Do reporters need to be in the locker room?

There’s some consternation over the NFL’s recent decision to keep journalists out of the locker room for a second straight year. Ostensibly a pandemic safety measure, critics argue that the move hurts objective coverage of the league and grants the league and teams greater control of media narratives via official channels. There is fear that this move will become permanent post-pandemic. But is this really a big deal?

On the one hand: yes, we should generally be concerned when journalistic access (to anything) is restricted in a democracy. On the other: what percentage of big-time sports coverage is truly independent, anyway? Do we really accept that journalists from media conglomerates who broadcast the league (and related) content are giving us the objective dirt? (And yes, not all journalists covering the league are paid by these outlets; fair is fair.) Even before the consolidation of media, the transparency of sports reporting has a dubious history. Go back to the days of Babe Ruth and you’ve got newspapermen embedded on the team Pullman car, cutting deals to ignore athletes’ bad behavior and indiscretions in exchange for access. Add to this a generation of sports fans raised in the direct access, social media era and I’m not buying that the average fan is losing much sleep over this decision.

Finally, let’s not ignore that it has always been a bit weird to have media in the locker room anyway. As if an athlete in a towel is somehow more candid than the same athlete in street clothes at a press conference an hour later. I’m all for transparency and access, but I’m unconvinced at this point that we’re losing anything of great importance here.

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