Last week, Michele Roberts, head of the National Basketball Players Association, was quoted in an article on ESPNW.com, speaking about an interaction that had her concerned about some media members and their place in the locker room.
"Most of the time I go to the locker room, the players are there and there are like eight or nine reporters just standing there, just staring at them," Roberts said. "And I think to myself, 'OK, so this is media availability?' If you don't have a f---ing question, leave, because it's an incredible invasion of privacy.
If nothing else, I would like to have a rule imposed, 'If you have a question, ask it; if you don't, leave.' Sometimes, they're waiting for the marquee players. I get that, but there is so much standing around."
The quote drew an immediate response from reporters who took exception to Roberts' characterization of media availability. I was personally concerned that her words, namely the, "ask a question or leave" comment, came dangerously close to telling reporters how to use the short amount of face time we get with the players.
I called Roberts to ask her to expand on those thoughts. I agreed to transcribe the conversation verbatim so that all context was included. It's a little bit "inside baseball," (or "basketball, as it were) but here's the takeaway: Yes, Roberts has some things learn about the media process, but she's willing to have the necessary conversations to help improve relationships between the media and the players.
Sarah Kogod: The quote from the ESPNW article drew swift criticism. What was your intent when you said it?
Michele Roberts: We were having a discussion about Kevin Durant and his whole thing, his dismay, and I began -- I am confident -- by saying I know, as he later said, he was not having a great moment at the time. But no one suggested, and I don't even think he was suggesting, that there not be access, or that the players should not be made available to answer questions to the media because, frankly, I'm less concerned about reporters being able to get questions answered, but this is for the fans. Those are the questions, presumably, that the fans want to have posed. And in my view the purpose of media in this country, both generally and within the context of sports, the rest of us need to have someone available to ask the questions of politicians, of athletes, of movie stars that we can't otherwise ask. I know I said that, made that quite clear, because I've been an advocate of the First Amendment since I could speak.
But I did say that there needed to be some appreciation on the part of all of us that we're going into their work space in a very personal way. And that, I was struck, and frankly remain struck -- you know I had this vision of locker rooms before I visited my first one based on what I'd seen on T.V. You know, reporters asking questions and everyone huddled around the players -- and I was struck when I first started visiting the rooms that sometimes you'd see that happen, and I've gotten to know some reporters, the good ones I know, and I see them asking questions and that happens.
But then I began to notice that there was a small group of reporters, and I now think that they're probably more bloggers than anything else, that would never ask questions. And they would typically walk into a locker room and they would just sort of be standing there, even at the point when media availability ended, I would never see them ask a question. Now, I know that there the marquees are sometimes not in the room and I get that there are sometimes people waiting for the so-called marquee players to come. But I wasn't referring to that. I was referring to those guys who frankly are just there appearing to be listening, but not asking questions.
Now if that's how you work, then that's how you work. But that was my response. And I know that players have complained to me that there are guys who just come in and stare at them. And so, that's what I was talking about.
I don't know how the NBA goes about deciding who to give media passes to, but there have been some concerns about people who come in just to sort of look at them. And they're not really interested in asking questions or writing a story, they just gawk. I think that's something even you guys might be concerned about. If not, fine, but it was an observation that I made. It was not designed to be an effort to curtail the media's access to the players.
SK: I can't speak to the specific situation that you were in, but I do feel like I need to advocate for the younger media members and bloggers. A lot of times they're told to observe, especially when they're not used to being in a locker room or a scrum situation. I've seen situations where a young blogger or intern is just trying to get their lay of the land.
MR: The people that are in my mind right now are not young. I'm there, and I'm old enough to see people. And I'm seeing these guys -- and I'm talking about New York locker rooms typically because that's where I am most of the time except when I travel -- but the guys that are coming to my mind now are not young. They may not be as old as I am, but they're not young.
SK: Have you talked to the league about their credential policies?
MR: I haven't. I have not talked to the league about their credential policies because it's not something that has been an issue that has prevented my people's access, so I haven't done that. But I have wondered about, maybe even wondered about it a little more since All-Star, because I noticed how many people were just able to walk about. And maybe it's because I'm in New York, but I found it odd that so many people were able to have access to areas where there are players and players families. I don't know.
SK: Do you think that's just you being protective? Because when you and I spoke for our profile, you expressed that you feel very protective of the players. Do you think some of this has something to do with that?
MR: There's no question that it does. I mean, I don't ever want to believe that something could happen to anyone, but I have observed the amount of traffic in the room and I'm only hoping there's been sufficient security and it's not an issue. I am very protective of the players and I'm obviously sensitive to things that they muse about. And there have been some concerns about the locker rooms. And I can only think of a couple of players who have said they don't want to answer questions, and it's normally been once or twice when they thought there had been a ‘Gotcha.'
But there has been a sense among the players that there are people in the room that are not really there to ask questions. Watching the players, I suppose, is gathering news. But watching them change clothes? What, watching them listen to music? Watch them have their pregame meal? Is that really news?
SK: I can't speak to other reporters' processes, but from my standpoint, especially when I used to cover Washington sports, there was a lot of information I could get by watching players interact with each other. Watching them eat with each other, watching them ask each other about their kids, the things they willingly do in an open locker knowing there is media there. There was a lot things to learn about those players and because of that, I was able to build relationships with them where, every time I stepped into their locker room it wasn't ,‘I need you to answer a question for me.' Sometimes it was, ‘How are you? How is your son? How was that book that so-and-so recommended to you? I might want to read that.' And that leads to better relationships for me.
I can't speak to how other people work, but for me there were times that I would walk into a locker room and walk out without a story. But I was able to have conversations with the players so they don't feel like they're just used for a quote.
MR: OK. What you just described is a conversation. That's perfectly appropriate and I get it that you want to establish relationships with players. And so to come in and ask a question that's not designed for a story, that's still doing your job. I take no issue with that.
And if you're saying -- and I can't doubt you -- that actually watching the players interact is, in fact, news, then I'll accept that. I hadn't seen it in that light, but if listening to conversations between the players helps you understand them in ways that enhance your ability to do your job, sold. I get it. Yeah, I get it.
I hope that that's what I'm seeing and perhaps not understanding. That makes absolute sense to me.
SK: OK. Now, this is not a slight on you, just an observation. You're not accustomed to being in a locker room with reporters and players. Do you think that there may be some things that you can learn from us as far as that process?
MR: Yeah. What would have been helpful is if you were interviewing me -- and I don't know Kate [Fagan] well enough and I'm not being critical of her -- but quite frankly if she had said exactly what you just said to me, that would have helped. It would have helped me understand a little bit more about the process that you guys have to go through to do your job. But I didn't have that conversation with her. I'm now having it with you and it's, quite frankly, very helpful. It truly is. But I did not have that conversation with her I was asked to note what I observed about what's going on in the locker rooms and what I found troubling, if anything. And that was my answer.
But hearing from you and your explanation for what the motives might be and how it does, in fact, enhance your ability to do your job is very helpful.
SK: I can also tell you, in the interest of furthering this discussion, that the system at times is broken. We get a half an hour before games to speak to players. I have been told by some players that they think it's bad luck to talk to media before games, and so even though that media session is mandatory, I can't force them to talk to me if they don't want to. Recently I was in a locker room where I couldn't get a single player to look up from their phone to answer a question. And I don't come in and ask invasive questions. So if I can't get a player to look up from a video game to answer me, we have a problem. That half hour we're given, sometimes we have to struggle to walk away with anything that we can use. It seems like there's a breakdown.
MR: Why do you think that is? What's going on? I've thought about this, a little bit since I made the observation. As you know, I'm a trial lawyer, not now, clearly. But I do know for me, before I go into a courtroom, the last thing I wanted to do was have a conversation with anybody, including the client. I've often thought, and I know it's harder for me because I go to sleep so early compared to the rest of the world, even though it's harder for me to do locker rooms after a game, I actually find that it's less intrusive. I believe, at least, it's less intrusive on the players because they're not trying to hype themselves up to go out and perform. At the same time they're tired and they want to be done with the whole mess. But at least I don't feel as though I'm interrupting them. I wonder if that's what's going on. Have you found that it's easier after the games than before the games?
SK: I think it depends on the situation. After a loss...
MR: Ah, that's right...
SK: ...sometimes it's hard to get players to speak to you, especially if you're doing something off beat like I usually am. Some players take extra long showers in the hopes that media will get tired of waiting and leave. And they just want to get home, just like you and I. It depends on the player. That's why the league has set up these mandatory sessions either before games or at shootaround.
But I also think there tends to be a blanket judgment of media by some players. It's very hard for those of us who want to develop relationships with players to overcome that perception. And I think it's a mirror image, sometimes, of how players want to be viewed. They don't want to be viewed as "all athletes," they want to be viewed as individuals, and I think as media members, most of us want the same.
MR: There's something broken, in my view, and there's got to be a reason for it. I don't know if we're all just kicking ourselves by insisting it has to be before or after a game and not some other time.
And look, I have the same difficulty finding a time that's convenient to meet with my guys too. As you know the teams have their schedules unbelievably loaded with stuff to do. But I do wonder if maybe we're missing the boat here that the ideal time is either before or after games. That's number one. Number two, it's just like everything else. There are some great reporters and the guys will say, ‘Oh, I'll talk to her any time,' or, ‘I'll talk to him any time because I don't think that he or she is trying to trip me up.'
But there's also the bad day, you're right, after a loss. I don't want to go into the locker room to talk to the losing team, especially if it was a humiliating loss, because I understand that they don't really want to see my face either. So I don't know what we're necessarily doing wrong, but I can see that there are discussions we have to have in order to do it better. And it may have a lot to do with timing.
When I talk to the players about media, that's what I hear. That there's some really smart media that want to get the story, and then there's some that just want to make you look stupid. And some of the guys are not media savvy and they don't want to appear to be saying something wrong or get fined for something they may say wrong. But maybe what we can do is have some discussions between the players and the media and address some of the problems that exist. Maybe we can talk about getting players to talk on your end, and on our end getting players to trust. I think that's a great idea.