Orwell didn’t coin the phrase “alternative facts” -- which is odd, as it’s pure Orwell (up there alongside “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”). But he warned us. In a world of alternative facts (ask yourself -- how many alternatives?) how on earth does one discern what is true and what is just made up?
A matter of some importance for journalists. Journalists of the old school, I need to say. A disappearing breed, of course. Not needed any more. Just last week the New York Daily News found a way to ease its financial problems: it fired half of its editorial staff -- some 40 experienced journalists from one of the country’s oldest and most famous tabloids suddenly out of work. Not needed.
The slow decline of journalism has been splendidly chronicled in Nick Davies’ 2008 book “Flat Earth News” -- a tale of how fewer and fewer journalists are employed to write original stories, while more and more spend their time re-writing stories put out by news agencies (their number is diminishing, too). Churning out pretty ordinary stories. The new journalism -- they call it “churnalism.”
It’s hard to avoid the churnalism trap. Even for a soccer writer -- we get plenty of press releases and hand-outs that are, in effect, ready-to-use stories extolling the virtues of some club or some league or some product. I don’t read them, though I’ll confess that every now and then my attention is snared by a craftily written headline.
Something like that happened a few days ago -- though the headline that grabbed me was a rather straightforward one on a Major League Soccer release proclaiming: “Grammy Award-Winner Ashanti to Perform National Anthem at MLS All-Star Game.”
Oh well, Big Deal ... I suppose, even though the release contains nothing of the slightest soccer interest. As I have long disliked the playing of national anthems at sports events (and have yet to hear an intelligent reason for it), and as I have never heard of Ashanti, I should have happily ignored this apparently major event.
I did not do so. Because I have a life-long interest in words, and there was one word in this 13-word heading that immediately interested me. The word “perform.” Ashanti will “perform” the national anthem.
Apart from the Spanish version, which has no words, most national anthems are tunes with words. The words -- lyrics -- are there to be sung. But MLS uses the word “perform” and it occurs to me that MLS has nailed this one. National anthems at sports events these days are shouted or bawled or screeched or moaned or just plain murdered -- but rarely sung. They are performed.
Maybe that’s just as well because these national anthem words can be quite blood-curdling. In France’s La Marseillaise, musically speaking probably the only anthem worth listening to, we have slit throats. Or the anthems are likely to be jingoist calls to national superiority; England’s anthem demands of God that he make the Queen victorious -- it doesn’t specify who she should conquer, but presumably it means everybody.
Those national anthem words surely ought to be sacrosanct, no? But MLS allows them to be regularly mangled beyond recognition.
MLS has realized -- probably unconsciously -- that anthems do not need singers any more, and that anthems shall therefore be performed. Congratulations, then, to MLS for succeeding in an area where they do not usually excel, an area that is far from being a comfort zone for the whole sport of soccer. The use of words.
Of course, MLS could easily get rid of any embarrassment involving anthems by banishing any singing, or performing, of anthems at its games. That would merely add the lyrics to the list of words that MLS already bans -- including swear words, racist and sexist slurs and homophobic chants.
And another category: words that are critical of referees. The man to ask about that is Real Salt Lake’s coach Mike Petke, recently fined $10,000 for tangling with referees and sounding off in a comparatively mild rant.
Should MLS try to gag its coaches (and general managers and players) from uttering naughty words about referees or the league? My answer -- as a journalist -- is a clear No. But, even trying to lay the journalist attitudes aside, I’d still say No -- because the idea of any free person not being allowed to voice his dissent is not one that appeals to me.
Petke has a valid point -- that more direct communication between coaches and referees would be helpful. But this is a point that referees will probably continue to ignore.
Because referees, as a group, are used to not saying anything. It’s not that they mis-use words, more that they don’t use them at all. Communication is not, never has been, their strong point. This is a traditional attitude, dating back 100 years, when referees in England dressed themselves not only with authority, but with superiority. From that standpoint, any criticism was regarded as an impertinence and could simply be ignored.
Of course things are better now -- 100 years is a long time to resist change -- but strong traces of that unwillingness to communicate remain.
Another recent episode involving MLS referees also fascinated me with its word-involvement. Referee Silviu Petrescu called an 86th-minute game-changing penalty kick for Columbus against Orlando. It looked dodgy, right from the start. Replays didn’t help -- they seemed to show that there was no contact at all. How could that be? Petrescu is an experienced referee, he was well-positioned, and he showed not a moment’s hesitation in awarding the penalty. Columbus tied the game from the PK, then got the winner in the 92nd minute.
In this case, things followed an unusual path. Three days later we got an official statement admitting that Petrescu had erred:
This “acknowledgment” (it is not an apology, Orlando can forget about that) is worth studying. Words again -- the key words here being “clear and obvious” a couple of words we’ve been hearing regularly since VAR came into being.
But the revealing part of the statement is not the words that are there, but the ones that are not.
Missing words. The two players involved are identified by name, and by position. Why is it then that the two PRO officials -- both revealed as having made a serious mistake (not identifying a “clear and obvious error”) -- are not named?
There are more missing words in the statement’s final paragraph:
PRO holds its officials accountable and takes appropriate action when necessary. In addition, PRO evaluates the performances of every match official, and is taking steps to continually minimize these types of errors through rigorous training and testing protocols.”
OK -- but what does “appropriate action” mean and, anyway, will it be applied in this case?
In short, this statement is a typical example of what we get when referees feel they have to own up. That genuine impulse is immediately vitiated by the ancient referee feeling that they have a right to operate behind closed doors and are really not required to let outsiders know what they’re doing.
So we get an admission that fails to “reveal all.”And we’ll continue to get these unsatisfactory confessions until referees find a way to abandon their notion that they are entitled to secrecy.
I don’t imagine that’s going to be easy. A century of operating sub rosa has ensured that the referee community -- always likely to be under critical harassment -- finds silence the best response.
Journalists requesting interviews with referees are unlikely to be successful. Referees do not make statements, even to defend themselves when they are wrongly accused of making poor calls. Nor are they known for their comments -- either pro or con -- on the soccer rules that they are required to enforce.
In the monastic -- virtually Trappist -- referee community, if you want to keep getting game assignments and advance up the ladder toward a FIFA badge, best to comply.
That does sound rather gloomy, admittedly, but the situation is so patently absurd, so hopelessly out of touch with modern ideas of “transparency” that you can feel quite certain of the approaching implosion that will bring the whole musty setup crumbling down.
Until that refreshing day, there is some solace to be found, again in the world of words. I saw referee Petrescu’s error referred to as a “make-up” call. A term I rather like. It sounds familiar for a start -- I suppose, because it sounds -- almost -- like a “wake-up” call, which is a call to arms, a call to get on with things before it’s too late.
Good positive stuff, but you need to mis-hear the term to reach that conclusion. In soccer, a make-up call means a call made by a referee in favor of a team to make up for an earlier call he wrongfully made against that team. To “make up for” meaning “to compensate for.” I did not see the first half of the Columbus-Orlando game, so have no idea whether Petrescu’s PK call falls into that category.
But it doesn’t need to. We have another meaning of “make up” that fits nicely. To make up something is to invent something. That describes Petrescu’s PK, something he made up, invented. An alternative-fact penalty kick.
And so to an ominous enemy of words, one that has long been recognized as a menace to scribes. We’re told that --
A Good Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words
and now we have millions and millions of pictures to deal with. Some of them very good indeed. And in case there are still some dimwits out there who haven’t cottoned on, we have graphic novels, too. Take that, Tolstoy!
So let me present my graphic soccer article (a whole novel is quite beyond my grasp). The title of this graphic article is “How Atletico Madrid Cheated Its way to a Shootout Victory Over Arsenal.”
Probably that’s already too long, but I’m still wedded to words. So I’ll explain further. Atletico Madrid’s goalkeeper Antonio Adan saved three of Arsenal’s four kicks -- but as the photos show, he moved illegally (i.e. before the kick) on all three saves. All three kicks should have been re-taken.
In all three pictures, off to the right, there appears a figure with all the qualities of a statue or a mannequin. In the 4 minutes that elapsed during this sequence he appears not to have moved a muscle. He is not really a mannequin, but rather the assistant referee whose job is to spot any goalkeeper movement. So much for that task.
End of words, here come the pictures, greedily eager to replace thousands of words ...
Arsenal's 1st kick: Goalkeeper Adan cheats as Henrikh Mkhitaryan prepares to kick.
Arsenal's 2nd kick: Goalkeeper Adan cheats again as Joe Willock prepares to kick.
Arsenal's 4th kick: Goalkeeper Adan cheats yet again as Eddie Nketiah prepares to kick.
(For the time being)