Ever-present cameras mean sport stars are always on duty

New social reality means there can be no ‘off’ button

It’s only four years since the brouhaha over Colm Cooper going for a few pints after a match created headlines. Photograph: Inpho

It’s only four years since the brouhaha over Colm Cooper going for a few pints after a match created headlines. Photograph: Inpho

Mon, May 27, 2013, 06:00

Anyone in doubt about the ubiquity of camera-phone technology will have been disabused of their innocence by the horror of
Woolwich last week where the reaction of apparently quite a few onlookers to a large, blood-spattered, murdering lunatic with a cleaver in his hand was not to intervene, vomit, or even run, but to film, and then share that film with the world, via, of course, some commercial media organisations.

It was a startling reminder of the dissociative power of a mundane, everyday appliance which can be pointed at anyone, at any time.

And we all point. That’s the thing. It has become a tick, a reflex action, this digital instinct to commit a moment. Which is all fine, if everyone’s in on it: and, of course, if it’s a “sleb”, because, they love it really, all that attention. And maybe they do.

Russell Brand for instance made an appearance in the parade ring at this year’s Cheltenham festival. There is prodigious evidence that Mr Brand is catnip to a sizable portion of the global female population, and when informed of his nearby presence, this corner’s other half back home ordered some pictures be taken, and in a noticeably hysterical manner too. So, I joined a rubber-necking scrum of amateur Scorceses, pointing Samsung’s best at Brand, who was clearly “on” because he was filming anyway, and performed without missing a beat, despite the incessant faint digital whirr that could be heard over ribald queries as to what Russell might be riding that day.

But what happens when you’re not “On?” Or if you don’t have the financial resources of a Keith Richards-wannabe to guarantee time and space to be “off”. Because that single opportunity for the filmer is usually just the latest in a series of encounters for the filmee.

Sympathy is rightly negligible for the sort of self-obsessed “sleb” that quibbles at not having privacy while employing consultants to organise pictures which generate remunerative profile. But it’s not just plastic-boobed attention-seekers that have to think about who might be lurking nearby.

Sports stars get used to attention. Some love it. Many tolerate it gracefully. Even those who dread attention mostly come to internal arrangements that allow them get on with living their lives in the face of the double-takes, the nods, the pointing, and the shouts from the pseudo-brave. Mostly they will tell you fans are very polite and pleasant. But it remains an essentially strange reality when people you don’t know behave towards you with familiarity.

Irish sports stars are mostly extremely approachable, a legacy perhaps of hailing from a small country where separation isn’t so much counted in sixes as twos and threes. Requests for autographs and picture are rarely a problem. But one notable sporting figure of my acquaintance has noticed a shift in the parameters.

Requests for pictures are one thing: but noticing the tell-tale raised and extended arm of someone randomly filming you while going about your business is a disconcerting sensation. The obvious inclination to ask what the hell somebody is doing is to invite accusations of preciousness from someone who’s probably dismisses such a blatant invasion of privacy as just-a-bit-of-fun. Nobody wants to ban fun but happiness that involves the unhappiness of someone else is hard to justify.

For professional sports people, there is an argument that public profile is part of the financial gig. But this conversation also included details of how a couple of well-known GAA personalities have experienced similar guerrilla photography and found it more than a little unsettling. The basic lack of manners involved is obvious; the impact on those filmed less so. For instance, is it inevitable sports personalities, either professional or amateur, now have to accept they permanently have to be “on” because camera-wielding fans can emerge from nowhere?

This is clearly not life-or-death stuff, but neither is it irrelevant, in terms of reputation and quality of life. Who wants to live like that? Where do people now go to relax and let their guard down because the media rules have apparently changed utterly?

It’s only four years since the brouhaha over “Gooch” Cooper going for a few pints after a match created headlines. Imagine a similar scenario, but with the added fuel of pictures instantly uploaded to the web of young men doing what young men always do with a few jars on board – act the eejit.

There’s more than a touch of the self-fulfilling prophecy to this but how long before somebody is unsuspectingly caught on camera by some phone-toting inadequate and a media “storm” ensues, a storm based probably on nothing more than a few mouthy comments by a player sore at being dropped.

To rail at the technology that allows this is as futile as pointing out the wider context of how technological progress doesn’t always result in actual improvement. And there will always be an in exhaustible supply of those who will feel a warm glow of satisfaction at being able to tell the world that “Joe Bloggs told me to eff off”.

Instead it’s a question of getting to grips with a new social reality, one that for some at least means never getting to forget even for a short while that there can be no “off” button. Even more proof then that Big Brother’s reach always depends on millions of little siblings.

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