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Don’t use coronavirus to close locker rooms to media forever

Beat reporters can get information in the locker room that they can't get elsewhere.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

FORT MYERS, Fla. — The NHL, NBA, Major League Baseball and the MLS arerestricting media access to dressing rooms in an attempt to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

The four professional leagues issued a joint statement Monday night, saying media access will be conducted in designated locations outside the locker rooms. The temporary changes take effective Tuesday.

The Red Sox Sunday had a meeting to discuss precautions. I think professional teams would always prefer to replace clubhouse access with formal, sterilized, boring availability.

We all want to prevent the spread of this virus. Cramming 20-30 reporters around Chris Sale’s locker might not be the best idea at this time. The Colorado Avalanche posted a sign outside their locker room reminding media members: "No hand shakes. No knuckles. No hugs. No sitting at stalls.''

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In this spirit, I resisted the urge to hug Alex Verdugo when I first approached him in the Red Sox clubhouse Monday morning. Similarly, J.D. Martinez and I eschewed our traditional fist bump. But let’s not create a clear path to eliminate locker room access in perpetuity. Sadly, potential media-restriction policies were greeted with applause over the weekend by a couple of well-heeled sportswriters who insulted a century of hard work by beat reporters while simultaneously promoting erosion of media availability in professional sports locker rooms.

“I honestly don’t think we ever need to be in a locker room,” tweeted the estimable Grant Wahl, a 25-year veteran of Sports Illustrated who covers the US women’s soccer team. “Doing mixed-zone postgame interviews with the USWNT outside their locker room has never been a problem.”

Sopan Deb, who identifies as “NBA culture scribe” and has been with the New York Times for at least a half-hour, quickly chimed in with, "THIS IS 100 PERCENT CORRECT. It is so weird that for decades it became accepted practice for reporters to just hang out in locker room watching/waiting for athletes to get dressed.''

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Both writers quickly backtracked. Wahl confessed that his tweet was “dumb,” while Deb deleted his message. But that won’t stop a legion of team-loving, media-hating fanboys from rushing to their keyboards to vilify journalists who fuel the 24/7 programming for our sports talk industrial complex.

Let me stop here to once again scratch my head at the number of fans who hunger for information about their favorite players/teams while routinely harpooning and mocking those who actually provide such content, a/k/a the beat reporters. It is the beat reporters who spend thousands of hours cultivating sources, panning for nuggets in big league locker rooms across America. It is not fun. It is exhausting, often demeaning, and frequently fruitless. But without that work, there would be little fuel for fans and professional bloviators.

And that work, my friends, cannot be done in overcrowded, sanitized "mixed zones,'' or Pentagonesque briefing sessions designed to promote the message of the teams without uncomfortable disclosures. Simply stated, your sports reporters need access to “the room” to develop trust, to talk to players one-on-one, to find out what is really going on. This is rarely done in the “mixed zone.”

I never liked working the room, and do less of it than ever, but I did it daily for many years. It was never fun, but it is a critical part our job as “eyes and ears” of the fans.

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In the late 1970s, I smoked out Orioles manager Earl Weaver after a game to ask him about pinch hitter Terry Crowley. Weaver had used Crowley as a starter that day and Crowley had three hits. I asked Earl if perhaps Crowley should be playing more regularly, and the Hall of Fame manager said, “No. He’s only here because I know how to use him. If it weren’t for me, Crowley would be working in a brewery.”

Trust me when I tell you that Weaver would not have said that at a postgame podium.

In 1984, when the Celtics were prepping to face the Knicks in the Eastern Conference semifinals, I asked Cedric Maxwell about the prospect of guarding New York forward Bernard King, who had routinely scored 40 points in first-round games against the Pistons. Max stood up, mimicked King’s runway-model walking style, and said, “No way the [expletive] is getting 40 off me!”

Not something I’d have gleaned from the "mixed zone.'' (King scored 43 in Game 4 and 44 in Game 6, but the Celtics won the series in seven.)

In a one-on-one interview in the Red Sox spring clubhouse in Winter Haven in the late 1980s, Wade Boggs displayed tire tracks on his forearm (from his wife accidentally running him over in the family Jeep the night before) and exclaimed, “I’m the white Irving Fryar!”

Oil Can Boyd told me he got drunk the night before the seventh game of the 1986 World Series because “I had no reason not to," after John McNamara scratched him from the start. It was in the Sox clubhouse at Fenway Park that Roger Clemens told me he had a manager who was too drunk to take him out of a game in which he was being routed.

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It was in the Sox locker room that Josh Beckett spit on the ground at the mention of Red Sox owners trashing the deposed Terry Francona and said, “I hope Tito buries those [expletives]."

Just three years ago, I took a West Coast trip with the Red Sox and got David Price to say that he thought Dennis Eckersley was too rough when commenting on the Red Sox (”Ask anyone in this room!" said Price). On that same day in the clubhouse in Anaheim, another Sox player confirmed that teammates applauded Price when he ambushed Eckersley on a Red Sox charter from Boston to Toronto.

Those are extreme examples. Most of what is culled by reporters “hanging out in the locker room, watching/waiting for players to get dressed” is the simple day-to-day information regarding the health and prospects of athletes hired to win games and entertain fans. It is tedious, time-sucking work. It’s also totally necessary if fans desire to be informed about the teams they love.

These are scary times. It’s vital to protect mankind and limit the spread of this virus. Sox players have been told to stop high-fiving and spitting on the dugout floor. A temporary change in clubhouse access rules might be necessary to stop the spread of coronavirus. But here’s hoping this doesn’t become a permanent thing. Fans hungry for information about their teams would do well to understand what is lost when you take sports reporters out of the locker room.

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Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at daniel.shaughnessy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy.