It is time to hear what the players are saying

If you ever want a visual reminder of why many people feel that modern sports stars represent a new, unwanted elite, filled with a false sense of their own importance, then just watch them talk to each other.

It’s a strange thing to see. Two rival players, shaking hands after a game, congratulating and commiserating each other (and sometimes remonstrating) – but always with their hands covering their mouths.

We know why they do it, of course. The scrutiny of every aspect of their lives, through 24/7 media and the ‘always-on’ nature of social media, has never been more intense. Frightened of being misquoted or misconstrued – or even, dare one say it, having their actual thoughts and feelings broadcast to the world – they decide the only sensible course of action is to self-censor.

You could read it as a plea for privacy on a stage where their every act is played out in public, their every word analysed, criticised, recorded and retweeted. Why wouldn’t they want to hide their exchanges from viewers, commentators and lip-readers? But there is another explanation.

On 25 February 2017, The Sun had this to say about a bizarre exchange between Pep Guardiola, Manchester City manager, and Southampton winger Nathan Redmond after the two English Premier League sides had met.

‘Renowned PR consultant Phil Hall, who has worked with some of the biggest clubs and names in the Premier League, says no-one is being advised to cover up to protect vital team plans.

Hall said: “A player once told me one of the main reasons they do it is, sometimes you are doing it when you are close to somebody, it amplifies your voice so they can hear you. “There is a lot of noise around them in a stadium and on the pitch, they need to amplify the voice.’

That explains that, then. Furthermore, the article added, ‘though TV stations have looked into lip-reading managers and players in other countries, he says it is not common in the UK.’ Try telling that to Sky Sports and MOTD viewers, who are regularly treated to exactly that.

Guardiola / Redmond

But strange pitch-side altercations aren’t the main reason for hidden-mouth discussions, of course. It stands to reason that, if you’re discussing tactics on the pitch, the nature of live, streamed sports coverage makes it a very real possibility that someone in the opposition dugout might get wind of your plans.

The earliest example of regular hand-on-mouthism is probably in doubles tennis, where it makes perfect sense to try hide the between-ball chatter with your partner from your rivals on the other side of the net.

Women’s Doubles final, 2016 Rio Olympics

Sometimes, of course, the discussion can amount to a lot more than ‘I’m going to hit it left next time’. During the 2003 Rugby World Cup final between England and Australia, a conspiracy theory emerged that England captain Martin Johnson was communicating with the bench via a microphone hidden in his water bottle. While the much replayed footage showed little more than talking with his mouthful, Johnson pointed out that the person handing him the bottle was mic’d up and had direct contact with the bench anyway – and there are no laws against messages or instructions being delivered to players along with the water. As Johnson deadpanned, ‘What possible benefit is it to have a microphone in a water bottle?’

2003 RWC Final Waterbottlegate

But all this talk of lip-reading paranoia doesn’t stack up when you consider the case of cricket: on the face of it, a game where players have every right to be worried about being overhead, given the complex minutiae of tactical and field changes involved. And yet above all sports, cricket has embraced the imposition of technology – perhaps most unexpectedly, given its respect for its often archaic laws and traditions. Stump microphones, video umpires, snickometer and ball tracking… there are countless opportunities for high-tech espionage.

So what do they do? They stand around, debating what to do, gesticulating, pointing, hands anywhere but over their mouths.
During the Cricket World Cup Final 2019, England’s youngest and newest star Jofra Archer faced unimaginable pressure to deliver the six balls of the Super Over to win the title. Between each ball, what was discussed between himself and captain Eoin Morgan would have provided vital information to the New Zealand batsmen – where and how he should bowl his balls – short, full, at a length – tempting them with balls verging on wide (as his first was) or aiming at the wicket and forcing them to defend the stumps… and yet they did all this in the full glare of the world’s media.

ICC Cricket World Cup Final 2019, Super Over final ball

The lesson that Morgan and Archer demonstrated to all sportspeople was an important one: it doesn’t matter what you say; it matters what you do. Let them lip-read your words. Let them guess your next move. See if they can handle it. That’s what sport should be about. And if having so many microphones around makes you clean up your language as well, then all the better.

Sometimes, cricketers even agree to wear a microphone themselves to discuss the next move openly with the pundits, often calling it correctly from the field, or indulging in a more appropriate form of ‘banter’, gently teasing their inquisitors.

Here’s a thought: if footballers think their words really are of such consequence, why don’t they bite the bullet and agree to be mic’d up too – I’m sure we’re dying to hear what they have to say on the matter…

Players mic’d up in the IPL