Sports journalism can do a lot of good.
It’s an area of the profession that has produced some beautiful writing, shed light on dark corners, and intricacies those of us elite sport who watch in awe.
And sports journalism has done a lot with athletes to open the dialogue about mental health. Thanks to many trailblazers, admitting that you have problems with anxiety or depression is no longer a taboo.
But sports journalists also have a responsibility to acknowledge that their words can have a powerful effect on those same athletes.
These people who look like Greek gods are anything but – they are human and flawed like every one of us.
Kyle Chalmers is brash, ready to put up a fight, and who can blame him.
Once again his personal life has somehow become a matter of public discussion despite his objections.
On Saturday night, it exploded in a messy and deeply personal press conference at the Commonwealth Games pool.
Today, he said, “It’s been the toughest 12 hours of my playing career.”
So how did this come about?
In May, Chalmers competed in the Australian Swimming Trials and, after an injury and only eight weeks of training, made some outstanding performances at her first love, the butterfly.
He ran so well, he managed to qualify for the world championships in Budapest last month.
And yet somehow the story was turned on its head—she “denied” the pop star, became a swimmer, a spot on the team after Cody Simpson came in third.
Then the story somehow became about a “love triangle” between Simpson and his girlfriend, Emma McCann, who was Chalmers’ ex-partner.
Chalmers was injured. He announced on Instagram that the revolving story had taken a toll on his mental health.
He referred to a “story built around my personal life”.
And so we come to Birmingham on Saturday night: Kyle Chalmers won his second gold medal of the week anchoring the men’s 4 x 100m relay – giving Cody Simpson his first Commonwealth Games gold medal after swimming in a heat To bring
Chalmers had tasted success the previous day by winning the mixed relay with McConne.
But when Chalmers appeared to be moving away from McCain after the race, media reports surfaced about the “icy” relationship and their “weird encounter”.
There were more stories on other platforms focusing once again on the so-called love triangle and the tension between the trio – all without a source.
The men’s relay team spoke to members of the print media on Saturday night.
After three quick questions about the race for Flynn Southam and Zack Inserty, a reporter asked Chalmers about his apparent leanings to McCon after the mixed relay.
“Did you watch the whole race? I certainly congratulated,” replied Chalmers.
When asked if he thinks “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” by another reporter, Chalmers agreed, then ripped off.
“I find it difficult that we’ve won almost every single medal last night and again tonight, and that’s the story,” he said.
“I think the media really needs to grow up and focus on the good things.”
He said the media coverage is having an impact on his mental health.
“Everyone still wants to fry me,” he said.
“You can try and bring me down whatever you want, but you know it’s only going to last so long, and I’ll stop talking to the media.”
Chalmers’ response was a clear expression of frustration and a clarion call for journalists to respect the athlete’s mental health.
Regarding Simpson, he said the two communicated and he offered support and thanks to the other swimmer after the relay swim.
And yet more questions were asked: Why did Chalmers post a photo on Instagram holding his crutches? Will the gold medal bring Simpson and Chalmers closer together?
“Who says we haven’t come together? I want to know… are you in the village?” Chalmers asked.
Both valid questions. The answer to the latter was “no”.
Asked if he could clarify the situation with Simpson, he reiterated what he had said moments earlier and talked a lot about what Simpson had achieved and brought to the game.
“Focus on the positives instead of trying to make up some story that’s not really true. It’s all false news that’s really just bullshit,” he said.
Then came another question: “What’s your relationship with Emma?”
Let’s just stop here and take a few steps back.
Remember, Chalmers had already shaken hands with reporters to respect his mental health, and yet received a series of questions based on false assumptions about his personal relationships.
Then he was faced with another irrelevant question about McCon.
It was at this point that the media manager closed the line of questioning – even as Chalmers desperately prepared to respond.
It was a heated exchange of six minutes, in which Chalmers was constantly being pushed over personal questions, despite the repeated damage such questions could cause to his mental health.
A Channel Nine TV crew waited patiently to interview Chalmers on behalf of a host of non-rights holders, but Chalmers had enough and left.
That night he posted again on Instagram, doubling the damage “false headlines” do to athletes—”it breaks them down little by little,” he wrote, adding that his mental health was at “rock bottom.”
Today, he said he only gets an hour of sleep and isn’t sure whether he wants to compete in his pet event, the 100m freestyle, too.
“I want to be on a plane home and be all done with it. It’s very, very overwhelming and upsetting,” Chalmers said.
Chalmers is not a hypocritical politician who has campaigned on the sanctity of family values. He is a sportsman and his personal life is just that: private.
Sporting press conferences can be extraordinarily challenging – especially for young athletes.
Suddenly, a barrage of microphones is thrown at you by people you’ve never met often, asking questions that are sometimes redundant and not researched.
Chalmers has been around, and he can handle himself, but it’s not for everyone.
Tennis star Naomi Osaka hates her and has spoken candidly about her battle with mental illness, and how the pressure to answer questions is overwhelmingly stressful.
There are times when revealing information at sports press conferences can come to the fore. This week, both Chelsea Hodges and Eliza Winnington have spoken openly about how their mental health took a toll on the aftermath of the Tokyo Olympics.
But journalists must have emotional intelligence to read the room—the job demands that journalists know when it’s okay to push, and when it’s time to pull back.
It’s a two-way street: journalists demand that players answer their questions, but they also have an obligation not to ask personal questions if they have been told they are harmful and above all to report factually.
We all know the power of words.