fb-pixel Skip to main content
Christopher L. Gasper

It’s time to allow media members back in pro sports locker rooms

Locker room media scrums have been replaced the past two years by Zoom sessions.Steven Senne/Associated Press

There’s a lockout that must end for the greater good. Oh, I’m not referring to Major League Baseball’s labor strife, which is being resolved at a phlegmatic pace. No, it’s sports media members remaining locked out of locker rooms, the lifeblood of sports correspondence.

If we’re phasing out masking mandates and transitioning to an endemic phase of COVID existence then it’s time for the vaccinated to venture back into professional sports locker rooms. The fear was always that sports leagues would use the health crisis as a conceit to permanently end access. NBA commissioner Adam Silver threw another log on that fire during NBA All-Star Weekend.

Advertisement



“I think creating a little bit of distance may make more sense for the foreseeable future. I also think it’s a bit of an anachronism to have reporters in the actual room where players are dressing,” said Silver. “I’m not sure if we were designing a system from scratch today we would say come stand next to the players at their lockers as they’re dressing, and that’s the appropriate forum to interview them.”

This is a relationship business. The locker room is the communal area where those relationships between athletes and media members are forged and fostered. It’s where the real work of sports journalism is conducted.

Not to go all Upton Sinclair on you, dear readers, but the unwashed media masses must be allowed to return to the locker room. Connecting on a human-to-human level with athletes is beneficial for all and carries no greater health or safety risk than indoor dining or attending a Super Bowl in an enclosed stadium with 70,047 fans.

Conversations between athletes and media members in the locker room are humanizing for both sides. Athletes need to know and experience that not every interaction they have with a reporter is transactional. Some of the best interactions I’ve ever had in a locker room had nothing to do with my line of questioning that day. They were opportunities to relate to players, share mutual interests, or learn more about their backgrounds.

Advertisement



It could be sharing an affinity for a particular TV show, discussing musical taste, or commiserating on the process of obtaining a home loan, all actual conversation topics.

Secondly, locker room access is essential for information and observation. It yields the nuggets that fuel greater understanding of the sports we follow and the people who play them. The kernel for a story can come from something displayed in a player’s locker or even from how the lockers are situated and assigned.

A journalist with technical X’s and O’s questions can wait to ask for those explanations. One former Patriots defensive back who is still active in the NFL was excellent at explaining coverage rules and disguises. These interactions have been lost the last two years.

While they might not acknowledge it, there are also certain questions players are clearly more comfortable answering off to the side, as opposed to on-camera in a virtual room full of reporters or standing at a podium in an actual one.

Zooms and news conferences are unsuitable workarounds for working a locker room.

I get it. We’re easy to dislike, enemies of the state of laundry logic. Former Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather once asked a group of reporters if they grew up following the team. To paraphrase, “Then why doesn’t it read like it?”

Advertisement



We’re targets for angry fans. But we are a conduit between the two groups who find common ground sometimes in their contempt.

The presence and prevalence of social media has allowed players to go direct-to-consumer. But athletes and their retinue can’t provide the only version of their story for the same reason that surgeons don’t operate on themselves. They have a perspective issue. Media members are the real social media filter that needs to be applied to posts (see: Brown, Antonio).

Being in a locker room isn’t always pleasant. I’ve been threatened, cursed at, laughed at, ignored.

It’s doubtful that many of my brethren miss locker room scrums where reporters are clustered together like lobsters in a seafood tank and personal space goes to die. It’s hard to miss having a rotator cuff that feels like Bret Saberhagen’s after straining to record comments.

It’s a total misconception that media members enjoy loitering in locker rooms. Those who covered Rajon Rondo lost entire days of their lives waiting for the pertinacious point guard to get dressed, come out, and speak. Rondo was the original Celtics Time Lord.

Reporters have zero desire to see athletes, male or female, in any state of undress. We’re not like Cowboys’ team personnel wandering into the cheerleaders’ locker room. At home, players often have a separate area where they can dress postgame. That’s why Silver’s comments were off base.

NFL Players Association president and Cleveland Browns center JC Tretter has expressed similar sentiments about locker room nudity and access denudement.

Advertisement



“I think we very much respect the role that media play in our business and the work they need to do,” said Tretter at the Super Bowl. “But I personally think it’s time to move away from the awkwardness of having people in an area where guys are changing. I think that’s something that’s a bit archaic.”

Perhaps there’s a way to make the locker room situation more comfortable for players who feel uncomfortable, but banning media altogether isn’t it.

Plus, what does that have to do with COVID safety?

Zero.

“We understand JC’s concerns and questions about being inside a locker room and think we can improve the process. But it starts with reopening the locker room door for all media,” Pro Football Writers of America president Lindsay Jones said.

“For generations, that is where the bulk of the reporting happened. That’s where relationships are built, and that has been sorely missed over the last two seasons.”

Count the NFL as comfortable with the restoration of access. Spokesman Brian McCarthy responded via e-mail: “We foresee a return to locker room access similar to pre-COVID years, pending, of course, any new developments related to public safety matters.”

Major League Baseball is in the same boat. It plans to reopen clubhouses this season, when there is a season.

The NBA sounds like it’s leaning toward trying to reimagine locker room access, judging by Silver’s follow-up statement referring to how parties “can best move forward post-pandemic.”

Advertisement



That’s a euphemism for eliminating locker room access.

The NHL is noncommittal. League spokesman John Dellapina said no substantive discussion of the media access policy has occurred. The NHL must be respectful of the rules of country that is the soul of the league and home to seven teams, Canada.

Locker room access is about as far from life and death as it gets. Perspective is necessary in a pandemic that has altered all our lives and killed nearly 6 million people.

But it would be shameful for any sports league or union to use the pandemic as cover to kick reporters out of the locker room.

Locker room access shouldn’t be a COVID casualty.


Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at christopher.gasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.