Bernstein: Leagues' Media Ban Misses The Mark

(670 The Score) I understand the temptation to think of sports media members as more likely to spread illness and pestilence. Really, I do.

We're often slovenly, harried and overtired, smelling like a combination of gas-station hot dogs, rental cars and the feculent air at the very back of a 737. Whatever you do, never use a men's room near a working press area if there is a available alternative, lest you see Lovecraftian horrors capable of driving you mad.

But banning reporters from locker rooms while still filling arenas with 20,000 fans and many thousands of other workers seems more than a bit disingenuous, a way to look like protective steps are being taken in a way that doesn't prevent the money from coming in and also making players' lives that much more convenient.

Four leagues -- the NBA, NHL, MLB and MLS -- have agreed jointly to limit locker room access to essential personnel only, ostensibly to minimize players' contact with anyone who could be carrying coronavirus. On its face, it makes sense, but the logic starts to crumble when one really understands the proximity each player will have to any number of other people from the moment he hands his car over to the parking attendant upon arrival. Teams may believe their marketing assistants, PR people, athletic trainers and all of the stadium employees and fans are somehow safer to be around than the media, but their specific reasoning hasn't yet been made clear.

If this were just a health issue, there would be no fans at all, a precaution already taken by European and Asian sports leagues that haven't canceled games altogether. In basketball in particular, sweaty players are slamming into each other and often into courtside seats, while ball kids with giant specialized mops run out to dry up the puddles they leave. Those in the other sports are also colliding and high-fiving and being touched by coaches and teammates, assuming far more contact than that occurring during a standard interview.

The more sinister subplot is the possibility that this policy is a trojan horse, setting up something more permanent when coronavirus eventually burns out. Leagues can later hide behind an abundance of precaution, supposedly wary of the next pathogen that mutates from some faraway cave into our everyday lives. Doing so would be a mistake, severing the personal connection critical to the relationship building good for the players, teams and fans.

Don't believe me? Read this from Reds first baseman Joey Votto, who talked with C. Trent Rosecrans of The Athletic

"I'd say a vast majority of the stories involve nuance, emotion, personal relationships," Votto said. "Even if they're incorrect, a perception of how someone reacted or how a player reacted can be told through facial expressions, getting to know that person and tone. I think that if you don't have that on a daily basis, you don't get to share those insights and frankly, most fans don't care about the balls and strikes and runs and wins -- well, I guess wins -- but runs, but they care about the person. They want to feel like they're close to the performer in any sport. I think everyone in the media is the bridge that connects the athlete with the public and without that close proximity, I don't personally think you get that human component."


If this is more than a temporary and misguided reaction, teams also risk becoming affected more negatively by the uncontrollable whims of social media, the sketchy fan blogs and outright trolls they so often decry. The more isolated teams become from credentialed regulars, the harder it is to push back credibly when narratives spin awry, often due to something shared by a player himself.

These sports are pretending a public health issue is the reason for what looks like a beta test of a more restrictive policy to come. It's a short-term power grab with more future downside than they seem to understand, dressed up as a safety move.

As long as there are fans at these games, masses of human beings coughing and breathing and touching and sharing tight quarters of air and space, this can only be something else.

Dan Bernstein is a co-host of 670 The Score’s Bernstein & McKnight Show in midday. You can follow him on Twitter @Dan_Bernstein.