In mid-March, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, and Major League Soccer issued a joint statement: members of the media would henceforth be barred from locker rooms and clubhouses, to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The leagues pledged to make players and staff available in more socially-distanced settings, but many sports journalists reacted warily, warning against “unnecessary” limits on their hard-won access, and pointing out that the leagues still intended to let fans attend games. The latter objection, at least, was quickly rendered obsolete. One day after the media restrictions went into effect, the NBA suddenly postponed its season after Rudy Gobert, a Utah Jazz player, tested positive for COVID-19. The day after that, the NHL and MLS suspended their seasons, too, and the MLB nixed Spring Training, and said its season would start at least two weeks later than planned.
Four months of hiatus, uncertainty, and contractual wrangling later, professional sports, including baseball, are only just getting started again in a country that is, if anything, even more troubled now than it was in the early days of the pandemic. For sports reporters covering the restart, access restrictions haven’t just persisted since then—they’ve intensified. Members of the press are still banned from getting too close to players and staff, and in the absence of such informal opportunities to chat, interviews are often mediated by a PR rep, or by Zoom. Dieter Kurtenbach, of the Bay Area News Group, told The Ringer that he had to sign paperwork before he was allowed into the San Francisco Giants press box. (“I think I gave Rob Manfred rights to my kidney when I walked in there,” he said, referring to the MLB commissioner.) Steve Politi, of NJ.com, wrote recently that reporters entering Yankee Stadium were subjected to temperature scans by a misfiring device. One seemingly-healthy reporter was told they had a 108-degree fever.
In some quarters, concern persists that sports bosses are using the pandemic as a pretext to dodge scrutiny. Last week, Kevin McGran, of the Toronto Star, noted that the NHL has placed access restrictions on outside reporters, but not on writers from its own website. “If three writers from NHL.com can pass the COVID tests to get into the bubble, then so can writers from the Toronto Star, or Toronto Sun, or The Athletic,” McGran wrote. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime news event, and there will be no transparency.” In other quarters, editors have decided against sending reporters to certain events, on safety grounds. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune recently nixed plans to send Jerry Zgoda, who covers the soccer team Minnesota United, to cover MLS games in Florida due to a spike in confirmed COVID cases in the state.
The weirdest press-relations plan has been that of the NBA, which has sequestered reporters in a hermetically-sealed “bubble” at Disney World in Orlando ahead of its planned restart this week. According to Tom Kludt, of Vanity Fair, when reporters showed up at the bubble earlier this month, they were forced to quarantine in their hotel rooms for a week, with food left outside the door; once given the all clear, they were allowed outside, but only within a confined area, and only while wearing a tag that beeps when another person gets too close. The reporters have access to a pool and some leisure facilities; according to the Wall Street Journal, they also have access to a fishing lake, but are afraid to use it because of gators and snakes.
Even post-quarantine, reporters in the bubble are tested daily. Due, in part, to this requirement, the NBA is billing news organizations that are using the bubble more than $500 per day; the same outlets will have the chance to swap out their correspondent in September, at an additional cost of at least $4,500. (As Cathal Kelly, of the Globe and Mail, put it, “Some outlets will be paying up to $75,000 to attend a minimum-security-prison fantasy camp.”) Despite the rules and the cost, reporters in the bubble still can’t interact informally with players, and must participate in press conferences via Zoom. Nominally, this is to ensure fairness, but it also makes it harder to keep scoops to yourself.
Some reporters see the bubble as a great story—Marc Stein, of the New York Times, told Kludt it was “unmissable”; Joe Vardon, of The Athletic, wrote that it may be “the last, great American sportswriting assignment.” Many outlets, however, are skipping it. And the NBA arrangement, of which the press is a part, has been criticized for using a rapid-fire, regular testing system at a time when many Americans still can’t get screened within a useful timeframe. Malika Andrews, of ESPN, told Kludt that she sees such criticisms as legitimate. Should there be another nationwide testing shortage, as there was in the spring, the NBA “is going to have to reevaluate from a moral standpoint,” she said.
The ethical considerations for sports reporters aren’t limited to those in the bubble. Some are wondering whether it’s okay to name players who test positive for COVID-19 if they haven’t explicitly been given permission to do so. And as Bryan Curtis wrote recently for The Ringer, more generally, sports reporters must balance their self-interest in play returning—as pandemic-era layoffs and furloughs have proven, their jobs depend on there being sports to cover—and what they see as their duty to point out specific risks to players and staff, as well as broader questions of appropriateness given the worsening situation in the country. “Am I encouraging irresponsibility by reporting on this as if I’m excited to have baseball back?” Levi Weaver, who covers the Texas Rangers for The Athletic, asked Curtis. “It’s a fine line to walk.”
Yesterday, such concerns were front and center after ESPN reported on a COVID outbreak among the Miami Marlins baseball team. Eleven players and two coaches tested positive; last night, scheduled games in Miami and Philadelphia, where the Marlins played over the weekend, were postponed, and fears swelled that the MLB season as a whole could be in jeopardy, just five days after it started. (For now, Manfred, the commissioner, is downplaying such concerns.) Yesterday, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the Marlins knew of positive test results on Sunday morning, but decided, via a group text message, to press ahead with that day’s game against the Phillies. Twitter agreed that this seemed crazy.
Well, not all of Twitter. In some quarters, a narrative has started to take hold that sports reporters aren’t being sufficiently positive about the restart, and are setting it up to fail. For the reasons outlined by Curtis, this argument is absurd. Yet it mirrors right-wing gripes about other coverage areas—the idea, for instance, that political reporters have tried to engineer a recession to hurt Trump, despite the exceptional vulnerability of their industry to financial downturns, and, y’know, basic journalistic ethics. It mirrors, too, the longer-term argument that sports reporters should “stick to sports,” a principle that has always been untenable, and is historically so in the midst of a public-health crisis. Honest coverage must grapple with that. Journalism is not escapism.
In an angry recent column on the absurdity of prioritizing sports right now, Gregg Doyel, of the Indianapolis Star, channeled such feelings. “Every time you write a story about the difficulty*—the impossibility**, the insanity***—of playing sports with the coronavirus raging, you have to throw in a disclaimer,” Doyel wrote. He used the asterisks to illustrate the media’s financial interest in sports returning. “Is this where I do it again, apologize for being more concerned with your safety than my bank account?” he asked. “Can’t do it anymore. We are living in Cuckoo Land, where priorities are skewed and decency is gone and fatigue has set in.”
Below, more on sports:
- The other public-health crisis: Sports reporters are grappling, too, with systemic racism, within both sports and the sports media itself. Writing for the New Yorker last week, Mik Awake linked the twin public-health crises in the context of the NFL, whose training camps are back this week. In pursuing a restart, Awake argues, the league is endangering its players and thus “banking on the devaluation of Black life,” which “should surprise no one, because it’s what the league has been doing for years.”
- Back on the beat: On Friday, the Times’s Daily podcast featured an inside look at the MLB’s turbulent restart preparations from an unlikely journalistic source: Michael S. Schmidt, who has been covering Mueller and national security for the Times, but used to cover baseball, and has known Manfred for years. Manfred, Schmidt said, was to his baseball coverage as James Comey and Don McGahn were to his Mueller coverage.
- A reckoning: Recently, Will Hobson and Liz Clarke reported, for the Washington Post, on allegations made by more than a dozen women of a culture of sexual harassment and abuse at the Washington football team formerly known by a racist name. Two reporters—Rhiannon Walker, of The Athletic, and Nora Princiotti, of The Ringer—were among the women in the story. After it was published, other female sports journalists shared their own experiences of harassment by sources. The Post’s Ben Strauss and Kim Bellware have more.
- A new initiative, I: Yesterday, the Local Media Consortium, a group of local news companies, launched The Matchup, a new platform, supported by funding from Google, that will bring together local sports coverage from across the US, and enable content sharing between news organizations. The platform is intended to compete with national outlets including ESPN, Bleacher Report, and The Athletic, which has aggressively hired sports reporters from local publications.
- A new initiative, II: On Saturday, HBO will premiere a new show about social justice hosted by the US women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe. Rapinoe’s first guests will be the Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Patriot Act comedian Hasan Minhaj, and the Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, who was the driving force behind the paper’s 1619 Project on the history of slavery in the US.
Other notable stories:
- At a Congressional committee hearing today, Adam D. DeMarco, a major in the DC National Guard, will contradict key administration claims about the violent clearing of protesters ahead of Trump’s Bible photo op last month. DeMarco will state that law enforcement did accelerate the clearing to make way for the photo op, that officers did use tear gas in a show of “excessive force,” and that the protesters were “behaving peacefully.” Relatedly, the Post reports that Trump has deployed yet more federal agents to Portland, Oregon, where protests continue. Yesterday, a group of protesters sued the administration, on the grounds that its tactics in Portland violate Constitutional rights.
- Ashley Parker and Philip Rucker, of the Post, explore why Trump isn’t trying harder to manage the pandemic, given its negative impact on his reelection prospects. One problem, they report, is right-wing media boosters, including on Fox News, telling Trump what he wants to hear. Writing in response to Parker and Rucker’s story, Greg Sargent, also of the Post, argues that by functioning as a “security blanket” for Trump, Fox, whose hosts have slavishly supported his presidency, “may also be hastening its end.”
- For CJR, Susana Ferreira chronicles the toll that covering the pandemic is exerting on journalists. Ferreira compares the impact of the story to that of the European migrant crisis, in 2015, which led reporters to experience “various forms of emotional distress: depression, post-traumatic stress, and moral injury.” The latter is caused by “committing, witnessing, or failing to prevent an act that violates one’s personal ethical code.”
- The Democratic National Convention, which will take place across four days from August 17, will only broadcast live for two hours each night, per Politico. Joe Biden will accept the nomination in Milwaukee, as initially planned, but other speakers, including “everyday Americans,” will address the convention virtually from around the US. (Trump had hoped to hold a full Republican convention in Jacksonville, but recently canceled it.)
- Vanity Fair has an excerpt from The Drudge Revolution, Matthew Lysiak’s forthcoming book about the pioneering aggregator Matt Drudge. Lysiak reports that Drudge had close ties to Trump’s 2016 campaign, and retained his influence in the early days of the administration, when he worked behind the scenes to try and get Steve Bannon fired. As Bob Norman has reported for CJR, Drudge has since soured on the president.
- Turkey’s ruling party is pushing a bill that would assert tighter national control over social media companies, and require them to take down certain content if so ordered by a court. The Committee to Protect Journalists has called the bill “a blatant attempt to make international companies censor more news on behalf of Turkey’s leaders.” Turkish journalists have commonly been prosecuted in connection with their social media posts.
- And yesterday, Dawn Baker, an anchor at WTOC in Savannah, Georgia, participated in a Phase 3 clinical trial of a coronavirus vaccine candidate—becoming the first volunteer to do so in the US. Baker, whose WTOC colleague Lyndsey Gough was hospitalized by COVID-19, said that taking part in the trial was “empowering.” CNN has more.