This past Monday I was making my weekly appearance on Washington Post Live, which airs here in town on Comcast Cable. Because of some kind of sponsorship deal the show has a segment EVERY day on the Redskins (and then later airs a show called, ‘Redskins Nation,’ which is so god-awful you would fall down laughing while watching it if its presence on the air—ANY air—wasn’t so downright sad).
Anyway, with the draft coming up and the Redskins having just completed their first mini-camp under new Coach Mike Shanahan, we actually did two Redskin segments. One of the other guests was Jason Reid, who does an excellent job covering the team for The Washington Post. Covering the Redskins for The Post is such an awful job I once left sports for two years rather than accept the assignment. (More on that in a moment).
During the mini-camp ‘discussion,’ (what the hell is there to discuss about mini-camp?) Jason casually mentioned that the media was not ALLOWED to be at the Redskins facility on Friday and Saturday. Only on Sunday did Shanahan grant them a few moments with the God-like figures who inhabit Redskins Park.
At first, I was literally stunned. No media at a mini-camp? What are they doing, plotting an invasion into Afghanistan? It then occurred to me that this lack of access, although it varies from team-to-team, is the way the NFL does business. Why does it do business this way? Because it CAN.
Even with a potential strike or lockout looming in 2011, there is nothing bigger in American sports (I throw in American only because of the soccer World Cup which occurs every four years and just about brings the rest of the world to a complete halt) than the NFL. I mean look at all the hype going into the draft, which is now a ‘prime-time,’ event. I mean, has there been enough speculation yet? What amuses me most is that with all the speculation—much of it usually flat out wrong—even after the draft takes place no one really knows what they have, who will be a true impact player and who won’t.
A draft usually becomes a good draft in the third round and beyond. If you blow your first pick—see the Oakland Raiders—then you’re going to be awful because even those guys who never stop talking on ESPN aren’t likely to screw up the first round. Heck, even the Redskins picked a good player in the first round last year. The best teams and general managers do their most important work in the late rounds and in signing college free agents. The teams with the most depth win in the NFL and depth is built in the late rounds of the draft and through free agent signings that usually rate one paragraph. You don’t get good by signing Albert Haynesworth—or for that matter Terrell Owens—you get good by signing Torry Holt and having him catch 70 balls for you on a one-year contract. Things like that.
Okay, back to the NFL and the lack of access the media has. I know most people reading this will say, ‘who cares about your access.’ Well, if you are a football fan YOU should. Look, watching practice or mini-camp doesn’t really matter a lick. I watched most Ravens practices (and mini-camps, which WERE open to everyone in the media) during 2004 and was mostly bored doing so.
Years ago, shortly after I had stopped working at The Post fulltime, I was doing some work for The New York Times. I had a contract with Sports Illustrated but liked keeping my hand in at daily journalism and Neil Amdur, then the Times sports editor, allowed me to do it.
The Redskins were playing the Giants and Neil asked me to go out to Redskins Park to write a couple of features during the week. I was standing on the practice field while the Redskins warmed up talking to Richard Justice, who was then The Post’s Redskins beat writer. Joe Gibbs walked over.
“John, I’m really sorry but we only let our local writers watch practice,” he said. “You’re going to have to leave.”
“Gee Joe, thanks,” I said.
“Yeah, thanks. Thanks for thinking for one second that, even if I cared, I’d have any clue what you guys were doing. And thanks for giving me an excuse to go write while you’re practicing.”
Gibbs actually laughed. I happily went off to write.
Nowadays, most NFL practices are shut tight—mini-camps apparently included. When Brian Billick coached the Ravens, he was about as open with the media as any coach that ever lived. All his pre-season practices were open. Once the season started he’d let people watch the beginning but once the team actually started scrimmaging or putting in a game-plan, everyone was shooed inside. Nowadays, ANY access to players on or off the field is extremely limited.
Access in almost all sports—golf is the notable exception—has been cut back greatly in recent years. Hockey locker rooms used to be open pre-game. No more. Baseball clubhouses are still open but for less time and players spend far more time in the off-limits areas, which have been greatly expanded in new ballparks. College basketball is the worst offender: Once, almost every college hoops locker room—even Georgetown under John Thompson the elder—was open postgame. Now, except during the NCAA Tournament (all credit to the NCAA on that one) most are closed and a few ‘selected,’ players come to an interview area. One notable exception? Duke. Maybe some of the coaches who complain so bitterly about Duke getting good publicity all the time should think about that for a moment.
The shame of it from the public’s point of view is that it is so much harder to get to know players when you have almost no access to them. I’ve always found that the best stories usually occur when you’re standing around casually talking to someone. It certainly benefits me in golf where I spend a lot of time hanging out on the range and the putting green just talking to players.
There is no casual time with NFL players for most guys in the media. I had the chance to spend casual time with the Ravens in ’04 and the best stories I found were about guys most people in the public never hear much about: the long-snapper; the punter brought in for a couple of weeks because of an injury; a backup offensive lineman who had played his college football at Williams.
But NFL coaches don’t care if the public hears those stories. They care about controlling everything in their little world on a day-to-day basis and they are allowed to do so by the league, by the media (which has little wherewithal to change anything) and by the public whose only real concern isn’t a good story about a backup lineman but whether last year’s 4-12 team can make itself over into a playoff team.
I get all that. Which is why, back in 1982 when George Solomon, then The Post’s sports editor called me into his office and announced, “congratulations, I’m making you The Redskins beat writer,” I said no. I was very much enjoying myself covering national college football and basketball and I knew that, even then, covering the Redskins beat was basically being a hard-working stenographer: who was injured, who didn’t practice, what did Coach Gibbs think of next week’s opponent? (Greatest team in history every single week).
That’s not to say I wasn’t flattered being offered the most read beat in the newspaper. I just thought life was too short to waste even one season doing that. I told George, with all due respect, I didn’t want the beat. He told me he was the boss—he was right—and I’d do what he said. I walked straight to David Maraniss’s office. He had just been promoted to Metro editor, replacing Bob Woodward. Both had told me I had a standing offer to come back and cover Maryland politics for them anytime I wanted.
“Does the offer still stand?” I asked.
A week later I was in Annapolis. I never covered the Redskins. When I went back to sports two years later it was to cover national college basketball and tennis. I was reminded again on Monday just how lucky I was to never spend one day as an NFL beat writer. Back then, it was lousy. Now, it’s a lot worse.