The logistical and ethical challenges of sports reporters’ restart

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.

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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.

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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.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.