Sports journalists are hoping for the days of talking to athletes like this photo in 2015 in the Patriots' locker room. Photo courtesy of The Boston Globe.
June 15, 2022

As pandemic continues, locker room access a concern

Nathan Han

National Basketball Association commissioner Adam Silver hit a nerve with media in Februrary at the NBA’s All-Star weekend. The league’s commissioner signaled a possible end to locker room access for media members, citing privacy and health and safety concerns as to why returning reporters to the locker room was “not going to be so easy.”

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NBA, NHL, MLB and MLS released a rare joint statement restricting locker room access only to players and essential team employees.

“It was a nightmare scenario for reporters,” Bryan Curtis, the editor-at-large of The Ringer, said. “Access would be taken away for a perfectly legitimate health and safety reason. But then, commissioners would realize they liked it better that way.”

The next day, Curtis, who has covered the sports media industry for over a decade, wrote about reporters’ fear about the loss of locker room access post-virus. He called the lack of locker room access like “trying to do sportswriting with a blindfold on.”

The fear of the loss of locker room access hasn’t been abated yet. The NHL was the first of the four major sports leagues in the country to open its locker room doors to media members who were masked and vaccinated in September 2021.

However, the league allowed teams to set their own policies based on local rules. For example, the New York Rangers returned closely to pre-pandemic policies. But their crosstown opponents, the Islanders, announced all interviews of players and coaches would be conducted over video calls.

But Zoom interviews just couldn’t replicate locker room access, reporters said. Lindsay Jones, president of the Pro Football Writers of America, said while beat writers across sports have been doing an admirable job under the circumstances, it felt like “we’d all been kind of faking it.”

“The relationships  are the foundation of what we do,” said Jones, who covers the NFL for The Athletic. “Those are built during that locker room time. So all those ideas of, ‘What’s wrong with podiums?’ or ‘Why can’t we do a mixed zone?’  Because you don’t get to build relationships there. 

“You don't get to talk to guys regularly about what they're interested in off the field,” Jones added. “What their hobbies are, what their passions are, where they grew up, what their wives do, what sports their kids are playing. Just all the stuff that really enabled you to as a reporter to get to know these guys as human beings, and for them to get to know you as a person  to just build that trust.”

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell confirmed good news for Jones and her fellow reporters at the PFWA on March 29, announcing open locker rooms for the 2022 season after only “up to three team-employed PR/media people” were allowed in locker rooms this past season.

Jones is still cautious about taking any victory laps with the ever-changing nature of the COVID-19 virus and its variants. Goodell’s announcement won’t be tested until the league kicks off play in September. Even in pre-COVID times, locker rooms weren’t generally open during the offseason, Jones said.

But according to the veteran reporter, who has covered the NFL since 2008, the real test is MLB clubhouses. After the league’s lockout ended in March, commissioner Rob Manfred said reporters would have access to clubhouses in the 2022 season.

The Players’ Union supported the return of clubhouse access, as did several players like veteran Cincinnati Reds slugger Joey Votto, who called the media “the bridge that connects the athlete with the public.”

So far, the MLB has passed the test with flying colors as clubhouse access during the first weeks of the regular season went smoothly.

The last holdout of the four major sports leagues, then, is the NBA. 

When the leagues first initially closed the locker rooms in early March 2020, U.S. Basketball Writers Association executive director Malcolm Moran said he was on a conference call with people from the PFWA, as well as the Baseball Writers Association of America and Professional Hockey Writers Association.

“Everyone that I heard on that call, said that they had been assured that whatever changes are about to be made, would be considered a temporary thing in response to the obvious health concerns,” Moran said, “and when the situation reached the point where it was safe, we would resume business as usual.”

Silver’s comments in February, however, reflected a shift in making those changes only temporary. 

“I’m not sure if we were designing a system from scratch today, we would say come stand next to the players at their lockers as if they’re dressing, and that’s the appropriate forum to interview them,” Silver said.

Moran said his immediate reaction was real concern. If the NBA followed through on Silver’s stance, then other leagues could be empowered to follow suit. 

Jones expressed that the concern about being in the locker room as players dressed was a misunderstanding.

“I've never interviewed a naked player,” Jones said. “And I've never missed out on an interview because I waited for a guy to get dressed. So this idea of just naked people everywhere and this tremendous invasion of their privacy, that's just not what the reality of a locker room is. There's a lot of protocols put in place where guys can go and change, where there are private areas.”

The NBA and Silver’s decision on whether to reopen locker rooms will most likely come after the ongoing playoffs. In another set of comments later that All-Star Weekend, the commissioner mentioned that additional appearances or additional media time could be part of “a better way.”

But, as Curtis wrote in his column, soccer-style “mixed zone” media sessions, “an area where reporters stand and hope a player stops to talk to them,” can’t replicate the authenticity of a locker room. 

Locker room access is especially crucial, Curtis said, in the relationship between the athlete, reporter and the public, as the ever-changing world of sports media has handed more power to the athlete than the writer through social media and other structural changes.

“Athletes (and) reporters have been getting more and more remote,” Curtis said. “The way to mitigate that is by building relationships through the locker room … (it’s) about getting a broader sense of athletes as people again.”

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