On December 1st, 2005, I arrived at Weeb Ewbank Hall on the campus of Hofstra University to cover Jets practice for ESPN Radio. In addition to covering the team all week, I also had the responsibility of doing an interview with a Jets player for the pre-game show. That day I was set to do an interview with quarterback Brooks Bollinger who was set to start that week against the Patriots in Foxboro. As I walked around the Jets locker room waiting for a media relations person to let me know that Bollinger was ready, a Jets player came up to me and asked me a question.
“Hey Pete,” said offensive lineman Pete Kendall. “What are you doing here? Isn’t your wife due any day?”
He was right. My wife Sheryl and I were expecting our first child and as it turns out, Bradley was born the next day. The point is that when you’re a sports beat reporter, one aspect of the job is establishing strong and friendly relationships with players, coaches, and staff. I’m not saying it has to be buddy buddy with a player, but there are times when a conversation is not just about the game but sometimes it can be about life. Being around the Jets everyday back then, it was hard not to be excited to share the news that a little Schwartz was on the way and Kendall was just one of many within the organization that asked me how my wife was doing each day.
But, given what’s going on right now with COVID-19, I fear that moments like I shared with Pete Kendall or any locker room conversation I’ve had, about sports or life, is going to be a thing of the past when sports does return and reporters can go back to stadiums and arenas to cover events. Even with a vaccine, along with other safety protocols, I think sports beat reporters (print and electronic), are going to be entering a whole new world. I would actually doubt whether a reporter will ever step foot into a locker room again.
What does this mean for the sports fan?
Well the average sports fan probably couldn’t care less if Pete Kendall asked how my wife is doing, if I said hello to Islanders Captain Anders Lee and he then asked me how my family was doing, or if I had a chat with former Yankees star Hideki Matsui about Bruce Springsteen (I once did!). But what will also be gone are the private conversations that reporters can have with a player that can be used for background on stories about something that might have happened in a game, trade rumors, or anything else going on with a team or a sport. Off the record conversations are off the record, but there are times when a player or a coach can steer a reporter in the direction of an angle that some other people might not.
There was one time when I went on a talk show for the station that I was working for at the time to discuss something that had happened in a game. The next day, I was in the locker room when a player that had heard my report came up to me to talk about it. He told me I wasn’t completely wrong about what I said, but that if anything like that ever came up again, I could go to him to get more information about the story, what went wrong or right, and just be more accurate about something that maybe I wasn’t completely aware of.
That is what a fan expects when they hear a radio beat reporter talk about something or when they read a beat writer’s story in the newspaper. A fan wants to be informed and be given accurate and insightful information about his or her favorite team and a really good and knowledgeable fan can smell BS a mile away. I’ve always kept that in mind whenever I’ve be on the air or writing a story. It’s important to know what your talking about but it’s also important to have a resource to turn to when you need that little bit of extra information.
I think the days of getting to a baseball game early and spending a couple of hours in the clubhouse talking to players might just be a thing of the past. To be honest, that is probably something that teams and players have wanted to eliminate anyway for a variety of reasons but the coronavirus may be the thing that finally puts an end to it, just like hanging in a football locker room after practice to do interviews and going to a hockey practice to talk to players after the skate.
Post-game media sessions are going to change as well. I think the best-case scenarios for reporters when the games do come back will be press conference settings like the ones that are commonplace during the playoffs and also what we see on a daily basis now with political events. Reporters will sit in chairs that are six feet away from each other and the media relations staff will bring in the coach/manager and a few key players from the game to talk to the media. A reporter won’t be able to go up to a player in the locker room or clubhouse to get the “scoop” on a controversial play in the game or maybe on something that was said.
It could also become normal procedure for a reporter to be allowed to cover a game and be able to sit in the press box but not have any live interaction with players, coaches or managers after the game. It could very well be the case that the reporters would have to join a Zoom meeting or a conference call after the game from their seat in the press box. It could start this way and eventually get to the press conference setting, but the days of going into the locker room or clubhouse might be over.
I don’t think fans will shed a tear if reporters begin to complain about access because the obvious answer would be “hey what are you complaining about…you cover sports for a living!” However, a fan shouldn’t complain if something is going on with your team and the beat reporters can’t find out what’s going on because they can’t get that moment with a player or a source. It’s part of the job for a reporter to get information that fans want to know about but that now might be a thing of the past.
Remember when Jets quarterback Chad Pennington missed a day of practice before a playoff game against the Chargers in 2005? After practice, I was one of many reporters that were standing around his locker waiting to talk to him not knowing he didn’t practice. A Jets media relations person said that Head Coach Herman Edwards would talk about it shortly. Everyone looked at each and said to each other something to the effect of “what is going on?”
You know what I did? I went to a player that I had a strong relationship with and asked what was happening. He told me that Chad was sick and didn’t practice but should be okay for the game. I ran outside, called the studio at ESPN Radio, and went on the air with the story about 15 minutes before Herm Edwards announced it at his press conference.
That’s why fans should be somewhat saddened by what might about to happen to the world of sports journalism. It’s okay not to care if a player busts my chops about a shirt I’m wearing or if a player asks me how my son is doing. But you should care if all of a sudden there is less and less information about what is going on with your favorite team.