It’s hard to think of a part of the coronavirus story—thousands dead, markets plunging, Italy quarantined—that’s less urgent than whiny sportswriters. But these whines are important. Trust me.
On Monday, MLB, the NBA, the NHL, and MLS announced they were closing locker rooms and clubhouses to reporters to help prevent the spread of disease. Interviews will take place at podiums outside the locker room or in some kind of ad hoc setup. “MLB is hoping that players/coaches make themselves available outside of the clubhouse to reporters,” writer Joel Sherman tweeted.
Though the leagues say the changes are temporary, reporters are freaked. The ability to report inside a locker room is nothing short of a miracle of American sportswriting. At a time where there’s no regular White House briefing, standing in front of LeBron James and asking a question is an anachronism. Sportswriters realize the precariousness of the arrangement. That’s why they’re scared shitless that the coronavirus will be the means by which it’s taken away forever.
When I’ve talked to sportswriters from other countries, they’re baffled by the system we enjoy. The reason is that American locker-room access is involuntary. When James beats the Bucks and Clippers in back-to-back games, he doesn’t get to decide whether to let you into his domain. James has to—in theory, anyway. The same goes for his counterparts in other leagues. “It is not permissible for any player or any players to boycott the media,” the NFL media policy notes.
When access is impinged on, fans often ask, What’s the big deal? Since game stories do not typically include stage directions, it’s worth spelling out what actually happens in locker rooms. Writers might ask a player a question for quotation. They might ask a question not for quotation but for information. They might yuk it up to build a relationship with a player, which may inform future articles. Sometimes, the writers just observe how the players act or how they hobble. As the Reds’ Joey Votto told writer C. Trent Rosecrans: “How a player reacted can be told through facial expressions, getting to know that person, and tone.”
Over the weekend, Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl suggested such rituals could be replicated outside a locker room. They could be observed in a soccer-style “mixed zone”—basically, an area where reporters stand and hope a player stops to talk to them.
This system—which we’re gonna test-drive starting Tuesday—removes the single most important thing about American locker-room access, which is the involuntary part. Now, the player will decide whether he or she will even stop to hear nosy questions. Ask a European soccer writer how often they do.
Closed locker rooms have created a post-access hellscape in the U.K., where most writers barely know the players; where they barely fake-know the players; and where any sort of in-depth feature, even about a Clint Capela–level supporting actor, is bartered for with a product plug. There are a lot of dreary things about American sportswriting. This vision is way worse.
In high-traffic situations like the NBA playoffs, postgame interviews are often moved from the locker room to a podium in another room. Even this, however well-intentioned, is generally bad. Podiums create theater rather than human conversation (the old White House briefing comes to mind). Plus, the reporters who thrive in those settings are the ones who’ve been in the locker room all year, gathering material they can use in the postseason.
Enough with the whining, the sports fan says. You guys have the most fun jobs in the world! Well, these days it’s less fun if you work in locker rooms every day. Here’s an abbreviated list of the ways access has been sanded down: The locker room is “open” but the players don’t show. NBA teams cancel shootarounds, which deprives reporters of a chance to ask questions. Stars like Kawhi Leonard are terminally late to postgame interviews, which has the same effect. Agents, not team PR people, decide which writers get the time they need to write a profile.
Add those to the list of structural changes that have vexed sportswriters. Dying newspapers have earlier deadlines. The crumbling of media institutions has tilted the balance of power between writer and athlete. When beat writing gets particularly dull, you often hear that daily sportswriting is “broken”—either too sympathetic to the players or else not enough. Maybe it is broken. But there’s no universe in which less nonviral contact with the players will fix it.
Isn’t closing the locker room just a precautionary step to keep players from getting sick? Won’t locker rooms reopen when the virus comes under control? Maybe or maybe not. Tennessee Titans writer Paul Kuharsky, who has covered the NFL since 1996, notes that every time some form of access has been yanked away, the seizure wasn’t temporary. A few years back, Titans coach Mike Vrabel created a form of “mixed zone” during OTAs and training camp. During those periods, the locker room doors haven’t opened again.
There’s a post-virus scenario in which one or more leagues say: You know, the setup worked out pretty well. We’re gonna keep trying it—and maybe tweak the CBA to curtail access even further. Sportswriters know this, and they know they’d be largely powerless to resist such a change. What will we do? Get the Baseball Writers’ Association of America to send another sternly worded letter? How’d that work out for the White House press corps? An open locker room ought to be a right but it’s mostly a privilege.
Of all journalist whining, sportswriter whining is the least sympathetic. I get it. The job is fun. But the reason it’s fun is because it holds the promise of enlightenment—the promise if not always the result. Close the locker room and the symptoms you’ll observe in sportswriting will be a massive hemorrhage of its insight and a terminal blockage of its heart.