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MLB, MLS, NBA and NHL to close locker rooms to reporters, citing coronavirus concerns

NHL player James Neal talks with reporters in the locker room in 2017. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
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The four major U.S. professional sports leagues currently staging games issued a joint statement Monday declaring that media members will be kept out of locker rooms and clubhouses because of concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.

The new arrangement goes into effect starting Tuesday, according to Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, the NBA and the NHL. Media access to players and coaches will be permitted “in designated locations outside of the locker room and clubhouse setting.”

The leagues said in their statement that they came to the decision after “consultation with infectious disease and public health experts.”

“Given the issues that can be associated with close contact in pre- and post-game settings,” the leagues said, “all team locker rooms and clubhouses will be open only to players and essential employees of teams and team facilities until further notice.”

The decision comes amid a wave of cancellations and postponements of sports events worldwide, with health officials looking to slow the spread of covid-19 by urging people to avoid large gatherings of all kinds. The BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament in Indian Wells, Calif., was called off Sunday, becoming the first major sports event in the United States to take that precaution.

Other events, including several top-level soccer matches in Europe, have been held without fans in attendance. The four leagues that issued the statement Monday, though, plan to continue allowing fans to come to games.

In the wake of the statement, some media members pointed to what they saw as an inconsistency in keeping them from players while permitting thousands of fans to mingle in proximity to one another and arena employees.

Seven major sports journalism associations responded to the leagues’ statement with one of their own. “We are intent on working with the leagues, teams and schools we cover to maintain safe work environments,” the joint statement said. “We also must ensure the locker room access — which we have negotiated over decades — to players, coaches and staff is not unnecessarily limited in either the short or long term.”

LeBron James speaks on possibility of playing in empty arenas as NBA makes coronavirus plans

The statement was signed by the presidents of the Associated Press Sports Editors, Baseball Writers’ Association of America, North American Soccer Reporters, Pro Football Writers of America, Professional Basketball Writers Association, Professional Hockey Writers Association and U.S. Basketball Writers Association.

The PBWA said in a separate statement, “We understand the NBA’s decision to temporarily close locker rooms to everyone but players and essential team personnel with the NBA’s promise that once the coronavirus crisis abates, the league will restore full access to the journalists who cover the league. … Locker room access is essential to good sports journalism.”

Covid-19, the disease caused by a new strain of the virus that originated in China, has infected more than 100,000 people worldwide and has caused several thousand deaths. In the United States, more than 600 cases in 35 states, plus the District of Columbia, have been confirmed thus far, with 22 deaths.

Sports leagues have begun instituting practices to try to slow the spread of the disease, including making hand sanitizer widely available at games, as well as encouraging fans to wash their hands frequently and advising them to avoid close contact with people who appear ill.

Nevertheless, an NBA executive told The Washington Post that the league may be “forced to play games in empty arenas at some point.” Another executive described recent comments by LeBron James, who declared he would not play if no fans were in attendance, as “shortsighted” and “not helpful.”

The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee announced Monday that it had postponed a media summit scheduled for next week in Los Angeles. There were 109 athletes confirmed to appear, as of Monday afternoon, including track stars Allyson Felix, Christian Coleman and Galen Rupp; basketball players Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Elena Delle Donne; swimmer Ryan Lochte; soccer star Carli Lloyd; and golfer Danielle Kang.

“As we weighed this decision, we relied on the expert opinion of our USOPC medical staff, our Infectious Disease Advisory Group, [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] professionals and local leaders, and came to the joint conclusion that the potential of spread or infection, however remote or unlikely, could have a real impact on the athletes of Team USA,” USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland wrote in an email to athletes. “With 136 days to the opening of the Olympic Games, and 168 to the opening of the Paralympic Games, that simply isn’t a risk worth taking.”

The Post’s Thomas Floyd contributed to this report.