Soccer commentator’s dismissal sounds a clear warning
March 30. 2021. – 03:02 PM
The Hungarian sports channel Spíler TV has dismissed one of its most popular commentators, János Hrutka, out of the blue. The channel said that it was merely refreshing its commentary team but critics have said the timing of the dismissal casts doubt on this claim. They say you don’t sack your experts in mid-season — it is clearly linked to the fact that Hrutka publicly supported Péter Gulácsi’s stance in defence of rainbow families. Translated by Charles Hebbert.
János Hrutka, a former defender in the national football team, had been commentating for the past three years on Premier League and Champions’ League matches on Spíler TV. On Friday the channel suddenly showed him the door, only writing ominously: “Our family affairs always broadcast harmony.”
This was presumably directed at the support Hrutka had expressed for Péter Gulácsi, the Hungarian goalkeeper. Gulácsi, who plays in goal for RB Leipzig and Hungary, had spoken up in support of LGBTQ families, and Hrutka had defended him several times. He said the keeper was brave because he did not care about what fans thought, even though he knew his stand would have consequences. Hrutka has spoken out in support of gay rights before. Last year he criticised the country’s new adoption law that bars unmarried couples from adopting children, but that drew little response.
Spíler TV is part of the pro-government TV2 television group. József Vida, the owner of TV2, is said to be a confidant of Lőrinc Mészáros, the billionaire entrepreneur who started out as a gas fitter from the same village as Orbán and now does very well out of government contracts. The TV2 press office said that Hrutka was dismissed as part of a move to refresh its line-up of pundits. We asked the commentator about what had happened but he did not wish to comment. Our sources say that the former football star, who has won League medals in both German and Hungary, has also left the TV2 Academy, where he taught sport journalism.
You don’t ditch your best-known expert in mid-season
Sports journalist Viktor Egri said that the link between Hrutka’s comments and his dismissal was clear, and he questioned the talk of refreshing the commentary team. Sports channels do not usually get rid of their experts at such a crucial point in the season; they wait for the end of a competition or season. Hrutka was dismissed in the midst of the knock-out stages of the Champions League, shortly before the quarterfinals. Even if relations between Hrutka and the channel had become worn down, it still required something special for such a step, Egri said.
The football blogger János Kele, who also worked at Spíler TV for a while, was dismissed under similar circumstances. In his case he had written a post highly critical of 2Rule, a sportswear brand linked to Lőrinc Mészáros. He said that the way it was communicated suggested that Hrutka had to go because of the political nature of his comments, which Kele believes is unacceptable. If the channel had really wanted to refresh its line-up it would not have started with one of its best known faces working on its most popular and most valuable content, the Premier and Champions Leagues. Homosexuality has not always been taboo on Spíler TV — one of its programmes looked at the Premier League’s Rainbow Laces campaign for LGBT+ inclusion.
Hrutka’s dismissal illustrates how the political chain of command stretches down from the government and illustrates that there is no room for opinions that stray from the government line. Kele see the recent events as a step up, as even an independent, nationally respected figure such as Hrutka is not safe. He suspected that the decision was not down to Spíler TV’s editor-in-chief, Zoltán Hetthéssy.
A 19-year-old story dug out
About a month after Hrutka had spoken out in defence of Gulácsi, an article appeared on FourFourTwo (FFT) discrediting Hrutka. It dug up a story from 19 years ago that Hrutka had been paid 93 million forints ($300,000) over three years by the Hungarian team Ferencváros, which has long had a reputation for its right-wing leanings. He had been asked about that in one of their articles last year in a totally different context. The recent article suggested that Hrutka must have been close to the far right party Jobbik and its head, Gábor Vona. The editor of FourFourTwo is György Szöllősi, often referred to as Viktor Orbán’s favourite sports journalist.
Viktor Egri said the case revealed how even sports journalists had to be careful of the public stand they take on broader issues. He said the FFT article had a purely political purpose, and it was sad that there were journalists and editors who were willing to play along, whether out of opportunism or fear.
The website Index has written that Viktor Lukács, the M4 Sport commentator, was not appearing any more on that channel because he had ‘liked’ Gulácsi’s post.
Hungarian sports journalist sued by his former paper
Gábor Sinkovics had worked for the newspaper Nemzeti Sport (National Sport) for 30 years until his dismissal in 2018. The difference in his case was that in an article on the website 444.hu he criticised the domestic political situation and his former boss, György Szöllősi. Sinkovics claimed one of his articles had been changed because of a reference to contemporary politics. Mediaworks, the conglomerate that publishes Nemzeti Sport, had taken him to court for damaging its reputation, but had lost the case. The paper asked the MTVA about this matter but received no reply.
Commentators get the sack for other reasons in other countries
In other countries commentators get into trouble for scandals and racist or sexist comments, not for their political opinion or for criticising the government. The former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher was suspended by Sky Sports after his spat at a 14-year-old girl and her father in a heated exchange of words. Two commentators on the channel, Richard Keys and Andy Gray, mocked a female lineswoman during a Liverpool-Wolverhampton match in 2011. Even though they apologised to the official, they were both sacked. Ron Atkinson resigned as a pundit in 2004 after microphones caught him calling the Chelsea and French defender Marcel Desailly a “fucking lazy thick nigger” following a Chelsea-Monaco Champions League semi-final.
During the 2018 World Cup in Russia a Russian commentator made a pun on the name of the opposition activist Alexei Navalny, to which his fellow commentator, the former Russian team coach Leonid Slutsky, replied: “Navalny plays football? That would be interesting to see” — breaking a taboo by naming President Putin’s biggest critic live on air. Slutsky did not commentate on any more matches during that World Cup.