The New York Islanders aren’t shy about giving interviews in various stages of undress. “It’s all we’ve ever known,” right wing Josh Bailey, wearing a blue Islanders shirt, skin-tight compression shorts, and knee-high athletic socks, told me after a practice last week. “I don’t really think about it. Since I watched hockey as a kid, it was always this way.”
The hockey team’s locker room isn’t as rancid as expected. Industrial-size hampers, home to growing mounds of moist practice jerseys, sit on each side of the cramped chamber in its Syosset, New York, training facility. Players tear off equipment at wooden cubbies bearing their names and numbers, laughing about how Mel Gibson got ribbed at the Golden Globes. A collage on the walls above them shows newspaper headlines and media coverage of famous victories, ringing the small dressing room like a halo.
Those memories don’t come cheap, of course. A small band of media—normal-sized humans—tries to keep out of half-naked players’ way as they dip behind a curtain sporting the team’s logo and into the showers. Many dressing rooms don’t have such modicums of privacy, leaving players in the buff in front of reporters fishing for quotes. “I can’t really think of something else that’s similar to this,” Bailey said. Reporters don’t wait for senators in the bathroom after important votes, or quiz the conductor of the New York Philharmonic as he puts on his cummerbund.
The media circus surrounding professional sports is fed in part by this particularly odd sort of press access. Team dressing rooms are typically open to journalists before or after practices and games. In return for players giving up some privacy, media get a one-stop shop for all the color their audiences could want, while franchises reap the marketing benefits of near-daily publicity. It’s a symbiotic relationship. It’s also awkward for all parties involved.
“Guys just walk around naked, mostly,” says Arizona Republic sports columnist Paola Boivin. “Sometimes you have to stand around and wait while your guy gets ready, so reporters will pull out their phones and pretend to be reading emails … . It’s a bizarre world that we’ve come to live in. But I don’t see any other solutions.”
They haven’t had a lot of time to think about what to say, and they’re in a comfortable environment. You get a really honest reaction, and that’s what makes stories good.
Like other working people, professional athletes want to leave the office when their shift ends, so they waste no time stripping down to hit the showers. These aren’t your high school gym locker rooms—many are increasingly part of multi-room complexes including lounges and training rooms that media can’t access—but journalists would be hard pressed to find so many sources anywhere else. And while most nudity is off-camera and doesn’t find its way to audiences, the shirtless, disheveled, or still-sweating sports star, facing an array of microphones in front of his cubby, has become an enduring image in sports coverage.
“They haven’t had a lot of time to think about what to say, and they’re in a comfortable environment,” Boivin says, differentiating the format from occasional post-game news conferences. “You get a really honest reaction, and that’s what makes stories good.”
Some of the best locker room reporting comes when the unthinkable happens, reminding us that these gods between the lines are just men and women outside of them. Two Sundays ago, for example, Minnesota Vikings kicker Blair Walsh missed a last-second chip shot that would have likely advanced his team to the next round of the NFL playoffs. He sobbed at his locker for 15 minutes after the game, as ESPN’s Kevin Seifert wrote, later facing a gaggle of reporters. “It’s my fault,” Walsh said, his eyes still glistening. “I want you guys here when I make the game-winning kicks, and I realize that I got to have you guys here when I miss them. That’s the life of a kicker.”
Other interviews are illuminating for the answers they don’t elicit. Take the blanket no-comment dished out by Dallas Cowboys star and alleged domestic abuser Greg Hardy after a game last year. Or the periodic outbursts by Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook.
The potential downside of the setting, meanwhile, is obvious: A poorly framed NFL Network shot this year showed Cincinnati Bengals players, pictured over the interview subject’s shoulder, unknowingly giving viewers the full monty.
Players mostly accept that strangers will see them au naturel. The repetitiveness and intensity of the format can be more frustrating. NBA teams play 82 games a year, not including playoffs and preseason contests. The Major League Baseball season counts nearly twice as many, while the shorter NFL campaign sees much more focused media attention. Even in the relatively overlooked NHL, the New York Islanders draw about 30 journalists a game.
“It’s basically the same interview, over and over again,” Islanders forward Anders Lee said Monday, taking off his pads in the corner of the locker room. Brock Nelson, a teammate sitting next to him, chimed in: “They get mad at us for giving the same answers. But it’s the same answers to the same questions.”
Still, most professional athletes also realize that allowing journalists into their sanctuary is a part of the job. “[Reporters] obviously need you to say some stuff so they can write their articles,” said Islanders alternate captain Kyle Okposo, wiping his forehead with an already-drenched shirt. Indeed, locker room access is built into players’ collective bargaining agreements with the four major North American sports leagues.
The interview format is believed to have been popularized around mid-century by Dick Young, a New York Daily News sportswriter. Before that, reporters thought they understood games better than the athletes playing them, largely omitting the player and coach personalities that make sports stories into something more than hits, runs, and errors.
“When I interviewed players, I found I had a much more personal relationship with them if I could sit next to them at their locker,” says Gerald Eskenazi, an occasional CJR contributor who spent more than 40 years writing for The New York Times. “When a guy is naked, he’s probably more honest than not.”
Teams and leagues barred female reporters from locker rooms over the following decades, robbing them of an increasingly important access point for player interviews. During the 1977 World Series, the MLB commissioner’s office banned then-Sports Illustrated reporter Melissa Ludtke from both teams’ locker rooms, overriding the New York Yankees’ blessing and a majority vote in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ clubhouse. Ludtke and Time Inc. filed a civil rights lawsuit months later. The following year, a federal judge struck down the MLB policy on 14th Amendment grounds.
When a guy is naked, he’s probably more honest than not.
Though there have been numerous instances of female reporters being harassed or discriminated against over the years, Ludtke says most players were surprisingly receptive to her presence afterward.
“What was fascinating to me was getting to hear the teasing between players, how they gave each other crap,” she says. “You know when the line has been crossed because you know about the culture that you’ve entered … . If you don’t understand that, particularly as a woman, you might misinterpret it.”
Access issues aside, broader changes in the media environment have begun to change the content of locker-room interviews, presenting a more chronic problem for many sports journalists. Franchises are increasingly fielding their own media teams to produce game stories and video interviews—meaning more softball questions—just as metro newspapers are cutting back. Numerous new-media outlets have likewise gained access, leading to a ballooning locker room press corps and, in turn, limiting the exclusivity of any individual interview. What’s more, players are increasingly media empires in and of themselves, lessening their incentive to cooperate with journalists.
Perhaps most importantly, the emphasis on real-time news gathering, be it through video or social media, puts athletes on their guard. “Once you have a live camera or microphone in front of you, you’re a different person,” says Eskenazi, who covered a variety of sports over his long career. “Now, there are no F-bombs. The guys are much more formal in talking. And they’re very conscious that everything they say could get out.”
If the locker room is where athletes can be themselves, that change may be the most challenging. Eskenazi recalls an episode from the New York Jets locker room in 1988, when defensive end Mark Gastineau pulled down his pants to show Eskenazi a tattoo on his hind quarters reading “Gitte,” short for then-girlfriend Brigitte Nielsen. “He starts parading around the locker room with his buttocks exposed, saying ‘Gitte’ over and over again,” Eskenazi says. The next day, another player told Eskenazi it was a joke. “On cue, all the players in the Jets locker room got up and they all had the word ‘Gitte’ written on their asses,” he says.
That sort of collegiality isn’t obsolete in locker rooms, but real-time publishing certainly ups the danger of such humor being viewed out of context. Indeed, athletes are increasingly coached on what to say to reporters in interviews—and what not to say. The more we try to know about our sporting heroes, the less they tell us.
A new generation of sports writers has responded to this shift by increasingly using advanced metrics and digital tools to change the genre entirely. “Instead of saying so-and-so is a good player, and here’s a quote, I include some Vines and GIFs to show why he’s so good,” says Kevin Trahan, who writes for Vice and SB Nation. “And that gives coaches and players less control over the story.”
Still, for most mainstream sports journalists, venturing into locker rooms remains a basic necessity to stay competitive. “We all just kind of deal with it,” says Jenni Carlson, a columnist for The Oklahoman and self-described “shorter person” who fights to see and hear her often giant interview subjects. “Would it be awesome if they were better ventilated? Sure.”David Uberti is a writer in New York. He was previously a media reporter for Gizmodo Media Group and a staff writer for CJR. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.