Why this matters
Stadium capacity and sideline masks aren't the only changes sport underwent during the pandemic. Reporters were largely boxed out of normal access to teams, making it harder to tell stories and bring fans closer to the athletes they support.
Greg Maddux farted.
“Great interview weather,” the Atlanta Braves pitcher said. He smiled. “What was the question again?”
I stopped laughing and asked, “What do you live by out there on the mound?”
The year was 1993. The other reporters had left the postgame scrum in the Braves’ clubhouse, leaving me to chat with Maddux, casually, one on one, an orthodox exchange in sports journalism three decades ago.
“One pitch at a time, and execute that pitch,” Maddux said. “When you have two strikes, why mess around? Make a good pitch. Get the out. Work fast, change speeds, throw strikes.”
This was the essence of Maddux, nicknamed “Mad Dog,” who finished 20-10 that season and ultimately won 355 games in a Hall of Fame career. He had been with the Braves less than a season, and our discussion – flatulence aside – provided the raw material for a terrific story.
Locker room encounters lead to human connections, which in turn produce revelations that delight readers and leave them better informed about the athletes and teams they care about. Sports journalists missed those opportunities during the height of the pandemic, as leagues limited or eliminated in-person access to prevent COVID-19 from spreading.
This was understandable. The coronavirus pandemic was truly unprecedented, and safety came first. As society has since eased social distancing requirements and other public health protocols, so has much of the sports world. Last September, the National Hockey League became the first of the four major U.S. sports leagues to reopen its locker rooms to journalists, provided they were masked and vaccinated. Reporters have since returned to Major League Baseball clubhouses – though unlike team staff, security, and maintenance workers, they’re required to wear masks – and also will be back in National Football League locker rooms for the 2022 season.
But this reversion to prepandemic norms, or something close, isn’t universal. At the National Basketball Association’s All-Star Weekend in February, league commissioner Adam Silver said that restoring locker room access in the future is “not going to be so easy” – in part because of ongoing health risks posed by coronavirus variants and in part because Silver believes that it’s “a bit of an anachronism to have reporters in the actual room where players are dressing.” Similarly, some NHL teams last fall limited all interviews of players and coaches to video calls or kept their locker rooms closed in favor of socially distanced individual interviews.
Silver’s comments raise the possibility that the NBA could severely limit media locker room access going forward, perhaps ending it entirely. If that happens, other leagues and teams that already have been restricting press availability could follow suit. That would make American sports more like the English Premier League, where journalists and athletes rarely interact in person.
It also would be an enormous loss for sports storytelling.
Here’s another example of what I mean. Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, also a future Hall of Famer, was sitting at his locker at Turner Field. It was the day after he clobbered a 97-mph fastball off the right-centerfield wall in the late afternoon, the time of day when the batter’s box is in shade and the mound is in sunlight.
“How did you see that pitch to square it up like that?” I asked him
“20-10,” he said.
“My vision is 20-10. Go look at my mom and dad. No glasses. They’re in their 60s. No contact lenses, either.”
My casual question ended up becoming a story. And all because three things happened:
- I was allowed in the Braves’ clubhouse.
- Players like Jones were willing to talk.
- I got to interview those players by myself, when they were less guarded and more open.
All of these points are crucial. Athletes are seemingly superhuman on the field. But off the field? They’re simply human, like you and me. You better believe that they speak more freely with one reporter than with 30, that they relax more when not sitting in front of a podium facing a sea of bright lights and cameras and reporters gathered for the inquisition-like experience of a press conference.
You also better believe that athletes are much more likely to offer insight to a face they trust, because they see you up close and personal, day after day. Locker rooms are where athletes and journalists get to know each other, where friendly small talk builds relationships over time, where that comfort leads to the sharing of anecdotes and stories that otherwise might never reach the wider world. They are where reporters can observe and connect with subjects at their most honest and least guarded – especially after games, when memories and emotions are particularly vivid.
As Christopher Gasper of the Boston Globe recently put it, locker rooms are where “the real work of sports journalism is conducted.” And Zoom interviews are no substitute.
Are athletes always happy with open locker rooms? Of course not. Sometimes, they don’t want to talk. Sometimes, they just want to get dressed without being asked about the shot that they missed or the ball that they dropped.
Still, there are plenty of people in sports who understand why access matters. New Orleans Pelicans guard C.J. McCollum, a journalism major in college, believes “the only way to really kind of maintain certain relationships is to have that locker room access.” Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto says that access is necessary because “media is the bridge that connects the athlete with the public and without that close proximity, I don't personally think you get that human component.” Some teams realize that reporters covering games without access can lessen the quality, depth, and objectivity of the stories produced.
Unfortunately, others don’t. Prior to the arrival of COVID-19, the general trend across American sports was toward limiting access to athletes and coaches – less locker room time; more restrictions on who could speak and when they could do it; teams and leagues and even athletes building their own parallel media operations to better shape and control what the public sees and thinks about them.
During the pandemic, it sometimes has felt like certain teams and coaches have taken advantage of legitimate health and safety concerns to stiff-arm independent media. University of Georgia football coach Kirby Smart comes to mind. Like his former boss, University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban, Smart frequently talks about “outside noise,” a euphemism for stories written about his players and teams that he feels have an adverse impact. (Such stories aren’t necessarily critical or negative; Saban has been known to refer to positive stories as “rat poison.”)
Last August, the Atlanta Falcons and the football teams at Georgia Tech University, Kennesaw State University, and Georgia Southern University all made their players and coaches available for in-person interviews. Georgia did not. The Bulldogs were obvious national championship contenders – they eventually won the title – and Smart seemed to be trying to limit “outside noise.”
Jeff Schultz, a columnist for The Athletic, asked Smart on a Zoom call with the media on August 21 why his football team, of all the teams in the state, was still closed off. Smart said it was because the team’s medical staff advised him to keep the players off limits. Smart also said there was limited space on the campus because of construction and no room to spread out and create access to the media.
“Kirby was putting it all on the sports medicine staff which, of course, is ludicrous,” Schultz tells me. “Kirby suggested on the call he had only a limited amount of space to work with for potential in-person interviews, which created a health risk, and that was laughable. The Falcons, Tech, State, Southern, KSU didn't have such a problem. UGA's main campus sits on 762 acres.”
Schultz believes that in some cases, the pandemic has given coaches and athletes – and the teams they work for – “a shield of health concerns” that allows them to brush off reporters.
“There are examples in every sport,” Schultz says. “If you can get into the locker room, you might still be able to get that one-on-one moment, but even baseball has put up minor impediments. The Braves are bringing (Manager Brian) Snitker and a player or two into an interview room before and after games to dissuade you from going into the clubhouse.
“Media members also have to wear a mask, even though you have to be vaxxed and boosted to get credentialed and literally nobody else in the clubhouse is masked. It adds a layer of discomfort to those times when you’re even fortunate enough to get a one-on-one.”
Last season, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s Atlanta Falcons beat writer, D. Orlando Ledbetter, had to deal with pandemic restrictions that saw NFL teams create their own access rules. For Ledbetter and other writers covering the Falcons, that meant submitting a list of players they wanted to speak with to the team.
“They provided whoever they felt like, or who they could get to attend,” Ledbetter says. “They met less than 50 percent of our requests and frequently didn’t provide players who had injuries.”
The Falcons, he adds, have done a better job of facilitating access during the offseason. Still, he and other NFL writers are looking forward to a full return to locker room access this season, with postgame access resuming in the preseason and midweek access resuming before the first week of the regular season.
“Three draft classes worth of NFL players have never experienced an open locker room environment,” says Lindsay Jones, an NFL editor at The Ringer and president of the Pro Football Writers Association. “This is going to be a tremendous opportunity for PFWA members to build relationships with players we’ve only talked to via Zoom or in a press conference, and we are excited about the stories that will be told this season.”
I’m excited, too – because I know what open access means for sports journalism. During an off day before Game 3 of the National League Championship Series between the Braves and the Los Angeles Dodgers last year, I stopped Atlanta pitcher Charlie Morton in the Truist Park dugout. I asked him about the success of the Braves’ bullpen in a series the underdog Braves led, 2-0.
Morton said the Braves reminded him of his old team, the Tampa Bay Rays, and how they had adopted a “run-prevention” model using their limited resources to build a stout bullpen. Morton said it was how the Rays managed to win so many games in the high-payroll American League East, home to the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, and how the Braves were able to handle the Dodgers, who had a payroll advantage of $100 million over Atlanta. The story was a good get – and it was all because of our one-on-one conversation.
After the Braves clinched the National League Division Series against the Milwaukee Brewers, the players were down on the field celebrating with their families. I was kicked off the field once, then came back down to the field when the media were allowed. It was me and a local TV crew. I waited for closer Will Smith’s family to leave. Between cigar puffs, he then told me how he turned around a fitful season during which fans hollered for him to be replaced.
Smith hadn’t shared the story on the podium. Yet when I told him he could wriggle out of jams like a greased pig, he smiled and opened up. Another face-to-face connection, another unique story. Thankfully, this one didn’t require enduring passed gas. If it had, I would have shaken hands, looked my subject in the eye, and got down to the business of building another bridge between athletes and fans. Like any good reporter would.
The media shapes how people view characters and issues in sport and society. Today, however, journalists' stories are increasingly found online and on social networks in addition to more traditional mediums like print, television and radio.
As the media itself has changed, its relationship to and impact on athletes and the sports industry has changed as well. Does a more disparate and diverse media ecosystem inspire hope for a better future in sport, or could old pitfalls arise again in an era defined by digitization and immediacy?