Another important reason to not neglect the Naomi Osaka/French Open controversy

The decision by one of the world’s top female tennis players to abandon her chances at a French Open title has sparked plenty of conversation. Summarized briefly, Naomi Osaka walked away from the tournament because she refused to speak to the media. Osaka said the mental anguish those interview sessions often caused made her decide that she’d rather not play than be required to talk to the journalists covering the event.

If you’re looking for support or criticism of Osaka’s decision, then stop reading right now. I’ve no interest in arguing whether Osaka did or didn’t do the right thing. My opinion might or might not agree with yours; and at the end of the day, what you or I think is irrelevant. This blog post serves a different purpose: A reminder that the interaction between sports reporters and athletes is undergoing a significant shift; and if it continues, the practice of daily sports journalism will change. And not for the good.

I contend open and easy access to athletes is an essential feature of sports reporting. They are the ones who make the catches, hit the home runs, score the goals and earn the victories. Sports reporters document these successes (or their corresponding failures), but the athletes provide a perspective essential to telling the full account of how a game unfolded.

During the spring semester, several sports journalists spoke to the students in one of my classes, and the topic of how the pandemic had changed reporting was front and center. Of course, everyone understood the need to conduct interviews via video as the pandemic raged; it was neither safe nor reasonable to do anything else. However, many of the reporters were concerned that teams or organizations might continue the practice once we returned to normal life.

I’m going to use Major League Baseball as an example of the access reporters have to the players. Before a game, reporters can be found in the clubhouse or on the field interviewing the managers, coaches and players. The topics can range from updates on a player’s health to changes to the lineup and everything in between. That access ends roughly 45 minutes before the game begins. As the field is being prepared for the game, the players return to the clubhouse for their final pre-game preparations. Then roughly 10 minutes after the game ends, the clubhouse doors are again opened to the media.

These interactions for journalists are the mother’s milk of excellent reporting. It is during these conversations that reporters can dive deep into a topic or engage a player in a long chat about something relating to how he’s playing or how the team is doing. These discussions build the trust that reporters and players need.

Shutting the doors and moving everything to online benefits the organizations. They can even more effectively control the narrative about the team, especially when things are not going well or there’s a lingering controversy. Players speaking privately to a reporter might open up and reveal something important, but they won’t do that in a group video setting. The depth and quality of reporting suffers.

You might think that’s not a big deal. I ask you to consider the professional field you’re in and then I want you to remove an essential piece of that job. Imagine if your doctor lost the ability to consult with specialists. Imagine if your child’s teacher could no longer access computers at school. Could they still complete your daily tasks? Of course. But they couldn’t do them as well as they did in the past, and the quality of their professional work would be degraded. That’s why open access to athletes matters.

Access to the players — no matter the sport — has been a fundamental part of the reporter’s job for decades. Organizations that refuse to continue this practice are damaging the quality of their sport and undermining the importance of journalism.

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