The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The locker room is where journalists build trust with athletes. Coronavirus just closed it.

Milwaukee Brewers right fielder Christian Yelich speaks to reporters in the clubhouse. Citing the spread of the coronavirus, major sports leagues are cutting off press access to locker rooms. (John Minchillo/AP)

Paul Sullivan has been covering baseball for the Chicago Tribune since 1987. He has roamed a lot of clubhouses.

He got so close to Tony Phillips, the former White Sox outfielder, that Phillips used to commandeer Sullivan’s tape recorder and record his opinions of the day. In the mid-2000s, Sullivan heard from countless Cubs players about how they didn’t like the music that Sammy Sosa played in the clubhouse — information that proved useful when a teammate smashed Sosa’s boombox at the end of one season. Just last week, Sullivan interviewed Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo over lunch. They ate in Rizzo’s Bentley, but the interaction had roots in the clubhouse.

“He would never have invited me into his car if we didn’t have a relationship built up over years of talking in the clubhouse,” said Sullivan, who is president of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. “Players get to know you; they trust you — and hopefully at some point, they give you information you can use.”

This access has long been the foundation of the relationships between athletes and sports reporters. But it was interrupted this week when Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, the NHL and NBA issued a joint statement announcing that locker rooms will be closed to the press indefinitely because of fears about the spread of the coronavirus.

The Associated Press Sports Editors, along with the writers’ associations of the major North American sports leagues, agreed to cooperate “in the name of public health.” With major sporting events being canceled, and others set to be played in empty stadiums, the writers seemed to acknowledge that restricting some access to players was, for now, a small and understandable step.

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But in their statement, the associations raised concerns that the leagues will use the temporary policy change to permanently cut off access to one of the last places reporters can freely mingle with players.

“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,” the associations wrote.

Sullivan said the policy would mean fewer illuminating interviews, which would mean fewer stories that take readers behind the scenes, which would ultimately impact fans. And in a world where access to athletes is increasingly managed by handlers and PR professionals, the locker room remains the last place a reporter can ask a player just about anything.

“If you look at the trend of access, it decreases over time,” said Emily Kaplan, a hockey writer for ESPN and an executive vice president of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. “I don’t believe the leagues are trying to take it away,” she continued, stressing her belief that the new rules would be temporary. But she also noted the importance of a return to the status quo: "These are our livelihoods.”

Reporters and teams confronted this new reality Tuesday morning, with uneven results. Sullivan said the Cubs reached out to reporters to set up a meeting to discuss the guidelines. New York Yankees writers, meanwhile, showed up to the team’s spring training facility and waited around for nearly an hour before they received any guidance from the team.

“Good media departments are going to work with writers," Sullivan said. “The bad ones are going to make it hard.”

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Baseball writers typically get about an hour of clubhouse access around three hours before every game. Hockey writers get around 20 minutes of dressing room time after practice on game days. Basketball writers can roam the locker room before games, too. Now, all of that will have to be coordinated by a PR staffer, making interviews harder for reporters to get and easier for teams to control.

Players and reporters will also be asked to keep six to eight feet between them, a modest attempt at “social distancing" that earned some ridicule on Tuesday, as government officials grew more frustrated with sports leagues’ hesitance to postpone games or keep fans out of arenas. “I found it quite curious that the four major organizations ... put out guidelines to protect their athletes but not their fans,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom said at a news conference.

Jennifer Giglio, chief communications officer for the Washington Nationals, said she had been in touch with reporters covering the team, urging them to request interviews through the PR staff, which would coordinate conversations with players somewhere other than the clubhouse.

“The message from Major League Baseball is not to take away access,” she said. “It was that we need to find ways to make sure the access reporters are getting continues.”

Locker room access is unique to American sports journalism; soccer writers in the United Kingdom, for example, have far less interaction with players. And even before the new policy, that access was waning, Sullivan said. He used to be able to approach players at the batting cage, he said, but that practice is mostly frowned upon by teams now, if not explicitly forbidden. He also used to be able to return to the clubhouse after batting practice, but that’s no longer allowed. It affects the coverage, writers said.

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“Access enables both players and journalists to start to get to know each other as human beings,” said Josh Robbins, a writer for the Athletic and the president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association. “That empathy carries over into the journalism we produce. It is critical to helping journalists portray athletes as they are, which is human beings. That basic humanity benefits everybody — especially readers and players.

“It also makes us more accountable to the players," he added. "We have to face them.”

Both the NBA and NHL writers’ associations have been promised by the leagues that the restrictions are temporary and will be lifted after the health scare abates. Major League Baseball released a statement that described all clubhouse restrictions as temporary.

“A lot of writers I’ve talked to are concerned,” Sullivan said. “I really do believe MLB wants this to be short-term. It’s in their best interest for it not to be a long-term thing. But who knows?”

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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