Saturday, commissioner Gary Bettman confirmed that the NHL was considering closing locker rooms to reporters over concerns of the spreading Coronavirus. Bettman cited the “tightness, the crowdedness and the intimacy of postgame availability,” which the NHL would consider adjusting on a short-term basis.
No big deal, right? We’re just taking precautionary measures here to keep everybody safe.
Apparently that didn’t sit well with some writers though, who bitched about locker room access, most of which was in response to a tweet from veteran Sports Illustrated reporter Grant Wahl, who suggested that we don’t need to be in the locker room in the first place:
Many sports journalists will disagree, but I honestly don’t think we ever need to be in a locker room. Doing mixed-zone postgame interviews with the USWNT outside their locker room has never been a problem. https://t.co/vyOsjj3Scy
— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) March 7, 2020
I agree with Wahl. We don’t need to be in locker rooms. That’s a private place for players, coaches, and other staffers as they prepare for a game, or wind down afterward. They might be changing their clothes, sitting at their locker listening to music, getting an ankle wrapped, or going over the game plan on a tablet. I’ve always felt like it’s a little intrusive for outsiders to be in there, because it’s a personal place.
Would you want people shoving a recorder in your face while wrapped in a towel after getting out of the shower? Probably not.
But holy crap did a lot of people disagree with that thought, resulting in some incredibly dramatic responses from guys like Jason Mastrodonato, who covers the Red Sox for the Boston Herald:
Grant you’ve got almost a million people following you. Your words are incredibly powerful. Next time please think for a while or talk to people who cover other sports before you share a controversial opinion on a topic that impacts so many of our livelihoods.
— Jason Mastrodonato (@JMastrodonato) March 7, 2020
Let’s tone it down a bit, Jason. Nobody’s livelihood is going to be affected by Grant Wahl sharing his personal opinion.
Plus, he wasn’t calling for a limitation to pregame and postgame access. He was talking about the idea of media being physically present in a team locker room, which he clarified while caving to the Twitter mob and offering a half-apology:
“Dumb to tweet this on my part, no other way to say it. I’ll be clear: I wish we could find other locations for interviews than locker rooms. But I would never support less access overall for sports media, many of whom have fought for decades on behalf of all of us to do our jobs.”
There’s no reason for Grant to apologize for that. He looks soft bowing down to melodramatic sports writers who treat their work with such self-importance that it only makes fans laugh at us. Seriously. Nobody holds themselves in higher regard than the media. It’s part of the reason why people no longer trust us and why President Trumps rips us on a daily basis, because we sit on this lofty perch and fail to connect with readers on a basic level. We show such little self-awareness when we treat sports writing like an essential service akin to fighting fires or doing overnight triage at Temple Hospital.
That’s not to disrespect the hard work that sports writers have put in over the years. When folks who disagree with Grant talk about locker room access, they’re not talking about gathering 20 folks around Travis Konecny and asking him about “mucking and grinding.” They’re talking about getting meaningful 1v1 time with players and staffers and making connections and developing sources and turning that into original reporting. Some of the very best work is done by people who have been able to cultivate relationships over the years.
And it’s different in every sport. Baseball writers do most of their work from the clubhouse, so they seemed to bitch the most about the Grant’s tweet. The NBA also has pregame locker room access, but in the other sports it’s restricted to postgame only. Plus, writers have different responsibilities anyway. If you write for The Athletic, you’re asked to dig up those little unique stories and anecdotes for publication. They need that 1v1 time. Other folks are just interested in whether or not Brett Brown should have went to Tobias Harris or Furkan Korkmaz with seven seconds remaining the other night, which is a question you can ask him at the podium. There’s a lot of apples and oranges going on here.
My take is that you can still do this relationship-building, just in other ways. You can talk to players at practice and shootaround. You can replace locker room access with a pregame and postgame mixed zone, as Wahl mentions in his tweet, which is when players are required to pass through a barricaded area where reporters stand on the other side.
Mixed zone looks like this:
(Photo courtesy FIFA)
In mixed zone, you’re not limiting anybody’s access, you’re just changing the location of where it takes place. Sometimes players will walk by without talking to you, but that’s no different from Jimmy Butler sneaking out of the locker room before we’re allowed in, because he doesn’t feel like speaking. If players want to dodge, then they’ll dodge.
People should know that American reporters get more time with coaches and players than anywhere else in the world. We get Brett Brown five to six times a week on average. We get Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Tobias Harris multiple times. You can request practice interviews with the public relations staff. It’s actually a very open system compared to how they do it in Europe and Asia. People on my side of the argument aren’t calling for LESS ACCESS, we’re just saying that players should be given privacy in the locker room area, where the media does not belong.
It’ll be okay. Maybe the Coronavirus forces some understandable short-term changes, but the sacred institution of sports journalism will survive whether we’re interviewing players in the locker room or in the hallway.