Bidwell: Fans weary of New Zealand rugby censorship
Analysis – The sporting public is tired of New Zealand rugby censoring players’ ability to speak candidly about controversies.
New Zealand is not a country where people can express themselves freely. At least not in public anyway.
As a columnist, I know there are things I can’t write about or points of view I can’t express if I want to keep working.
I find it unfortunate, but I accept it.
But this is self-censorship. It’s me who weighs the odds and makes a decision for myself.
Nobody ever told me explicitly, even implicitly, that certain things weren’t on the table.
This is not the case in New Zealand Rugby (NZR) where, yes, athletes are paid to play, but still not treated as professionals or even adults.
I’ll move on to the Black Ferns mock review and how NZR handled this process, but let’s start with some of the recent feedback from our Super Rugby Pacific franchises.
First, we had Hurricanes captain Ardie Savea offering an honest take, quickly followed by Highlanders pairing Aaron Smith and Ethan de Groot.
All are All Blacks, all are grown men and all have been treated like naughty schoolboys by their employers this week.
The sporting public is fed up with full credit. They are tired of the game being in two halves and everyone being proud of the boys.
They want more of their rugby heroes than ‘learnings’ and ‘processes’ and taking it one week at a time.
They want someone to say something – anything – that smacks of intelligent thought and understanding of reality.
But NZR doesn’t want that. Oh no.
Even NZR’s broadcast partner Sky doesn’t particularly like it either, with post-match interviewers routinely leading players back to the approved PR path whenever they walk away.
Enter NZR’s Mr Fix It – or head of professional rugby as he’s officially titled – Chris Lendrum.
“What we want to see is referee commentary and team referee commentary through the appropriate channels,” Lendrum said this week.
“Development [should be] on the exceptional rugby being played, rather than anyone’s particular view of any incidents that might occur during the match, it then led to comments in the heat of the moment.
No, we wouldn’t want that.
So what would we want? A media assistant handing players a pre-prepared script to read after the game?
This is not a trick case, but the skill of an interviewer is to get people to speak candidly. To reveal more than they might have intended.
Some athletes, like Savea after the Hurricanes’ narrow loss to the Crusaders, don’t need any prompting. He had something coming out of his chest and he said it.
It happens all the time in professional sports elsewhere. Athletes and coaches will say unflattering things about rivals, referees and administrators and, in extreme cases, will be fined.
More often than not, however, these comments will add to the interest, color and audience of these codes.
For over 40 years, Australasia’s most successful sports series has been the home state of rugby league. It’s a pantomime hate-based rivalry, which is embraced by all concerned.
Suffice to say, State of Origin wouldn’t have lasted five minutes, let alone 42 years, under NZR’s watch.
What NZR does is buy silence, as evidenced by the Black Ferns review.
Have you heard a current black fern say a word on the subject? I mean, it affects them after all, but apparently no one has an opinion.
And how could they, when full-time contracts were up for grabs for the first time and the team’s coaching staff was going nowhere?
Giving feedback through Lendrum’s favorite “proper channels” allowed NZR to reappoint head coach Glenn Moore without even a hint of embarrassment.
It wasn’t until some of us sports media workers expressed concern that this situation changed.
I would say that we would never have reached this point if the black ferns had had a voice. But hey, like all little children, you have to see them and not hear them.
I wasn’t a huge fan of New Zealand players rebelling against NZR’s plans to form a private equity partnership with US firm Silver Lake, but I see things a little differently now.
If you worked in an industry where you were permanently censored, you would probably take every opportunity to express your displeasure with the regime. Silver Lake was basically the players only chance and they took it.
The Black Ferns have a new head coach, Wayne Smith, after Moore was slow to step on the board. Smith is a good man and a good coach who just days ago NZR had no intention of being promoted to the position.
It took Moore’s public disapproval to do so, as the private thoughts of the Black Ferns themselves were not sufficiently valued by their employer.
Have we finally come to the right conclusion? Most likely.
But we would have gotten there much sooner if NZR had had the guts to treat their players like adults, with valid opinions to make.