Like it or not, but so much of the broad popularization of sports in our culture was built upon the manner in which it was framed and covered by sports journalists over a period of decades that worked to humanize the players, rather than objects of entertainment. That is a process that included the manner of broadcasting athletes, for example, in closeups, with helmets off, reacting.
As we related more to athletes, we wanted to hear from them more and more, and even while nowadays whenever an athlete says something we don’t care about or don’t like we might be tempted to say, ‘Why does he talk so much?’, we’re still reading and writing what they’re saying, because the interest is there.
So much of that was built upon relationships, and the COVID-19 pandemic stilted that dynamic between players and the media last year. They were not allowed locker room access, and were only permitted to participate in group Zoom conferences.
At least for now, it appears that the NFL’s plan is to keep that structure, for better or for worse. Even as the nation gets vaccinated against the virus and the situation drastically improves and restrictions are lifted, the league is not preparing to welcome the media back into locker rooms.
“The NFL is expected to keep its locker rooms closed to reporters when teams report to training camps and begin playing preseason games this summer, according to two people with knowledge of the discussions”, Mark Maske writes for the Washington Post, “a sign that restrictions placed on sports media during the coronavirus pandemic might stretch into the fall or beyond”.
It had lead many to wonder whether the league, or perhaps the teams, are leveraging the situation to get the media out of their locker rooms. Some teams more than others—who will remain nameless—place a higher priority on filtering their messaging, and it’s a lot easier to control with the Zoom conference structure.
It is unclear whether or not that NFL will revisit their 2021 plans for the media later this offseason, or if they somehow aim to keep this structure indefinitely, presuming that they see it as being to their benefit.
It’s also unclear what sort of long-term ramifications that might have. While there might be an impulse to cheerlead the effort and take a shot at the media here, arguing a sense of entitlement, the reality is that our perception of the game has been shaped by the dynamic of the player-media locker room, and we may be seeing that changing before our eyes.