WASHINGTON (12/3/18) — It used to be that a small group of writers covered a college or professional sports team, enjoying relatively easy access to coaches, players and practices.
“There were relationships and some level of trust,” said Greg Aiello, who for nearly 40 years was an NFL communications executive.
As press corps grew, coaches struggled to keep control and clamped down on access.
Aiello said the NFL created rules to mandate journalists have some access, but the landscape across the sporting world had already been permanently changed.
Sports writers may not be seen as the enemy of the teams they cover, but journalists’ access to coaches and players has dwindled over time, according to a panel of sports media pros gathered at the Newseum on Saturday.
The discussion — “Sports Writers: Are We Also The Enemy?” — was hosted by the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism’s Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and the Freedom Forum Institute. Povich Center Director George Solomon and Gene Policinski, president and chief operating officer of the Freedom Forum Institute, were the moderators.
The panel was convened amid President Donald Trump’s frequent assertion that journalists are “the enemy” of the American people — an attack Washington Post columnist Liz Clarke said isn’t being levied against sports journalists the way it is against others.
“Our landscape has changed,” Clarke said, but “we are not the enemy in the way very courageous journalists” — like slain Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi — are.
That doesn’t mean sports journalists don’t face hostility, Clarke said.
David Aldridge, now editor in chief of The Athletic D.C. but once a reporter for Turner Sports, was tasked with conducting in-game televised interviews with often reticent NBA coaches. None were apparently more reluctant than the San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich — famous for his often terse responses to reporters’ questions.
“‘This is 45-70 seconds of your day,’” Aldridge recalled thinking. “‘Can we get along?’”
Instead of rancorous, Aldridge’s interactions with Popovich were often humorous. He said he managed to work with the coach by learning the right way to ask certain questions — a lesson college basketball analyst Christy Winters Scott (’90) took from her playing days at the University of Maryland.
Sports writers often must ask tough questions, but “you have to temper it with the emotion of the athlete,” she said.
Former college football player and coach Pepper Rodgers, who last coached in 1995, said the change in relationship between teams and journalists has been caused by changes in technology.
“Football is a totally different game today with the Internet,” Rodgers said.
But even with the Internet and what it brings — more coverage despite less access — are sports writers the enemy?
“The answer is no,” Aiello said.