Days before the entire sports world fully shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, the leagues in North America put a major social distancing measure into place. Although that measure very much proved to be an attempt to shut the barn door after the horses were miles down the road, it was seen as a significant step.
Did it involve the thousands of fans who came to each game? No. Did they institute a contact tracing program for athletes and staff members? Of course not. Did th—okay, it was four months ago, you know what they did.
The big move that Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, the National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League made, jointly, was to close their locker rooms to the media.
As part of a suite of protective measures, this would have been understandable. Even on its own, there was definitely sense in limiting the number of people in one room at any given time. As it wound up, you got Rudy Gobert having a moment that was singular in its dumbassery, yet inadvertently life-saving as he wound up getting the whole operation shut down.
But go back to the initial policy. As the Gobert incident showed, it did result in players and reporters no longer occupying the same space… except that they’d still wind up in a press conference room with recirculated air and perhaps one nincompoop rubbing his hands all over everyone’s stuff.
It’s not hard, then, to look at the leagues’ move back in March as using coronavirus fears as the basis to achieve a goal they had anyway to restrict the media’s access.
“When I heard that, I kind of felt like, this is planting a seed that I don’t know where it’s gonna go,” longtime sportswriter David Steele said. “We had no idea where [the virus] was gonna go back then. Now that we’ve had four more months, that’s exactly what I’ve thought, that they’re going to put in more and more restrictions, probably not [down] to nothing, but a separation and limits on access. They’ll put in as many as they possibly can without fully shutting things down. … They’ve done so much stuff virtually, you could see them becoming comfortable with that.”
The prospect of coronavirus-induced changes to the way press and players interact becoming permanent is, understandably, greatly concerning to writers who have mastered their craft within the confines of the pre-pandemic system.
“Our access is what allows us to do the thing that we’re accustomed to doing,” a Northeast sportswriter told Deadspin. “And it is a fear of mine and I don’t have this fear alone, I know, among other writers that once you’re down this path, how do you get back to where it was before? And what is this landscape of ours going to look like down the road when we haven’t been allowed in a clubhouse, which started in the early part of spring training. What could be temporary, could easily be made permanent, and that would be devastating to our industry.”
While the argument is clear that writers can develop relationships with players by being in close proximity with them, leading to better-informed coverage, there’s something that falls flat in the notion that it’s a good thing because it’s what reporters are accustomed to. The idea that a process should remain because that’s the way it always has been done is fallacious across all walks of life, and in this case, there can be drawbacks to reporters getting too close to the story. Back in the 1950s, when ballplayers and journalists would congregate together at places like Toots Shor’s in Manhattan, the relationships forged could lead to colorful content, but also could result in writers deciding not to run with newsworthy stories for fear of damaging those relationships. How much did Mickey Mantle get away with because he had sportswriters as drinking buddies?
Even into the present day, when media and athletes don’t mingle on team planes or at local watering holes, it’s possible for writers to get too close to the people they cover. That doesn’t mean it’s right for leagues to use the pandemic as an excuse to permanently tighten reporters’ access, but it is worth remembering that those who would seek to do so should be careful what they wish for, because media who don’t have to fear burning relationships or losing access are more likely to pursue and report truly damaging stories. There’s a reason, after all, that the BALCO steroids story didn’t come from the writers closest to the teams and athletes involved, but from investigative reporters Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada.
Would a permanent closure of clubhouses really be the death knell of sports coverage as we know it? Sweeping change to the access system would require making adjustments, certainly, but every country has its own standards for how the press and athletes interact. While the American model has been one of the most open, it does not mean that American journalists have a monopoly on the ability to break news and write interesting and informative features.
Open locker rooms certainly allow writers to build relationships with the athletes they cover, and those relationships become the basis for the kind of trust that allows good stories to blossom. At the same time, though, open locker rooms are not even universal in American sports.
“I never felt the need to be in the U.S. women’s national team’s locker room,” said Grant Wahl, the leading American soccer writer. “Part of the reason for that is the players on that team understand the situation, and are good in the mixed zone. They stop. They answer questions. They answer them thoughtfully. Maybe not every sport would have people that would do that. In fact, in European soccer, particularly European men’s soccer, a lot of times, in the mixed zone, players just walk right by you and you get nothing.”
A “mixed zone” is basically a hallway outside a team’s locker room, where reporters line up on one side of a barricade and athletes, fully dressed and on their way out of an arena or stadium, decide whether or not they want to stop and take questions. Obviously, players also have that option in a locker room — “I gotta catch the bus” is a common line from baseball players whose team buses aren’t leaving for 20 minutes — but the mixed zone provides even greater opportunity to dodge the press.
“A lot of the time, obviously, they say no,” said Sam Lee, who covers Manchester City for The Athletic. “At Man City, there’s actually another exit, so a lot of players don’t even come through that media area. They just go straight out. There’s no obligation for them to talk. There’s no agreement with any of the non-broadcasters. As media, we don’t have the rights. After the game, there’s agreements for the clubs to put on players for the UK broadcasters, whether that’s Sky or BT (British Telecom), and then there’s loads of overseas channels. They might not even do the club. The official club website, they’re in with us. So, they kind of have to try and get the players like an external body. The rest of us, it’s kind of a free-for-all. Brazilian ESPN, so Fernandinho might speak to them in Portuguese, and then newspapers in the huddle for three or four minutes, and then the Sunday newspapers at the end, he might speak to them as well, and they’ll ask questions that are a bit more broad, a bit more general, and they’ll stay in the Sunday newspapers. That’s the same whether it’s Premier League, or Champions League, or the World Cup.”
The segmentation of different types of media might actually be appealing to American beat writers, all of whom could tell the same story about taking an elbow in the head from a camera operator, just so someone from the local TV news could ask a “question” like “Talk about that goal you scored.”
For his part, Lee doesn’t have the same mission as the daily newspapers, the Sunday newspapers, or the TV outlets, so he tries to stake out his own spot in the mixed zone and get whatever players he can to interview. But, generally, one-on-one interviews are rare in England, and even if a journalist does have a relationship with a player to be able to get them to speak candidly, they might not be able to do anything with it.
“It’s very rare that you have the opportunity to get to know players well enough to where you might have to phone them, and see if you can just give them a ring,” said Craig Johns, the Sunderland AFC reporter for The Chronicle in England. “If you were lucky enough where you have that situation where you have that kind of relationship with a player, they would risk the wrath of the club if they were to speak to you on the record, without the club’s permission. So, 9 times out of 10, if you were to have that kind of relationship with a player, all you would get from them is off-the-record stuff and wouldn’t be able to quote them anyway.”
Therein lies some of the value for clubs having their own websites and streaming TV services, with media access dictated not only by club press officers, but sometimes even by the coaching staff. With such an emphasis on this control, it seems that Manchester City putting its own club reporter in the mixed zone would be an unforced error. In some cases, though, the clubs value the money from rights-holders over their own ability to spin stories as they’d like. Before coming to the United States, ESPN host Kay Murray worked for the house TV channels at Middlesbrough and Real Madrid. While in Spain, she remembered, there would be a more private area where she would work, before the players reached the main mixed zone. But on Champions League nights, she would be in with the rest of the general press.
Just as Manchester City and Real Madrid might treat their in-house outlets differently, there can be philosophical differences in the way that teams handle their reporting, which already can be seen in America in the different voices presented by different teams’ Twitter feeds.
“I think it often depends on the club, but most do try and downplay bad results or try to offer a positive spin if possible,” Murray said. “I think that’s normal. On the international channel of RMTV, during my time there, we tried to make a point of not ignoring a loss when possible, but trying to explain it to the audience on the show I hosted. This was often well received because we found that when there was a bad result, the fans usually just wanted to hear what went wrong and why, rather than ignoring it completely. They wanted answers and usually to be made to feel better about things, in my experience. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. But there were cases where losses would be ignored completely and never shown on the channel.”
Just as different teams might have different approaches, so too might different leagues in North America. In baseball, there’s an interesting dynamic at play wherein reporters for MLB’s website are members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, MLB highly values its ability to televise the BBWAA’s annual awards selections, and BBWAA access is codified in MLB’s collective bargaining agreement with the MLBPA. While the CBA expires after next year, there are a lot more contentious issues on the table for management and the union than any changes to that policy on open locker rooms.
“There’s a value to having lots of outlets providing lots of different types of coverage,” said Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle, a former president of the BBWAA. “That’s what fans want. Baseball, in particular, is going to need to get fans back. By alienating the press, or limiting their press, they would not be helping that cause in any way, shape, or form. I also think that players, with the last round of negotiation with the owners, I think they feel like there was quite a bit of bad faith. I think they want reporters to be able to get to know them. I think they want to know reporters.”
With the CBA set to expire, Slusser says players will want to express thoughts to people they trust.
“Without reporters having access, they don’t know who to trust. They don’t know somebody who might be able to help them if they need it, or give them information if they need it. When I covered the Rangers, Will Clark called us parasites, and there is some of that strain of thinking by players, but I think that at a time like this, they don’t see us as useless lumps doing nothing. We can provide information and we want to cover their stories well. Professional journalists are trained to do that.”
It’s some of the other things that professional journalists are trained to do, like telling stories that powerful people don’t want told, that are at the heart of leagues’ desire to restrict access, a process that was underway long before the coronavirus hit. The NFL already makes certain players and certain coaches available to the press only on certain days of the week, and the trend has been in that direction, even if not so starkly, throughout North American sports.
“The NBA used to be very wide open,” Steele said. “I would say that people who repped the writers have always taken note of how much they’ve twisted screws, year to year, over the last 15-20 years. You’ve gone from where you could hang out the whole practice and watch the whole thing to where they let you in the last five minutes while they’re shooting free throws. It seems like this is their window to tighten things up even more.”