That's just not cricket: sports journalism that challenges the status quo
Sharda Ugra has been a sports journalist for over three decades. She started her career in 1989 with Mumbai tabloid Mid-Day before working for national daily The Hindu, India Today magazine and ESPNcricinfo.com / ESPN India. Early on in her career, she also covered sports news from South Asia for Radio Australia, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s overseas service. She has seen India play cricket in nine countries, reported on two Olympic Games, written about cricket and other sport for popular and academic publications in England and Australia, presented conference papers on Indian sport and won Sports Journalists Federation of India (SJFI) awards for sports writing.
Ugra has worked with former New Zealand captain John Wright on John Wright’s Indian Summers, his memoirs of his years coaching India and with Yuvraj Singh on The Test of My Life, an account of his diagnosis and recovery from cancer. She was a fellow of the Australia India Institute, University of Melbourne in 2013 and has researched and written about the role of ethnic minority cricket in England and Australia. Currently, she is based in Bangalore and is a columnist with the Hindustan Times, Delhi and BBC World Service's Hindi website and also contributes for The Voice of Fashion, the Wisden Almanack Mojo Story, Al-Jazeera, Frontline magazine, the India Forum, The Telegraph newspaper, Kolkata and other publications.
Five takeaways from the talk and the discussion:
1. Access and proximity to fame are not so key. While a portion of sports journalism hinges on having access to teams and players, being unconnected from a team ultimately makes journalists more objective when covering different facets of the sport, including scandals, Ugra said.
“What you’re finding in Indian cricket is that everybody is keeping a safe distance from reporters which actually should make it easier to write the harder stories and take harder lines,” Ugra explained. “The other part of access is that you don't want to become what Robert Lipsyte called a house pet.”
Intertwined with access is also the proximity to celebrity, which many sports journalists are in danger of getting attached to. While Ugra said that she has not been enraptured by celebrity, which she attributes due to her being a woman and thus an outsider, she has seen many journalists being hindered by the fame bubble.
“In this age of content creation and journalists that are really trying to do something that is different from what you see on a live television, there is so much pressure on you to be able to show your access off to your millions of followers and that becomes dangerous,” she elaborated.
2. Sports journalism is intertwined with other beats. Sports journalism is no longer simply about reporting on scores and who won and lost the game. It is now becoming increasingly intertwined with other beats like politics, finance, and even climate change. The latter, however, is not taken as seriously as it should be.
“Sport and climate is almost seen as like a crackpot kind of beat but it's not because you're seeing now that there is not enough snow in the Alps and therefore the skiing season has closed, that you have to bring in a lot of artificial snow if you host the Winter Olympics or when you're seeing people competing, you're seeing players participate in really bad conditions in India with how the air is polluted,” explained Ugra. “So there's a lot of that but it's at the moment not seen as it's not taken as seriously as it should be.”
She further went on to say even though people turn to sport as an escape, the job of a sports journalist is not only to cover the flowery stuff but also set up space for hard news coverage within the beat.
3. Young sports reporters should be patient. “To young reporters: don't try to be Woodward and Bernstein in your first three years in sport. Do all the groundwork that you can, be as invisible as possible, just lie low, meet as many people as you can, and collect all the information," said Ugra.
She said that since it is very unlikely for young journalists to have access to teams and officials, someone starting out in the field won’t have their big scoop right away. However, it is important that they are realistic about their first few years on the beat in order to build up those contacts.
4. As with any story, sports journalists have to dig deeper. An investigation by Ugra published last year revealed rampant corruption by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and the underpayment of domestic cricketers. When explaining how the bombshell story came to be, she said that it came in part with simply reviewing the financial documents the BCCI had to put out publicly by law. It revealed an outrageous amount of revenue that the board was receiving. However, her discussions with the players revealed they were getting paid very little.
“You're saying you're the biggest and the richest board in the world, but players in Australia and England get paid much more than your players as just match fees,” she said. “The facts tell you more and you find out these things in the documents that are available.”
5. The gendered dynamics in sports and sports journalism cannot be ignored. Whereas that be the sexual abuse scandal at US Gymnastics or the gender pay gap in sports, gender is an often forgotten component of sports coverage. However, Ugra highlighted how responsible sports journalism on such issues can bring about change in sports: from bringing justice to victims of sexual misconduct in sports to bringing about more money and interest to women’s sports.
“What people need to look to do as journalists should be to definitely push forward and I think that's what I said earlier is that there needs to be more females," said Ugra.
The bottom line
Sports coverage today goes beyond superficial coverage of matches and into hard news territory by acknowledging the intersections between sports and other aspects of our society. When sports journalists are covering those issues, they need to bypass the obsolete notion that access is everything and interrogate with a critical eye the sport that they love in order to make it better and fairer for both players and audiences.