This is Part 3 in a series about access in sports journalism. Most of this series is being taken from the previously unpublished parts of my 2014 dissertation. Rather than let it sit on a library shelf in Syracuse, I’m sharing parts of it here. Parts 1 and 2 are here:*
One note: The journalists I interviewed for my dissertation were promised confidentiality in exchange for their participation. To make the manuscript readable, pseudonyms were used for each journalist.
Changes to access to sources is another one of the fundamental shifts happening in sports journalism. Reporters are still relying on coaches, players, and administrators as their primary sources. This is true at all levels, from high school to college to professional sports.
Access to high school athletes and coaches does not appear to be changing that much. Reporters and editors involved in high school sports said that there are few institutional problems with interviewing high school athletes—they may get a prickly coach here, a shy kid there, but on the whole, there are few problems. “A lot of coaches don’t wanna talk after a loss, but most of them understand (and) know me well enough that they understand I’m not being an asshole, that I’m doing my job,” said Anthony, who works at a small-town daily.
Things are very different at the college and pro levels, where the interviews suggest that access to sources is shrinking.
Access varies from sport to sport and depends on the rules, norms, and practices of each sport and its beat writers. In pro baseball, both major and minor leagues, teams’ clubhouses are open for several hours before each regular-season game, and players are available for interviews.
“The players are there, the clubhouse is open from a certain period until a certain period before the game; if you need somebody you go find them,” is how Roger describes pre-game access for the baseball team he covers. At the major-league level, reporters are in the clubhouse for several hours before a game, away from their laptops, unable to use their iPhones to write or report, standing around waiting for players to come into the common area or for news to potentially break. “You have nothing to do, but you have to be there,” said Simon, who’s covered pro baseball. “It would drive me insane, you know?” Hannah, a baseball beat writer, explains it like this:
You’re just standing there, especially if there’s a big story or you’re waiting for one guy, you’re just kind of standing there, waiting. Yeah, there’s a lot of waiting. You have that fear that one person will get that one quote or one statement or one story that everyone wants to get and so no one wants to leave and miss out on something. So we all collectively will have to wait here even though we’re not looking for anything specific but we’re just gonna wait here.
For pro hockey and basketball, there is post-practice access on non-game days. Luke, who covers pro basketball, said that he and other reporters on his beat are able to talk to players either on the court or in the locker room after practices, and that the coach always speaks to all the media in an informal press conference. Simon said that pro hockey has a similar setup, with a daily scrum with the coach and an open locker room.
Pro football is highly structured. Stanley, a major metropolitan columnist, and Cameron, an NFL beat writer, said that coaches speak every day of the week leading up to a game, and that while the locker rooms are open, more and more players are speaking only on certain days or at a press conference.
Reporters and editors lamented the lack of access compared with earlier eras. Frederick, a veteran journalist with experience as a major metropolitan sports editor, said that access has changed to the point where reporters aren’t able to bullshit with sources. Leagues, teams, and conferences keep players and coaches at arm’s length, and sources are less likely to speak with reporters, even off the record. “There's no off the record anymore with anybody, because they're afraid it’s gonna end up on Twitter,” Simon said. “It’s a joke! I mean, you can't go off the record with anybody anymore on anything.” Players are also less likely to make themselves available to reporters, instead relying on their own social media platforms or paid media appearances.
These platforms allow players to communicate directly to fans and to control their comments and message. Rather than relying on the media (and potentially facing probing questions), the players are able to say what they want to say in a way that casts them in a positive light. It’s not just star players, either. “I don’t know how these guys on the NFL beat do it anymore when, you know, the left offensive tackle has his day when he talks,” said Stanley, a veteran columnist. “It’s absurd.”
The problem this creates is that it prevents the reporters from building one-on-one relationships with the sources that they cover—which for the journalists, is a fundamental aspect of the job. “That’s how you used to get good relationships going and people would tell you what's going on and they just won’t (anymore),” Simon said. Frederick, the longtime editor, explained:
In a world where everything comes off the podium, you know the quarterback speaks behind podium after the game, the head coach speaks behind the podium after the game, in a world where there’s a podium, you need to have, like, real actual human interaction with people to get them to trust you.
Pro sports present a challenge for reporters in terms of access, but generally, athletes will speak to the media. There are league rules, negotiated with each sports writers’ association, that require pro athletes to speak to the media or face fines.
College sports, however, are a different story.
College athletic programs—particularly college football teams—have extremely strict access rules for players. Mona said that, in the days leading up to a football game on her beat, the school she covers made only four or five players available to reporters via conference call. After games, the school took suggestions from Mona and other reporters but brought in the players they wanted to showcase. For several years on his college basketball beat, Roger was not allowed to speak with freshman or new players until each season’s conference tournament. Kayla, another college football reporter, had a similar experience on her beat. With the team she covers, reporters were not allowed to interview freshmen or redshirt freshmen. “Which is ridiculous, cause when these kids were seniors in high school, they were talking to the media,” she said. “So the frustrating part about that is that automatically rules out like 40 percent of their team.”
Stories like this were common among reporters and editors who cover college sports. Players are also instructed not to speak with reporters outside of official media availability, and reporters are threatened with sanctions if they do try to contact players outside of the team structure (although it’s not clear how serious those repercussions would be).
These restrictions present challenges to reporters and editors, because access to and relationships with sources drive so much of sports journalism. Sports reporters rely on talking to coaches and players to describe the success and failings of a team the same way a city hall reporter relies on talking to the mayor and council members. Kayla said, “If I wanted to write a feature on (a) freshman running back who was having an outstanding year, like, I can’t, so then I have to pick somebody else.” Darren, the digital editor and former high-school sports editor, said:
You’re gonna write about who you have the access to. If you aren’t around the players and you’re relying on what you’re hearing from sources, that may not be the most reliable, it hurts the reporting, it hurts the stories you can tell, it hurts the reporting, and really I think it’s a detriment to everybody.
Access influences story selection at the pro level, too. “There are a lot of times you go in there and the player you want doesn’t show up, so you go to Plan B, you write about something else,” Cameron said of his NFL experience. The lack of access is frustrating to reporters, because they believe it prevents them from doing their jobs. “I’m not saying make it easy, but make it accessible, you know?” Mona said.
Coming next: Sports journalism without access