After days of speculation, the announcement was made that, starting next year, George Stroumboulopoulos will replace Ron MacLean as host of CBC's Hockey Night In Canada. Coming months after the massive new Canadian NHL TV rights deal, this was the first indication of what Rogers, the new national hockey content provider, would do with our iconic Saturday night broadcast. Aside from concern that HNIC's new on-air team was short on social diversity, most commentators hailed the selection of Strombo as a great move to refresh a show that had become stilted in its predictability and routine.
In all the hoopla, one interesting subplot of the news pertained to Stroumboulopoulos' press conference admission that he'll be approaching his new gig more as a fan than as a journalist. While my Twitter feed, and a few local writers, went back-and-forth over whether this meant that HNIC would become more friendly to the fortunes of the Montreal Canadiens - Strombo proudly supports the Habs - Simon Houpt of the Globe and Mail posed tougher questions about whether being a fan might not clash with the professional responsibility to report about the game and the business of hockey. Stroumboulopoulos was unconcerned.
"Sports is a bunch of people gathering around, watching something that they're not actually connected to - they're just emotionally connected," Stroumboulopoulos told Houpt. "Sports is entertainment....So this isn't like covering Syria. And it's a mistake to think it is like covering Syria."
Stroumboulopoulos made a heartfelt claim to be able to perform the role of both journalist and fan in his new job. He also appeared to justify this belief on the parallel stance that, since reporting on sports is most certainly not like reporting on something important like Syria, "the division is different between a journalist and a sports journalist."
I agree when Strombo says that he can leave his personal biases aside when talking about teams other than his beloved Montreal Canadiens, but do sports journalists really have less serious reporting to do than traditional journalists? Is Strombo right that the fan and journalist roles in sports are unlikely to clash? Recent events say no.
It's fashionable in certain circles for sports to either be dismissed as unserious or to be denounced for promoting practices and values that are socially damaging. Yet, with all the legitimate concerns, one cannot also ignore the growing number of situations in which either members of the media or athletes are not only calling attention to particular problems in sports but also raising awareness of how they might be tied to the structure and culture of the wider society. The point here is that these trends show that sports matters. It's neither simple entertainment nor merely a microcosm of society's serious issues. Sports is a place where people are doing things to raise questions and to promote meaningful change in their social worlds.
Seeing sports in this light, and recognizing the role being played by some members of the media in reporting on this reality, I can't help but struggle with Strombo's perspective on fan-journalism and HNIC. Is hockey immune to the serious? Does our national sport not face any of the same struggles that are being waged elsewhere? Are there no issues in the hockey world that could press the host of the new HNIC to take distance from a fan's mirth and to work on the basis of a journalist's muckraking instincts instead? Of course there are.
One of the major issues in hockey arises out of questions regarding violence and player safety. Other than Ken Dryden, there are additional media voices consistently pushing folks to explore connections between fighting and player health. In recent years, however, this discussion tends to rise up during crisis, but then fades to obscurity as memories of a shocking incident start to diminish. Journalists were brave to tackle the question of NFL responsibility for the damage caused to its players by concussion injuries. Will HNIC, fronted by a fan-journalist, be willing to engage a similar debate in hockey?
A second dynamic pertains to gender and hockey. Whether it's the undeniable growth in women's participation in the game, the argument that women hockey players and media want and deserve more exposure, or questions about the readiness of NHL players to welcome an openly gay teammate, there's stuff to talk about. There's exciting journalism confronting the complex ways gender awareness is changing sports and society. If its host denies connections between sports and the serious, can the new HNIC step up when these challenges surface in hockey?
Finally, in today's hockey media, bloggers, and some mainstream journalists, are ramping up their analyses of the game by using a battery of non-traditional analytic statistics. Though different from the social issues described above, this trend represents innovation that's not quickly being welcomed by all in the hockey world. Bringing advanced stats to HNIC would carry risk, but it would also offer new tools for analysts who've long been critiqued for providing precious little in the way of informative explanation of what happens on the ice. Which kind of host is more open to trying? A fan-host who's thinking about viewers' habits and comforts or a journalist-host who's attracted to the challenge of exploring the possibilities of the new?
I admit, maybe most fans just want the good old hockey game on Saturday nights, and don't really want to be challenged. And, I actually do have faith that Strombo will be open to trying new things. But, there will be much more potential for the new HNIC to turn the page on its recent languid past if Strombo were to embrace reporting on the seriousness of the game of hockey to society, rather than suggesting that, because it's just sports, there really isn't that much of a need.
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