AJR  Features
From AJR,   December 1996

Across the Great Divide   

The skyrocketing salaries of professional athletes and the sometimes smothering crush of journalists in the locker room have created a widening rift between sports reporters and the people they cover.

By Michael Sokolove
Michael Sokolove, a former Philadelphia Inquirer sports writer, is a staff writer for the Inquirer's Sunday magazine. He is the author of Hustle: The Myth, Life, and Lies of Pete Rose.     

I T IS EARLY OCTOBER at magnificent Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Most of major league baseball has already gone off hunting and fishing, or whatever it is that millionaire ballplayers do for fun these days. But the Baltimore Orioles and Cleveland Indians, at this point two of the eight teams still playing for a shot at the World Series, are engaged in a taut, high-stakes ball game.

Big deal.

The boys in the press box (yes, they are still mostly boys) are talking like they can't wait for it to be over. "Is it against the law to play one of these games quickly?" one writer grouses. "This game is taking forever," says another. "Jesus, let's get this thing over with," says a third.

Is this kind of talk just a pose--the studied sourness common to journalists of all stripes? Not as much as you might think.

Increasingly, the downbeat demeanor in the press box is an expression of genuine unhappiness. Sportswriters are suffering, largely because the place they do their news gathering, the locker room, has become hostile turf, an unpleasant place to spend a big chunk of a work day.

You read now and then about a writer being verbally or even physically abused by a player. It happens. The day-to-day reality is an even greater indignity: Sportswriters are ignored by the athletes they cover. They're viewed as irritants --"green flies" in the lexicon of the baseball clubhouse--and held at a distance.

"There was a time when you could stand in a locker room and talk with a player," says George Vecsey, a longtime sports columnist for the New York Times. "Yes, you were fishing for a story, but you could have something like a real conversation.

"If a player gave you a bad time, it was a personal thing. Maybe he was having a bad day, or he was hungover, or he didn't like something you wrote the day before. The fury was personal. Now it's institutional. So many players hate the press, or they can't see any use for it."

Ray Didinger wrote sports for 26 years, for the old Philadelphia Bulletin and then for the Philadelphia Daily News, before taking a job early this year as a producer for NFL Films. "The blow-off factor increased every year I was in the business," Didinger says. "It used to be if you approached a guy for an interview and he dusted you off, you'd say, 'What's his problem?'

"Now you approach a guy knowing there's a very good chance you're going to be blown off, or you're just going to get something perfunctory. It got to the point where I didn't expect a real give-and-take. If I got that, I was surprised."

So what has changed over the past two decades? Just about everything.

Money is part of it. Players once believed that cooperating with the press, and being portrayed as a "good guy" in stories, helped win them raises from management. Now, they get outsized salaries whether they grant interviews or repel requests by dumping buckets of ice water on writers' heads. It doesn't matter.

Another change is the sheer numbers in the locker rooms. The media mob has become so large and so aggressive that many players feel under siege. So they hide out. On deadline. It's not unusual for a beat writer, after a night baseball game, to take the press elevator down to the clubhouse and--with 15 minutes or less to get quotes and file a story--find two players (out of 25 on the roster) available for interviews. Or none.

Sports editors are having a hard time keeping writers on the traditional team beats, especially baseball, where relations with players are by far the worst. At my paper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Phillies beat has come open about once every two years over the last decade. The paper has eight former baseball beat writers on staff, including National Editor Larry Eichel and political writer Dick Polman. But at the end of last season, Executive Sports Editor Nancy Cooney was again searching for a suitable candidate to fill the beat.

"I was 23 years old when I first got to cover a major league team, and I felt like it was the greatest day of my life," says Tim Kurkjian, 39, a Sports Illustrated senior writer who specializes in baseball. "I don't think there are too many guys who feel like that now, even in the beginning."

Says Barry Forbis, sports editor at the Rocky Mountain News, "There aren't that many writers anymore who want to do day-to-day beat work. It's seen as grunt work, a grind. The players are hard to deal with, and there's not really an off-season anymore because of all the money and labor stuff."

Forbis is referring to another big change in the sportswriting business: story content. Sportswriters now write as much about salaries, contracts and labor strife as they do about what happens on the field.

Amid such an atmosphere, it can be difficult for writers to reach for the longtime staples of fine sportswriting: humor, light-heartedness, the humanity of the players and the magic of the games.

A S IN ANY TROUBLED relationship, there's blame on all sides in the strained interaction between media and players.

A great many players, without doubt, are too rich, too coddled and too adored. They see the world as children do, with themselves at the center. It would be hard to be married to such a person, or even to be one's friend. So why would anyone expect them to be particularly easy to deal with in a reporter-source relationship, which, after all, is something that takes work and a certain amount of maturity from both parties?

It is also a fact that print reporters are unlikely to regain preeminent status in the locker room. The players are children of the TV age--if Keith Olbermann, the witty host of "SportsCenter," ever walked into a locker room, the players might seek his autograph.

But even without the players changing, sportswriters could do themselves some favors. First off, each of them could take a solemn vow: I will not be in the locker room unless engaged in productive work (an interview, or the prospect of one in the near future). Why do players think writers are just loitering? Because some of them are.

Baseball writers, in particular, might consider some self-policing. They arrive early for a perfectly understandable and supportable reason--to re-create the intimate atmosphere of decades past, in order to have conversations with players before the cameras and boom mikes arrive.

They also get there early partly out of fear: Everyone's afraid the other guy is in the clubhouse getting some kind of scoop, which almost never happens.

Maybe the best thing that could happen for the baseball press would be for their clubhouse time to be restricted--certainly not to football-like hours--but perhaps to two hours before games. Their workday would be shorter. Relations with players might improve. And they would still have time to gather material.

But the writers are not likely to initiate such a move. "It won't happen," says Holtzman, former president of the Baseball Writers of America. "If someone wants to get there at noon, that's their business."

Finally, the leagues--again, especially baseball--could aggressively address the problems. The NBA, the most forward-looking of the pro leagues, runs a three-day rookie seminar each fall that includes sessions on how to relate to the press. Among the topics covered is the concept of deadline.

Baseball players, if they're in the clubhouse at all on deadline, are frequently enjoying the post-game buffet. If approached for an interview, the stock answer from many is: "I'll talk to you when I'm done eating."

Which, of course, is too late.

Reynolds suggests a way that the office of the baseball commissioner, with the cooperation of the players' union, could improve the situation.

"You put down a mandate: Everybody is accessible to the media for 15 minutes after every game," Reynolds says. "Just like you have to be at batting practice at 4 p.m. But it has to be an order. Put it in everybody's contract.

"You say to guys, 'If you don't want any post-game attention, don't play well. Then everyone will leave you in peace.' "