Colour commentary is a very important role in sport broadcasting today and is generally carried out by former players of the sport.
The job of a colour commentator is to assist the play-by-play commentator by giving expert analysis from a players perspective. This has been the case in rugby league for decades now, and of course there have been highlights and lowlights during that time.
But there’s been no greater lowlight than perceived player bias.
Both Fox Sports and Channel Nine combined have more than 30 former players and coaches giving special comments and analysis of the game, and due to this sheer number, there are bound to be former players commentating on their former clubs. Naturally, through no fault of their own – particularly regarding the one-club players – there’s going to be a level of bias, especially if you’re Johnathan Thurston commentating on the North Queensland one year after retirement or Billy Slater commentating on the Melbourne Storm after winning multiple premierships and playing 300-plus games.
It’s human nature to show this kind of bias, and it can be useful in certain circumstances – State of Origin, for instance.
State of Origin is bias central for commentators. As much as New South Wales supporters hate the addition of Paul ‘Fatty’ Vautin’s commentary after the famous Mark Coyne miracle try of 1994 – not to mention that whenever Queensland win he calls it one of the “great Origin games” – his presence adds to the rivalry and the aura that of the series.
However, that aura doesn’t carry over into week after week of rugby league. To many it is infuriating. If you’re watching your team up against the Brisbane Broncos, for example, and the commentators for that match are Corey Parker and Justin Hodges, that’s not going to be fun to watch. Whether they’re being biased or not doesn’t even matter; it creates a stigma of bias because of the lengthy careers those two had with the Broncos.
It’s particularly bad for the game today, which is so stop-start with the influx of penalties and bunker decisions, tries or no tries – opinion almost counts more than fact in coverage, which can outrage viewers when Corey Parker or Justin Hodges have a differing opinion of the decision.
This has caused a problem in rugby league, where the former player’s opinion, as valid as it might be, is now looked upon with disdain by the viewer simply because they’re talking about their former club. If they compliment a try or a play, no matter how good it may be, the sad fact is the stigma of bias will always be there, so the former player suffers simply doing their job.
The simple solution to this is to restrict former players from commentating on their former club, giving them a neutral game week to week. This can’t happen for every player given some have jumped between a number of clubs, such as Braith Anasta, Brett Finch, Michael Ennis and more, which can be acceptable – former players like that tend to have less of an emotional attachment towards a certain club regardless.
This idea is obviously going to cause some headaches when selecting commentary teams for every round, and there may have to be a time or two where Greg Alexander or Phil Gould will call a Penrith Panthers game, but for the betterment of the game it needs to be as restricted as it can be.
The majority of the NRL fan-base watches on TV rather than at the game, and therefore the game relies heavily on the quality of its commentary. It’s up to the NRL to fix this issue, because the mute button is becoming too valid an option.