Commentary by Nathan Jendrick
SEATTLE, Washington, September 15. THERE's an old saying that insinuates any type of media exposure is good media exposure. When it comes to an emerging sport like swimming, I can't say I agree with that.
Recently, Ryan Lochte did some coverage as a correspondent for E! at Fashion Week. It was, according to “industry insiders,” as tabloids like to call them, a disaster. The New York Post reported on it and how insiders were passing along that “network executives were already regretting” their choice to put him in front of the camera. To that I can only say: You have only yourselves to blame.
Just because someone is the best at a given talent–in this case, swimming–or has a pretty face, it doesn't mean they're suddenly going to transform into the next Regis Philbin or Ryan Seacrest. You can't think someone who has a level of greatness can be great at everything. There are countless schools and courses out there for people who want to be in broadcasting and those who make it spend years and years of hard work to excel in their craft. And, somehow, Ryan Lochte is supposed to make the leap for something as high class and fashionable (pun intended) as Fashion Week?
And it isn't like they weren't warned. No one in the world is going to argue that Ryan Lochte is natural speaking in front of a camera. He does well, and he's getting better, but he clearly isn't comfortable with it or, at least, doesn't enjoy it enough to care. So for anyone to hire him and then speak anonymously to a newspaper about their perceived screw up is ridiculous and unfair and simply a way to try and pass the blame. And worse, it's not doing anything to help swimming.
There's no way that a bad appearance by a few swimmers on national television is going to kill the momentum the sport has right now. But it can, over time, start preventing us from developing the storylines that help make something a television staple. If swimmers are perceived as annoying to watch on camera, people won't tune in.
I often liken the rise of swimming on television to that of poker. The difference is that when poker started pushing rags-to-riches and other feel-good storylines, and making names out of players, they were able to be specific on what they wanted. When poker was emerging, there were a myriad of talented individuals available–people who cleaned up at the tables–but no household names. They had a surplus of talent. So ESPN, in choosing what to broadcast, hand-picked the best, straight-laced personalities to put over: Daniel Negreanu, Antonio Esfandiari, Doyle Brunson, the list goes on.
In swimming, on the other hand, we aren't able to simply create stars because the world already knows who the best of the best are. And they want to hear from them, whether they're ready to be heard from or not. So the problem we have is that if our superstars aren't as talented at speaking in front of cameras as they are in the pool, it can alter the image of the sport to those who don't yet follow it.
Interviews to fans at meets are one thing because, even if not elegantly presented, the athlete is talking about something that they know: Their performance. But when they step outside of the box, and the subtext under their name during a broadcast being watched by millions of people says “Gold Medal Winning Swimmer,” we have to hope there's some talent there. And if there isn't, producers should be smart enough to think of this ahead of time.
None of our American athletes who have won individual gold suffer from a lack of footage for producers to review in picking their broadcast talent. If they choose one because he or she is the “Flavor of the Week,” then they need to be comfortable with the repercussions. To let an athlete fall flat so to speak and then push nameless “insider tips” to the media is a cowardly way out, doesn't help them, nor the sport of swimming.
We can't honestly expect athletes to turn down the financial incentive that they get when they're offered to do hosting gigs. We can't expect USA Swimming to provide training to athletes so that they can better perform as an interviewer since it's hard enough to train athletes when they're the interviewee. But we shouldn't assume that any time a swimmer is on television that it's a good thing. It isn't.
I have non-swimming friends who saw Lochte on TV and said some less-than-kind things. I set them straight with a myriad of positive comments on how creative and talented Ryan is, and how he's a great person to match. But there aren't enough swimmers out there to defend all of our athletes to those who don't know them beyond what they see on talk shows and cat walks, and whether we care to admit it or not, if we want to see our sport continue to grow, we still have to defend it.