Why are reporters in the Reds’ clubhouse anyway?
Yes, I know they’re there because that’s their job. Unlike a lot of my media rants, this is not about reporters, really. It’s about the teams and the leagues and the arrangement in place in which, despite their clear annoyance with having to answer to the press, they open up their facilities to the press every day. And, barring some Bryan Price-style meltdown, at least go through the motions of answering their questions. Why does that arrangement persist?
This question occurred to me a bit ago when HBT reader and excellent baseball author Mark Armour asked me why the reporters-in-the-clubhouse model was so important. He — citing my reference to Barry Bonds as “an entertainer” this morning — wondered why entertainers like, say, Bob Dylan don’t let the press on their tour bus in the morning to tell them how the set is shaping up for that evening. How, after the show, Dylan doesn’t sit down in a media scrum and answer questions about why he changed the pronoun in the second verse of “Tangled up in Blue” from “I” to “she.” Why he doesn’t get a “talk about the key change in ‘Girl From the North Country,’ Bob” non-question. I mean, that’d be really bizarre, right? So why do we assume that’s the default model with entertainers who play shortstop instead of a guitar and a harmonica?
On a basic level they do so mostly out of custom and habit. It’s what has always been done. There are rules and agreements in place with the league and entities like the BBWAA. And, of course, it’s a relationship that doesn’t usually cause problems, yesterday’s blowup notwithstanding. Certainly not the kinds of problems that would occur if, tomorrow, the Cincinnati Reds said they’d no longer make anyone available to non-team-affiliated press. It’d be a headache and a half. And the leagues would get mad too, fining people and the like.
But rules could be changed. Agreements with the BBWAA could be tossed out or be allowed to expire. Even though we rarely question the source of today’s sports and media landscape, the fact is that it’s not carved in stone that it has to be like this. If the teams and the league and the players truly got fed up with having to answer to the outside press — and they are clearly more and more annoyed with having to do so — they could change the whole relationship. But they don’t. Why?
I don’t think it’s “because the press gives the teams and league publicity.” Sure, once, long ago, there was an unspoken agreement: the teams used the press for publicity and the press used sports news to sell papers. But that model has been disrupted a a great deal. Teams and leagues have their own websites and p.r. departments and TV networks and can produce content to stoke interest in the fan base in orders of magnitude greater than comments to an independent reporter can manage. The newspapers’ part is much weaker than it used to be and they depend on the sports content — and advertising — more than they did 100 years ago. It’s gone from a symbiotic relationship to one of dependence in a lot of cases. So what is it?
Beyond habit, I think there is an underlying benefit that sports leagues and teams get from this relationship. One that Bryan Price and most players likely don’t think about but that commissioners and their attorneys and the visionaries they hire to make grand plans think about from time to time. That benefit: they get to appear as if they are quasi-public trusts, not private, for-profit businesses. And that’s really, really good for sports leagues and franchises.
The Reds got a sweet stadium deal several years back. So sweet for them and so, so bad for the taxpayers of Hamilton County, Ohio. They didn’t get that by virtue of a grassroots campaign which convinced the local government to do so. Most of the heavy lifting had already been done. Done in the form of more than 100 years of the Reds and, for a shorter period of time and lesser extent, the Bengals, posing as civic institutions rather than private, family-owned companies that are, functionally speaking, no different than a used car lot. Just one with more customers.
Sure, a lot of this posing developed naturally, as the role professional sports played in civic life was very different years ago than it is now, but it’s a pose that works to the Reds’ favor when it comes to things like that stadium. Or having its security operation outsourced to local police. Or any other number of ways that the clubs benefit from having a the city’s name before its nickname as opposed to having some corporation’s name on it like some European football club or Japanese baseball team.
With that benefit comes some minor costs. Some are social, such as appearing in parades if and when they win something (the car dealership doesn’t do this if it has a big year). Some are philanthropic and no doubt well-intentioned, such as leading charity efforts. On an MLB-wide scale, it may involve coming and answering to Congress whenever scandals erupt in order to hold on to that antitrust exemption that baseball gets, in large part, because it was once and still sort of is seen as a public good. For the NFL it’s to maintain it’s crazy-favorable tax status. And, finally, as to the topic at hand today, one cost teams and leagues incur is the necessary annoyance of holding press conferences to give the illusion of accountability, just like any other public entity has to do.
I don’t think any of these things leagues and teams do are calculated schemes — again, custom and tradition are of primary importance here — but taken altogether, a whole lot of how sports function in our society can be explained in terms of for-profit businesses acting as if they are fourth branches of the government or, at the very least, public trusts or public goods. They’re treated differently and more preferentially than any other old business is, both in practical terms and in their standing and popularity, and they’re not eager to do things to mess that up, such as blatantly antagonizing the press.
Yet, increasingly, they are antagonizing the press, at least from the point of view of the press. Access is being curtailed and competition to the traditional press is being underwritten by teams and leagues. Players are increasingly loathe to give the press their time. This Reds/Price stuff can be seen as contempt for the press and shock that it dare not be the club’s lapdog. It’s kind of crazy, really.
I’m sort of agnostic about all of that. I am of the view that fans don’t care too terribly much about what goes on inside the clubhouse or what players and managers have to say. They care about the games on the field way, way, way more than they care about anything else. I have argued that the press should largely cede the business of reporting commodity news like injuries, lineups and stuff to the clubs. I think that the best reporting one usually sees comes from reporters talking to athletes and sports figures away from the clubhouse or, at the very least, outside the confines of general media availability. The best analysis I see comes from people who allow themselves to be a step removed from the club itself and who allow themselves to be critical and unconcerned with upsetting sources. A world without that traditional team-media interaction would be weird if the dynamic changed tomorrow, but it’d work just fine I bet.
Most of the time I am inclined to think it’d be good for that dynamic to end. And I hope — perhaps naively, but I hope all the same — that if that dynamic ended we’d also see the end of society’s viewing of sports as a public trust. The end of the illusion that sports are somehow not businesses and are somehow subject to a greater deference and privilege than any other business. The end to baseless and indefensible subsidies and the end to the deification of sports figures — especially sports executives — as something greater and more noble than they are. Yes, I think I’d rather like it that way.
But if that dynamic does not end — if teams and leagues continue to go through the motions of appearing responsive to the press and if they seek the benefit of being seen as quasi-public entities — they had best not simultaneously pretend that they’re not at least superficially accountable. Accountable to the press, their fans and the public at large. Such accountability is all something of a charade, I imagine, but asking professional sports to keep it up, even in a half-hearted manner should not be too much to ask.