The NFL training camp protocols are probably a strong indication of what’s in store for the regular season scheduled to begin in September, though negotiations are still ongoing. That means that even as fans return to stadiums and as the country as a whole moves toward normalcy, NFL reporters probably will not be roaming locker rooms during the week of practice and after games, as was custom before the pandemic.
The continued restrictions come as media members across sports are grappling with questions about access to athletes and what their jobs may look like in the future.
Sports returned last summer without the traditional access that reporters were used to. Conversations with players moved from more relaxed, open locker rooms to stilted Zoom calls that made it difficult to ask players private questions. Whether that access would ever return was a major worry for reporters, who are pushing leagues to increase access as the pandemic recedes in the United States.
That conversation was complicated this week when tennis star Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open, citing concerns about her mental health after she was fined for declining to speak at a post-match news conference. Her decision prompted a wave of debate about what athletes owe the reporters who cover them.
Fans have returned to NBA and NHL arenas for the playoffs and to MLB games, too, but reporters have not been welcomed back to those locker rooms, where beat writers do much of their source and relationship building with players.
The NFL’s coronavirus-related protocols are still being negotiated between the league and the NFL Players Association, but the direction those negotiations are headed raised the concerns of the Pro Football Writers of America. “We understood the necessity to close the locker rooms during the 2020 season,” the group said in a statement, “but as we move into what is hopefully the final stages of the pandemic, we feel confident there is a safe way to resume locker room access this season, especially for fully vaccinated reporters.”
The PFWA appeared to suggest that Osaka’s withdrawal pointed to reporters needing more access, not less.
“Locker room access is at the heart of our jobs covering the NFL and telling the stories that fans want and deserve to hear,” it said. “Dialogue in recent days has only reinforced the need to have meaningful interactions with the athletes we cover beyond press conference settings. Those one-on-one and small group conversations are critical not only to cover the game but the people who play it. Locker room access ensures that every player has the opportunity to have his voice heard and his story told if he chooses.”
The league is hopeful that vaccinated media members will have access to teams’ training facilities, practice fields and media workrooms and will be able to do some in-person interviews with players and coaches, according to a person familiar with the situation. Vaccinated reporters could conduct in-person interviews in a news conference setting or as part of a small, distanced group, perhaps as a player leaves the practice field or in a similar scenario.
That would represent a step forward from the 2020 season, when all media access to NFL teams’ players and coaches was conducted remotely.
Other leagues are still determining what access will look like in the future. The NHL has said it expects to go back to normal media access once its medical personnel says it’s safe. That includes reporters being allowed face-to-face access with players in the dressing room twice a day on game days and once during practice days.
The NBA has made gradual changes to media access during the playoffs, allowing television sideline reporters to conduct postgame interviews on the court and instructing teams that they could seat media members in vaccinated sections closer to the court.
The NBA has no current timeline to reopen locker rooms to reporters, which people in the league view as a “really significant step” from a health standpoint. However, it is possible that media members could attend a news conference in the same room as the players and coaches, a setup the league deployed at its bubble in Disney World last year. With the playoffs in full swing, plans for media access for the 2021-22 season have not yet commenced, NBA spokesman Tim Frank said.
“We’ve made changes when we thought it was possible, and if there are changes to be made at some point, we’ll do that,” Frank said. “It’s a process. The guidance is always, first and foremost, medical.”
The Baseball Writers’ Association of America sent an update this week to members announcing that reporters would soon be allowed back on the field before games, though they will need to show proof of vaccination. Clubhouses, however, remain closed to reporters, and all access issues are part of collective bargaining between MLB and the players’ union, C. Trent Rosecrans, the association’s president, wrote in an email to members.
“We will be working to get full clubhouse access back as soon as possible,” Rosecrans wrote.
Rosecrans added that he had heard from several players who would welcome reporters back into the clubhouse. He urged reporters to tell any player who expressed those feelings to pass them along to the union.
But until a new agreement is reached, players and reporters will continue to communicate through Zoom, a frustrating experience for many reporters — and even some players.
“Honestly, this is terrible,” Cincinnati Reds outfielder Nick Castellanos said. “What am I doing? Talking to a camera and a screen. Screens, to me, are the worst possible things people can look at. I’m sick and tired of it, honestly.”
Samantha Pell, Chelsea Janes and Ben Golliver contributed to this report.