Voices: It doesn’t matter if you’re red or blue – we can all get behind the Match of the Day walkout
Spare a thought this weekend for the poor unsuspecting souls who don’t watch sports. They were just minding their own business when suddenly the Walkers crisps guy was all over the front page of the papers, and #MOTD was trending number one on Twitter. Like Saturday football during the season, it was inescapable.
For the uninitiated (more power to you, but what’s your secret?): on Thursday, Gary Lineker, in response to the government’s “Stop the Boats” strategy, tweeted that it was like something from Germany in the 1930s. Chaos ensued. Everything from his professional character to the impartiality of the BBC was being debated until Friday, when the BBC released a statement that Lineker had decided to step back from presenting Match of the Day this weekend. Except, he hadn’t. He had been taken off the show.
I’m quite happy to state for the record that I actually do agree with his initial statement. I used to teach history, and, look, the language being used about the boats is problematic no matter how you slice it.
Here’s the thing though: it doesn’t matter. The fallout from Lineker’s removal has changed the entire trajectory of the discourse, and we went from “Did Gary Lineker call the government Nazis?” to “If a Premier League footballer is interviewed by a BBC commentator, will there be legal or financial repercussions for him or for his team for engaging in a political act?” The proverbial political football is no longer so proverbial.
What’s really interesting is that it isn’t the household names that have necessarily got us here. All-round-legend Ian Wright bailed first, expressing “solidarity” with Lineker. Alan Shearer deserves his flowers too; you don’t get much credit for doing something second, but he very quickly pulled out as well. Then, in quick succession, all the other potential presenters suddenly had to wash their hair on Saturday night.
A challenging situation for the BBC, for sure; but not an insurmountable one. Players don’t speak to the guys in the studio. It's the commentary team or on occasion the pundits; people whose faces and names are sometimes unfamiliar, but voices you know intuitively.
Lineker and co offer analysis, but the real stories of the day are in the hands of the people on the ground. They are the conduit between us in the stands and the guys on the pitch, the impartial means through which we can ask “Why were you so good/crap today?” And the player or manager can respond “I’m brilliant” or “back off mate, have you seen who I’m working with?” (in a professional and courteous manner, of course).
That’s where the house of cards really collapsed. Up until a certain point, it was all so predictable. Lineker is not bird mouthed (pun intended); he treats his twitter as a personal space and engages accordingly. There was bound to be fallout eventually. Wright is loyal and has a very clear sense of his own morals. As I’m writing this, Wright has come out and said that if Lineker is fired, he’s walking too. The BBC have been accused of having an impartiality issue as of late, so them trying to get out ahead of any criticism makes sense.
What the BBC haven’t seemed to account for, however, is that by punishing Lineker, the professionalism and position of sports journalists under their employ are being called into question. To be clear, I’m not saying that is a position that the BBC holds or that they as an organisation are actively doing anything. I’m saying that their decision has created an environment where those journalists can be undermined by others.
As a result, those pundits and commentators have reacted accordingly, withdrawing their services entirely. Gary Lineker is the linchpin to all of this, but the fallout has escalated so far beyond the inciting event that is now self-perpetuating and cannot be brought under control.
The clubs and players cannot be seen to be choosing sides, so by engaging or not engaging with those journalists, their actions can be interpreted as having implicit political connotations. Are they pro or anti-BBC; are they pro or anti-strikes; where do they stand on unions? At the core of it all is the big one: are they for or against the government?
So where do we, the punters, fall in all of this? It’s somewhat exciting to engage with such a big football story that has nothing to do with weekly performances (I’m looking at you, United). I think that the actions of the BBC have inadvertently created some clarity for pundits and commentators. To some extent, their hand has been forced, as the removal of Lineker politicised Match of the Day to the point where the only apolitical option was to remove themselves from the situation entirely.
I’m not sure how anyone involved in this situation can come back from the precipice. If Lineker resigns, I would understand. If the BBC fire him, there’s a real risk that they will fully lose control of the situation (and it’s barely under control as it stands). Perhaps the biggest issue is that if a resolution cannot be reached with the reporters, pundits and commentators, you risk losing access to the teams. And then what do you do?
I genuinely believe that the staff on the ground are the ones who are going to make or break this. If nothing else, we as fans should be supporting them because without them, there is no Match of the Day.