NBA commissioner Adam Silver, speaking at the NBA’s All-Star Weekend, had some troubling comments about media coverage.
Because of COVID-19, reporters for all sports are generally being denied the locker room access they were afforded pre-pandemic. Some leagues — Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League — have indicated that, someday, reporters will be allowed back into the locker rooms.
But Silver seemed to hint that reporters should never return to the locker rooms.
He started his comments by admitting that what he was about to say “may not be so popular” with reporters. He then said, “It’s not going to be so easy. I think that depending on where we see this virus, potential variants, you know, I think creating a little bit of distance may make more sense for the foreseeable future.”
Then Silver went further, saying, “I also think it’s a bit of an anachronism to have reporters in the actual room where players are dressing. … To me, there are two issues: There’s just the health and safety issues for the players and for all of you as well. Then there’s also — 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 they’re dressing, and that’s the appropriate forum to interview them.”
Silver said he appreciated media coverage and that it was important to the league, and that he’s all for helping the media do their jobs. But he also added it might be time to take a “fresh look” at media access.
As you would expect, media members were not pleased — and for good reason.
The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears, a veteran NBA writer, tweeted, “It’s insulting to say NBA reporters are standing around in a locker room watching players dress. Before the pandemic, many relationships between NBA players & media were built during that 30-45 minute period. Interviews done. If the players don’t want to talk, they don’t have to.”
The Washington Post’s Michael Lee tweeted, “It’s insulting & it’s lazy. The best stories are mined in the locker rooms. Otherwise, you wind up with a lot of gossip, rumors & distrust.”
Newsday’s Neil Best tweeted, “Common misconception: It is not about locker rooms per se, it is about a room of some sort where interaction can occur that allows reporters to gather information of interest to fans – and not just a sterile, formal podium.”
As a sportswriter for 30 years who has spent countless hours in locker rooms, I cannot tell you how valuable that time is. It’s not just about interviewing athletes. It’s about building relationships, getting to know athletes, getting them to trust you as an ethical journalist. That’s often done without a tape recorder or notebook. It’s done through casual conversations that often can only happen in a locker room. And, along the way, there are serendipitous stories that pop up because of it.
Sportswriters and athletes managed to coexist for decades in locker rooms. There’s no reason it cannot happen again, especially when there are no longer health concerns.
The concern for the media is that limiting access is helping leagues and teams control the message — and that’s not only bad for the media, but for the public.
This piece originally appeared in The Poynter Report, our daily newsletter for everyone who cares about the media. Subscribe to The Poynter Report here.