In locker room credentialing, the lines are often blurred

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There’s an old saw in sports locker rooms, an unwritten code that was sometimes actually written and posted above the door: “What you see here, what you say here, what you do here, let it stay here.” That’s fine, if a bit outdated, for the players and coaches and equipment managers. For journalists, it presents a dilemma.

The American appetite for sports news has never been bigger. But even as sports media outlets multiply to feed that appetite, the access those outlets get to most athletes has become rarer and more circumscribed. In the major men’s team sports, at least, the locker room might be the only place reporters can count on speaking to players.

And yet, to those players, the locker room is a sanctum. Reporters are there not because players want them there, but because the leagues mandate pre-game or post-game availability. Scratch the surface of the player-reporter relationship and you’ll find a strong sentiment among athletes that reporters don’t belong in the locker room at all.

The tensions have grown as more reporters have been granted locker room access. NBA teams have been offering game credentials to team bloggers for years, and that has helped give the league the best reputation of any American sport for openness to new media and new types of fan interaction. But many journalists feel NBA teams have gone too far and now issue too many credentials.

This situation has made the American sports reporter perpetually on guard against any further erosion of access. Which is why reporters get nervous when there’s an incident like the one last week after a game in Salt Lake City between the NBA’s Utah Jazz and Golden State Warriors.

The Warriors beat the Jazz 106-103 on Nov. 30, the closest margin to that point of the Warriors’ undefeated season. After the game, and a visit to the Warriors’ locker room, Ben Dowsett, an editor with the Jazz blog Salt City Hoops and a contributor to other basketball blogs, wrote the following tweets:

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What happened next is why “never tweet” is a popular Twitter axiom.

The next morning, Warriors forward Draymond Green called Dowsett a liar, a coward, and “mad corny” on Twitter. Point guard Steph Curry, the reigning MVP and one of the world’s most popular athletes, tweeted this to his 3.3 million followers:

 

 

Green and Curry later said they weren’t laughing at the Jazz at all, that Dowsett misinterpreted their conversation. Dowsett declined a request to be interviewed, but in subsequent tweets he stood by his reporting.

The players were mad because Dowsett violated what they take to be a cardinal rule: Locker room access is for interviewing players, not for reporting on the conversations they have with each other. The problem is that there is no universal agreement among players and reporters that any such rule exists.

In most contexts, two people in the public eye who want to have a conversation reporters don’t report on should have that conversation when reporters aren’t in the room. A locker room is different. Even after decades of required media access and shifting norms of what’s fair game for reporters, there isn’t a standard for what is and is not on the record.

“A lot of this is by feel,” says Howard Beck, a national NBA writer for Bleacher Report who spent nine years as a beat writer for The New York Times. “There’s no written rule book. You have to use good judgment.”

As an example, Beck points to his experience covering the Los Angeles Lakers for the LA Daily News in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The relationship between the team’s stars, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, grew tenser over those years, and by the end they would lob passive-aggressive comments, or aggressive-aggressive ones, to each other across a locker room full of reporters and teammates. There was no expectation that those comments would stay off the record, Beck says.

At the other end of the spectrum, a reporter might overhear players talk about who they’re dating or where they went out the night before. There’s a tacit agreement that those conversations won’t be reported.

Dowsett’s tweets in Utah occupy a middle ground. The scene he described was basketball-related, but, at least as the players involved saw it, it was a private conversation.

 

These are not public spaces. I do not have a right to be in the locker room. I have access that is afforded to me under an agreement, and that access is important to me and it’s important for accurate coverage of the NBA. But it is not a right, and so I have to act professionally and be deserving of that access.

 

“If you’ve got four beat writers, like we had on the Lakers, then if something is said in earshot, we might all look at each other and kind of decide whether it was on the record or not. Of course, sometimes people don’t agree,” Beck says. “These days, there’s a tendency toward everything being on the record. There’s this attitude that if you heard it, someone else might have heard it, and if they heard it, they’re going to tweet it, so you’d better tweet it.”

Matt Moore, an NBA writer for CBS Sports and the founder and former editor of the Hardwood Paroxysm network of blogs, says he wouldn’t have tweeted about the incident in Utah, at least not without talking to Curry and Green first to clarify what he saw. Since it’s highly unlikely that either player would make time to talk one-on-one to a blogger in another city with a relatively small following, the practical outcome would be that Moore wouldn’t have tweeted about it at all.

“The decision to report on that instance by Ben was a bad decision, but it was not, in my opinion, journalistically unethical or wrong,” Moore says. “That’s not to say that Ben’s does bad work or anything. I think he was off in this instance because he didn’t follow up.”

Not everyone in NBA media agrees on the ethics. Josh Robbins covers the Orlando Magic for the Orlando Sentinel and is the president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association. He says he doesn’t think what Dowsett reported was newsworthy, and he also took issue with what he saw as an aggrieved tone in the reporting.

“It appears that this was the perspective of a fan, a fan who was upset that the Warriors appeared not to give the Jazz the proper respect, and to me that is anathema,” Robbins says. “You shouldn’t be there if you have a rooting interest. … If you’re there rooting for a team or identifying with a team, that means that you, by definition, are rooting against 29 other teams, and the people you cover deserve better than that.”

There’s room for opinion journalism in sports, but Robbins draws the line between a columnist, who tries to stay detached even when opinionated, and a writer who takes a fan’s perspective to covering a team.

That’s a blurry line these days, and there are plenty of people who see no problem with fans covering games. Just about every NBA team, and those in the other major sports, has a team blog, or “fan blog,” devoted to it. Some of those blogs exist to host message boards full of ranting and rumor; others do excellent analytical work.

“The beat writers, the newspaper people, they very much do not want quote-unquote ‘fanboys’ in the locker room with credentials, and there are a lot of them,” Moore says. “The issue is, there are a lot of great writers who have come up that way.”

Beck agrees, pointing to Ethan Sherwood Strauss and Royce Young as excellent NBA writers who got their start with fan blogs. Strauss covered the Warriors for a fan blog and now covers the team for ESPN; Young had the same progression covering the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The problem in Moore’s eyes is not writing from a fan’s perspective, but acting like a fan—cheering in the press box, asking players to take selfies, and other clearly unprofessional behavior.

“These are not public spaces,” he says. “I do not have a right to be in the locker room. I have access that is afforded to me under an agreement, and that access is important to me and it’s important for accurate coverage of the NBA. But it is not a right, and so I have to act professionally and be deserving of that access.”

Players tend to agree, and feel that NBA teams should tighten up their standards for who get credentials, as evidenced by tweets from Green and teammate Andrew Bogut after Dowsett’s contested reporting. Some reporters feel locker rooms are just too crowded now that so many writers have access; others point to people with credentials who act unprofessionally, or never seem to show much work from the games they “cover.” (No one I spoke with put Dowsett in that group.)

 

 

“The NBA suffers from a rash of over-credentialing, in my opinion,” Robbins says. “It is a position we’ve discussed with the league.”

It’s natural for beat reporters like Robbins and Beck to be nostalgic for the days when beat reporters often had players to themselves. But they have a point. It’s difficult to interview someone if there’s a scrum of 40 reporters standing around. There’s also a trust that’s lost between players and reporters when the players see too many media faces to know anyone well.

“There are too many people getting credentials, and I don’t say that based on people being unqualified,” Beck says. “I say that as someone who’s been doing this for nearly two decades. I’ve seen it make everyone’s jobs harder, the media and the teams.”

But setting standards for who should receive credentials is tricky. Team public relations staffs are in charge of credentials. While they could exclude people who don’t have a certain level of readership, Moore points to a clear problem with that approach: Popularity is a poor proxy for quality or influence.

“If you have a message board, you can rack up tons and tons of traffic, and it doesn’t mean you’re doing serious coverage,” he says. “On the flip side, you might just have a couple hundred readers, but everyone in the industry respects your work.”

As minor as the incident in Utah might seem, Moore is worried it might be a “tipping point” that prompts teams, at the behest of their players, to try to push the media out of the locker room entirely.

“The league is one thing—the league wants access for the media. The players do not,” Moore says. “There is a considerable level of animosity between players and media.”

In February, Michele Roberts, the head of the players’ union, ruffled some media feathers when she called locker room availability “an incredible invasion of privacy.” A few reporters agreed with her. Dan Feldman of NBC Sports wrote that he’d like to see postgame interviews done in a designated interview room, which is the format the league already uses in the playoffs.

The general sentiment among NBA reporters is that such a system would be disastrous. It would result in an outbreak of blown deadlines, as players took their time getting dressed and getting to the postgame podium. And it would turn what is now a fairly casual, potentially spontaneous interaction into a strict question-and-answer session.

“That kind of media availability simply does not work,” Robbins says. “It inhibits the understanding of the game, and it inhibits the understanding of the people who play the game.”

Moore’s preferred solution is a hybrid system: Reserve unfettered locker room access for beat writers on deadline and top national writers like Beck, USA Today’s Sam Amick, and ESPN’s Zach Lowe. Everyone else would have to wait to interview players after they’re dressed, in a hallway or conference room.

“I don’t think it’s good for the game of basketball to take Sam Amick or Howard Beck out of the locker room,” Moore says. “There are young writers who don’t need that access, or need to work their way into that access.”

The NBA and the players’ union have already started negotiating their next collective bargaining agreement, though the earliest the current one can end is mid-2017. Media access hasn’t traditionally been a part of the collective bargaining agreement—players and owners tend to be more concerned about divvying up billions of dollars a year than when and where players have to talk to reporters. But Moore says he wouldn’t be surprised if the current round of negotiations touches on media rules. And there’s plenty that the league, its teams, and the journalists covering them can do on their own to change, or at least clarify, who gets access to the locker room.

“All these problems are things the league and its teams can correct,” Robbins says, referring to the issue of over-credentialing. “We just need some standards.”

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Tony Biasotti is a freelance writer in Ventura, California. Find him on Twitter @tonybiasotti.