Keith Duggan: Heaslip likely to prove a hard act to follow on ‘Sports Chronicle’

Athletes will have to ask themselves the hard questions for new forum to retain its interest

Jamie Healsip’s digital platform/venture,  the Sports Chronicle, promises to “change the way Irish athletes communicate”.  Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Jamie Healsip’s digital platform/venture, the Sports Chronicle, promises to “change the way Irish athletes communicate”. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

One of the consolations of Jamie Heaslip’s abrupt and premature retirement from rugby is that he is freer than ever now to offer his never-watery opinion hither and thither – including on his new forum, the Sports Chronicle.

And who could do anything but nod in vigorous agreement with Heaslip’s recent assertion about what is, unquestionably, the most boring subject in the entire realm of sport: the injury.

For decades, there has been a kind of unwritten obligation between coaches and reporters that, at the end of every briefing or conference, a question will come enquiring after the latest update on that coach’s injured players. It’s done almost out of politeness; the way you ask after the family of an acquaintance you haven’t seen for a while.

And it’s one of those moments that always leave you feeling a little bluer about life as the coach sighs and launches into earnest discourse about Johnny’s tender groin or Joey’s bruised calf or Joanne’s tricky metatarsal.

It’s always a subject on which the coach feels on safe ground and she/he can become suddenly chatty, regaling the audience with tales about Mikey’s return to straight-line running and the “lonely hours” Paul put in to rehab’ that shoulder. There’ll normally be a reference to “soul-searching” at some stage.

You listen – or not – wondering who, besides Mikey and perhaps his Ma, really cares about this stuff? The dude can either play at the weekend or he can’t. And of course you hope he can but if he can’t – then see you when you are all better.

One of the perils of journalism lies in that inevitable moment when the desk come calling for a front-line update on a player who departed injured in the course of a game.

“Groin,” you might venture without having the foggiest. “Suspected bruising. Desperate bad luck.”

“Really? Cos we were watching it here on the box. And he came off spouting blood from his nose.”

“Well . . . ummh yeah. The doctor made him lean back quite sharply. To staunch the bleeding. Is what we are hearing. And that caused a groin strain.”

“Really?? Holy shit.”

Heaslip’s contention is that sports people have the right to privacy when it comes to their injury data. Anything else, he argued, is an infringement of their moral and civic rights.

“You only have to look at Facebook,” he pointed out, instancing the on-going Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Now, it requires heroic levels of chutzpah to compare the acquisition of data used to influence the voting patterns in a US presidential election with, say, access to news about the rehabilitative progress of the splintered glute of some gnarled prop forward.

Medical profile

But the general point is valid. An athlete’s medical profile and injury history is an important part of his or her curriculum vitae. For Heaslip, the fear is that allowing that information to become public knowledge can create a false impression of an athlete’s physiological profile.

“People have to know what their rights are. Professional rugby is still a workplace.”

It is that, and perhaps the only workplace where getting smashed into by 16-stone-plus men intent on causing hurt is part of the job description – unless you count working in retail on Black Friday.

All of these points are true and Heaslip elaborates on them in the Sports Chronicle, the digital platform/venture which promises to “change the way Irish athletes communicate”.

In concept and design it bears an uncanny likeness to Players Tribune, the venture founded by former baseball superstar Derek Jeter and which features a host of athletes, some superstars, some relatively obscure, riffing on the stuff that matters to them. What often appears to matter most to them is themselves.

So far, Heaslip has provided the entirety of the riffs on the Irish version of the forum. This is no bad thing as it gives an insight to the mind of a 34-year-old athlete who was, quite abruptly, removed from the world he knew because of an injury he couldn’t shake off.

Heaslip has always rejected the image of himself as “just” a rugby player and early on in his manifesto he gives the reader a brief glimpse into the other stuff he squeezed into the few minutes he had not spent being one of the best No 8’s in the world.

“I’ve studied at Harvard, dabbled in restaurants and pubs, done a summer internship at Google, invested in the tech industry, tip toed around the media,” he confides. Of course, it’s all but impossible to read this without hearing Owen Wilson’s slyly brilliant turn as the über-achiever Kevin in Meet the Parents when asked if he is an investment trader.

“No, I mean, I’m willing to be painted with that brush . . . yes, that’s my day job . . . but I wanna show you what I’m really interested in” he drawls before unveiling, for Ben Stiller’s hapless Greg, the extraordinary altar-piece on which he laboured for 18 hours – “which wasn’t bad considering I carved it by hand from one piece of wood”.

Unreasonable burden

Heaslip’s contention is that the new forum gives the “player, the individual, a clear voice”. It does and that can be both its great strength and inescapable weakness. Through Jeter’s Player’s Tribune – which has begun featuring European stars – we are reminded of just how necessarily earnest and self-absorbed many sports stars are, having been raised in an environment which demanded that they focus on themselves for every waking hour.

The problem with the format is that it places an unreasonable burden of responsibility on the player to not just answer the more awkward or probing questions that they might face whenever they sit down to be interviewed – but to ask them also.

That sports stars like Heaslip can control the order and content of what they are saying or writing should, in theory, liberate them to be speak their mind more freely. And with someone who, like Heaslip, is naturally outspoken, then the forum can be provocative and good fun. But by being first up to bat in the Sports Chronicle, Jamie Heaslip has set a hard act to follow – as he’d probably tell you himself.

For if athletes only ask themselves the questions that they are happy to answer, then it’s only a matter of time before you’d rather read about anything else – even sports injuries.

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