Last week brought a double-whammy of sporting controversy. The furore over Kevin Pietersen’s autobiography was followed by the bemusement at Roy Keane’s.
Sports autobiographies offer unique insight into the lives – both public and private – of the world’s best-known sportsmen and women. Like a dirty pleasure we flick through the pages, yearning for the gory details of Keane’s angriest moment, or Pietersen’s dressing room bust-ups. They’re like Heat Magazine: page after page of gossip, but juiced up on steroids.
Roy Keane is a man of incredible interest to football fans. It is easy to forget, behind the stony face and harsh words, what a great footballer Keane was. The man who personified Manchester United’s strength and arrogance for over 10 years won an obscene number of trophies, with outstanding consistency.
And yet it is not the way he prepares, what he eats, how he trains or even where his motivation comes from that sells his book. These are all just legitimate cover-ups for the audience, who secretly flick straight to the juicy parts – the fights, the verbals, who ‘Keano’ hates the most.
Kevin Pietersen’s story is remarkably similar. Few English men have more test runs to their name than ‘KP’. An accumulation of runs that great, especially given the flamboyant manner in which he scored them, is quite incredible. He is regarded as being part of an elite group of modern cricketers: those who bring crowds in their thousands through gates to watch an otherwise ailing Test match.
It isn’t the batsman’s flair, his meticulous analysis of opposition bowlers, or even his journey from young South African spinner to one of England’s greatest ever run-scorers that drives people to buy his book though. It’s the bitter, score-settling, blow-by-blow dismantling of the England Cricket Team leading up to that Ashes whitewash that we want to know about.
In amongst the plethora of interviews, articles, press releases and reactionary counter-punches, Roddy Doyle (Keane’s ghost-writer) made the most poignant of throw-away comments: “We love people’s flaws, don’t we?”
That, in a nutshell, is why we love sports’ autobiographies. From Pietersen to Keane, Ferguson to Agassi, we feed off flaws presented, be they of the writers or those involved in their lives.
That’s why it does not matter that Pietersen is self-indulgent or that Keane’s judgement is often blinded by anger. It’s why we often fail even to question the legitimacy of the claims made – because in reality we don’t care if the dressing room stories are entirely accurate.
In fact, we secretly hope that, as is often the case, the writer’s version is contentious. Nothing delights interested parties more than public battles between sportsmen. Roy Keane’s entire book is based on that premise – a settling of scores and biting back.
Pietersen’s offering is a little different. In many ways, thanks to confidentiality clauses that starve us of our gossip, Pietersen has had the first say in this debate.
Whilst Graeme Swann bit back, calling Pietersen’s book ‘fiction’, we are yet to hear the reply from Andy Flower or Matt Prior, Pietersen’s biggest punch-bags (though Prior has teased his Twitter audience, suggesting that he will respond at length, in time). When those days come, giddy sports fans everywhere will flock to twitter, to the BBC, to Facebook, and delight again in the far from clean laundry being aired.
The truth about us, as lovers of sport autobiographies, is that we are no better than those who pore over gossip columns in glossy magazines battling for stories (again, real or otherwise) of Taylor Swift’s new boyfriend, or how many pounds Bradley Cooper has packed on.
Ours is a remarkably similar brand of self-indulgence, a chronic pining for grisly details of who head-butted who, what bullying culture was instigated where and why such-and-such was sacked.
It is difficult to see where the next big bang might come from. Maybe Lance will do another book, or maybe Serena Williams will lift the lid on her most hated opponents. Sport needs another controversial figure – a man or woman we love to hate. Until then, we wait (not so patiently) for our next fix.