Access in sports journalism, part 2: What it looks like

This is Part 2 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 Most of this series is being taken from the previously unpublished parts of my 2014 dissertation.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. You can read part 1 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.

In order to understand access in sports journalism, it’s important to see when and how the interactions between reporters and sources take place. Since sports journalism remains centered around game coverage (although it’s working hypothesis of mine and Dr. Michael Mirer that this is changing), most of issues of access and interactions happen around games.

After games, reporters always interview the head coaches of the two teams, and always players for the team they are covering. The players they pick to interview tend to be the stars of that particular game and the stars of the team (and, often times, those are the same). At the pro level, locker rooms tend to be open (per league rules) and reporters are able to pick players who are in the room to interview.

At the college level, reporters often request the players they want to interview from the school’s sports information staff—although sometimes, the SID picks players to bring to an interview room. “After games, usually, they’ll bring out 15 or so guys and they let us circle a list (of) ‘Oh who do you recommend?’ But it means nothing; they’re gonna bring out who they want anyway,” Audrey said of the college football team she covers. Linda, a veteran columnist, recalled a recent game in which she interviewed a role player for the winning team who had a surprisingly strong game. She did not specifically request to speak to the player, but he was brought to the interview room. “Had they not brought (him) in, I’m sure I would have been able to go get him (in the locker room),” Linda said.

At the high school level, reporters interview the coach and players outside of the locker room or on the field. These interviews are much more informal than the heavily structured, press-conference-style interviews that are prevalent at the college and high school level. Anthony, the reporter/editor at a small paper, recalled a recent high-school hockey game he covered and said that he interviewed both teams' coaches as well as several players from the winning team — with an emphasis on the player who scored the game-winning goal. “I like to do multiple players from the winning team—like a star player or a captain or somebody’s gonna give me something,” he said. “Then I talk to the coach, obviously, of the winning team, cause he’ll be able to provide me with more information.”

Source relationships are generally friendly and congenial. The interviews suggest that confrontational interviews with sources are rare. Anthony, a reporter/editor at a small paper, said that a high-school athletic director he covered once told him after a controversial story that “I’ll never work with you again,” but that “he’s come around since,” suggesting an unspoken cooperative arrangement between sources and journalists. Malcolm, who covers pro soccer in his city, said of an Olympian whom he has covered since high school, “I’ve always joked to people and said I’ll always have a job here as long as (this player is) still playing.”

Simon said he has gotten into high-profile arguments with coaches and team officials, but that they have not affected the nature of the source-journalist relationship. Recalling one argument with a coach, he went to the press conference the next day, and when the coach saw him, the coach said “‘Are we still friendly?’ (Simon) said, ‘We’re always friendly. Sometimes we just happen to disagree. ... We were joking about it the next day.’”

Next: How access is changing.