unlikely to play first-class rugby again while Atherton, although happily retaining the England captaincy, has earned himself an indignant caucus of opposition for the rest of his career. Bad luck on both, you might think, because without the cameras stumbling upon their activities they would have gone unnoticed. Bad luck on the rest of us, too, because it would have been a lovely and peaceful sporting week otherwise.
Yet we are not quite sure how much of a part luck played. Le Roux was not near the ball when he did his chomping, but he was still in sight of the camera. Since he has a history of biting back home in South Africa - xenophobia not being the motivation for his appetitie - the New Zealand television people may well have been keeping an eye out for any carnivorous signs.
The BBC have not indicated whether their lenses were on a pre- arranged lookout for ball-
tampering. It seems more likely that they just casually picked up the England captain as he walked, ball in hand, towards the bowler. The newspaper Today reported that Atherton's actions were spotted by the commentator Tony Lewis during a break in live transmission for a race at Ascot. Before the cricket returned to the screen, BBC officials held hurried discussions about what they should do with their interesting find.
Aware that the pictures were being shown live in South Africa, they could hardly ignore it. It is not in the Beeb's nature to be sensational and it was agreed that Lewis should make some bland reference to it. However, when the camera beamed on Atherton again he was doing the same thing to the ball and the implications could not be glossed over. It was a repeated showing of the second incident which alerted the third umpire, Mervyn Kitchen, and the hue and cry began.
We know not if the man responsible for originally clamping Atherton in his sights is a hero in Television Centre. In the newspaper world such a scoop would have once earned the person concerned effusive congratulations, probably a bonus. Even in these parlous days, a warm handshake from the sports editor could be confidently expected.
Then again, as we have pointed out before, TV operates under a different set of editorial priorities. Their relationship with the sports they cover has a high commercial content. They are there as the result of a contract that might not be renewed if they take too many liberties, especially considering the sensitive bodies who run many of our major sports. Nevertheless, we are in a very competitive area and controversy means higher viewer interest. With more cameras and better equipment at their fingertips, ambitious directors are well- placed to make an impact.
There was a time when cameras would shy away from trouble on the field of play. 'Concentrate on the ball' would be the standing order to cameramen and many a thrilling Donnybrook would take place off-screen as we were treated to the sight of the ball reposing innocuously.
Giant advances have been made towards showing the warts and all - only streakers are denied us now - but the past week's furore suggests that we might not have seen the end in the inquisitive development. The role of television as an informer on the misdemeanours committed out of the referee's vision, the rooter-out of the wrongdoers, is by no means new.
For years, videotape evidence of all sorts of sporting sins has been instrumental in getting players punished. Whether it is the flying elbow in soccer or the surreptitious stamp in rugby, television has played an important part in policing sport and has also betrayed the judgement of many a referee or umpire over offside, penalty or lbw decisions. It is called 'trial by television' and the debate still continues about the justice of it.
But the sort of incident involved normally occurs in the heat of conflict, when the cameras are trained on the action and can't help but show the offence. It will be if the cameras go looking for trouble that problems may present themselves. Television as sport's supergrass may not be the role the good Lord intended for it. Atherton's handling of the ball was during a lull. Fair game, yes, but he was about a part of business that very few of us understand. I am willing to accept that what he was doing was not against the laws or spirit of cricket, but the circumstantial evidence was damning.
Soon we will have a new football season kicking off under the shadow of a World Cup in which a clampdown on certain tackles was introduced. Our referees are being asked to take a similarly strict approach. Should television be enterprising and employ cameras to forget the ball and monitor the tackling? It might help clean up the game but it might also bring an intimidating element to bear on what is, after all, an integral and necessary part of play.
It would do no harm for both television and our major sports to consider how far they want the prying eye to stray. There should be no hiding place for the unscrupulous - but you don't always get the full story from a film clip. The rest of Mike Atherton's career may become a testimony to that fact.
HAVING just withstood the most concerted attempt in history to foist the game of one culture upon the helpless inhabitants of another, the Americans sauntered into London last week with a modest but ominously sound attempt at retaliation.
The last time they attempted to foster American football in Europe a few years ago, the NFL retired to take stock. Now they're back, looking leaner and meaner. The resurrected London Monarchs will be joined this time by a new team based in Edinburgh called the Scottish Claymores and by teams from Amsterdam, Barcelona, Frankfurt and Dusseldorf.
Where they will score most is in their choice of season - from next April to July. While our football codes persist in ignoring a switch to summer, the Yanks see it as an open goal. They could be a better bet than Baggio.
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