After COVID-19, Should Reporters Remain Barred from Locker Rooms? Making the Case for ‘Yes’

circa 2019, Brett Brown at the podium

One of the things you heard when locker rooms were closed to reporters at the onset of COVID-19 went something like this:

“If they bar us from entry, we’re never getting back in.”

It was one of those “give an inch” type of arguments, where if we the media conceded territory to a sports league, an individual team, or a PR staff, that the figurative annexation would become permanent.

The thing worth pointing out, before we get too far ahead, is that the idea to boot media from team spaces was 100% justified at the time. Here was a deadly virus hitting the United States, one that we didn’t know much about. These policies went into place about 36 hours before Rudy Gobert jokingly rubbed his hands all over the microphone, then went on to contract COVID-19.

As we come out of the pandemic, with reporters and players and coaches all being vaccinated, the question now becomes this:

When do we regain our access?

On the Sixers “beat,” we’re still barred from in-person press conferences. There’s no locker room access. If you go to a game, you sit in a specific area while wearing a mask, then do a Zoom call with Doc Rivers and a couple of players after the game. Essentially we’re just fans with a video conference hyperlink and password, and when the session is over, you get back in your car and drive home.

The flipside is that we now get access to the coach and players without traveling for road games. So whereas a guy like Keith Pompey would travel with the team and previously have some sort of exclusivity for being on location, now the Zoom call is available to all reporters watching from home.

One would presume that the media is itchy to get full access back. It would allow us to talk to Doc in person and ask questions in the locker room without raising our digital hands, but I’m here to make an argument that 99% of my colleagues will disagree with:

I don’t think we should be allowed in the locker room ever again, and the take goes like this:

I’ve always viewed the locker room as somewhat of a “sacred” spot for athletes. It’s where they mentally prep for a game. It’s where they change their clothes and sit at their stall, listening to music or relaxing or decompressing. There is game film playing on the wall via projector screen. There are shoes and towels and other assorted personal items laying around. Imagine you’re getting ready for game seven of the Eastern Conference Finals, and then 50 reporters come bumbling into your personal space to ask questions.

For me, there’s always been a level of discomfort in speaking with athletes at their lockers. Sometimes they’re half naked or you need to awkwardly stand there waiting for a guy to put a shirt on before shoving a recorder in his face. You feel like a total asshole just twiddling your thumbs or looking at your phone waiting for somebody to pull his pants up, only so you can say “hey tell us about that ATO play you guys ran at the end of the third quarter.”

This was always especially awkward with foreign guys, who joined up with the Union or Sixers. There’s no locker room access overseas, so they typically find it jarring when a reporter comes up to them before or after a game in a space that was kept private in Europe, or any other continent not called North America.

That’s the take in a nut shell. It’s their space and we don’t belong there.

Now, the problem is that old school reporters who are good at making connections love the locker room because it lets them kind of go off on their own. They befriend the players and cultivate sources and get interesting quotes that make for interesting stories. If we keep people like Bo Wulf out of the Eagles locker room, how is he supposed to get that goofy and off-beat Jason Kelce quote? He probably can’t, and an entire generation of scribes would lament the fact that we’d be stifling their ability to do the job, while limiting the amount of original reporting being done.

I know Anthony likes talking to players in the locker room, and we occasionally would peel off and get some Sixers stuff nobody else was focused on, so there would definitely be a sacrifice made in the way of original content.

What I propose is a trade:

  1. In lieu of locker room or pregame access, a coach is required to do 15 minutes minimum at the podium, after every game.
  2. Two select players are then brought to the podium to answer questions.
  3. The remaining players must then exit the building through a mixed zone, where reporters are given open access to ask whatever they want. This prevents players from sneaking out early.
  4. Additionally, general managers must make themselves available to the media at least once per month.

I think that’s a fair trade for giving them the locker room. It’s not about losing access, it’s about having a different kind of access. 

If you’ve never heard of a “mixed zone,” that’s alright. It’s a foreign concept, and one that doesn’t really exist in American sports. We do it over here typically when European soccer teams play exhibition games, or if there’s an international component to an event.

What happens is that there’s a barricade placed in a specific area, maybe the hallway outside of a locker room. The media gathers on one side and players have to walk on the other side to get to the team bus, or their car.

Here’s a photo illustrating what I mean:

In this picture, the Argentina field hockey team is doing mixed zone media availability. You see reporters and cameras on one side of the barricade, and then the players pass through the other side and talk from there.

You might be wondering, what’s to stop Player X from just walking right through the zone and talking to nobody at all?

There isn’t anything stopping him or her. But you could certainly point out that they have been ignoring the media and refusing to take questions, which would then garner judgment of whatever kind in the public domain.

Mixed zone is basically like an organized scrum. We’d gather at Sixers practices and shove 50 mics in Brett Brown’s face, to the point where you were craning your neck or your arm was about to fall off. And at practice, that’s okay. You can still do scrums in an open spot that reporters regularly inhabit.

But the bottom line is that we just don’t belong in locker rooms. It’s not our spot. It’s their spot. We don’t need to be in a place deemed private, and should instead find a solution that gives us the necessary access while giving athletes their necessary space.

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