Sports, journalists and access

A great story from The New York Times today about Brazilian journalists chafing under the restrictions of the World Cup media rules, which sound from the description here just about like the rules you have for any major event. [Read it here]

But Brazilian reporters, print, television and radio, are used to being extremely close to the action, standing on the sidelines or even right behind the net.

Clip:

In soccer-mad Brazil, radio and television reporters stand behind the goals and along the sideline during matches. Technically, they are restricted to interviewing players before matches, at halftime and after the final whistle. But sometimes they get a few comments after goals are scored or when players receive red-card ejections. Once, they were even known to follow Pelé into the shower.

“In Brazil, everything is possible,” said Jorge Baptista, a Portuguese television commentator who is the press officer at Ellis Park Stadium here during the World Cup, where the rules are much stricter.

I guess I’ve grown accustomed to that drill. Back in my days of covering high school sports, I felt like I had to make the choice of sitting in the press box, where I could keep more accurate stats (no stats were kept for us otherwise), or going down to the sidelines, where I could get a better feel for the game.

That changed when I went mainly to college coverage. I had great access in my first college assignment — covering Division II basketball for Bruce Pearl’s Southern Indiana teams. I could go to practice every day, talk to players whenever I wanted. It was an ideal situation.

It would never happen again in my career.

Now, the best we can hope for is an open locker room. On our biggest beats now — UK and U of L football and basketball — the only one with open locker room access is U of L basketball. UK, which doesn’t open its locker room, may have a slight edge in news conference availability. I’m not sure. Football for the two schools is about the same. Neither opens the locker room after a game. Time just “hanging out” around the players before or after games or practices just doesn’t happen anymore. And it shows in the stories you see these days, versus what you used to see 20 years ago.

Occasionally I’m asked why this program or that may have more features or whatever in a given time period. Generally, it’s because that program has had more news going on in the same span. But sometimes it’s because that program allowed more access, whether by design or just by the way it is set up.

A couple of days back, I quoted Pulitzer Prize-0winning sports columnist Jim Murray’s autobiography. Here’s a quick passage he wrote about access:

I must confess I don’t like John Thompson. And I will tell you why. In the spring of 1988 when he was named coach of the U.S. Olympic basketball team, I was beseeched to help the team raise funds for the trip by covering a basketball game put in in Las Vegas for that very purpose. I agreed.

I arrived in Las Vegas to request an interview with one or more of the players on the team. The request was refused. John Thompson did not permit the players to talk to anyone. Okay, I relented, grudgingly, how about an interview with John Thompson, then? Again, I was refused. John Thompson would talk to the press only for a brief ten-minute period at the conclusion of the game. You couldn’t talk to players even then.

You can imagine my frame of mind. My paper had shelled out a sizable sum of money for me to go up and cover an event that I was effectively prevented from covering. The game was televised, so they didn’t need me to tell them the number of rebounds or the score.

My point was, this was not John Thompson’s team to tell what to do. This was America’s team, our Olympic team. I have no quarrel with what John Thompson does with his Georgetown University team. That’s between him and Georgetown, which is a private institution. My tax money, my contributions to the Olympic movement don’t go to Georgetown. But the Olympic team was something else again.

That’s a far cry from what the Brazil media are used to. In general, there is significant access in professional sports in this country. In general, pro clubhouses are open for a couple of hours before games and for an hour or so afterward. College teams have far more restrictive rules — until the NCAA Tournament in basketball, when open locker rooms are mandatory and writers often have more access to players than they’ve had all season.

And now, we’re entering a time when the access is for sale. A number of years back, during a football media day, some interviews I was doing were cut short so that a local television station that had paid for broadcast rights to local games could tape “live” mug shots of the players and a few interviews to use later in the year during game broadcasts.

I protested, noting that I was going to be at every game, road and home, that I was going to be with them day-to-day, and that furthermore, the material I was using people would actually see, as opposed to a 30-second clip they might or might not catch during the game. But the message was clear. Someone actually said, “You want more time, tell the paper to write the check.”

Of course, once you write the check, you become a part of the “team.” And that’s not what we’re around to do.

Another thing affecting decisions on access is internet coverage. Schools and pro teams are having to decide how many online outlets to credential and give access to their programs. Some are credentialing more, some fewer. Either way, the more people being credentialed, the more controls that have to be put in place, and the more filters you get between the players and fans.

Increasingly, it’s tougher to get at the real people behind the jerseys. People wonder why a guy will all of a sudden leave school and have more in-depth profiles appear on him. (It happened with Terrence Williams and John Wall both.) I’d wager that never in the college career of John Wall did he have a single reporter granted 45 minutes of uninterrupted time with him. Nor in the case of Terrence Williams, did he ever have a reporter spend a few hours with him in his room in Minardi Hall (as a reporter from The New York Times spent with him last summer).

These aren’t meant to be excuses for local folks, and certainly they’re not criticisms or complaints of the local schools — which only are doing things they feel like they need to do to make the lives of their players more manageable. We have exceptional sports information professionals around here, some of the best in the nation.

But access is a tricky business, and getting trickier all the time.

As those guys from Brazil are starting to learn.

It’s not a discussion most people think about. In general, most fans don’t care how much access reporters have, and that’s fine. But it does affect the reporting and writing that you see.

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