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Media Circus: The strangest restrictions NFL teams impose on reporters

Beat reporters covering NFL teams face a variety of challenges, including star players speaking to the media only once a week and assistants being barred from speaking publicly.

I know, I know. Nobody wants to hear about the complaints of the sport media. But this is something that impacts you as a reader.

As part of an NFL roundtable discussion on a number of NFL-related topics, I asked six beat writers what they considered to be the most absurd media restriction in their market. I’ve always thought one of the most foolish media restrictions in sports was college football coaches not allowing assistant coaches to speak to the media. The restriction always struck me as strange (yes, I know Nick Saban has won a billion titles with it), especially given how successful teams in other college sports have no issues with their assistants speaking (e.g. Auriemma, Geno). It’s also an odd message to send to student-athletes: Only one person speaks for the program. But I digress.

Here’s how the panel answered the question.

• Les Bowen, Eagles beat writer/columnist, Philadelphia Daily News: I could write until my fingers bleed on this. There are about a dozen things that make it hard to do our jobs, starting with the fact that last year, the Eagles moved us from the media room, next to the media relations offices, into an outbuilding at the far edge of the parking lot, next to the entry gate. We have less access to the main building than we had previously. Also, we also only watch warmups and a brief bit of individual drills during the season; most of practice, we don’t see. And after games, the coach takes so long to come to the postgame press conference, if you go to that, you miss the players in the locker room. Then there is accessibility when it comes to the GM and the owner.

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• Eric Branch, 49ers beat reporter, San Francisco Chronicle: The 49ers’ highest-profile players—NaVorro Bowman, Colin Kaepernick, etc.—are typically only available to reporters once during the week and those sessions are often cut off prematurely as a member of the PR staff announces, “Last question.” It’s very little access to the team’s top players, particularly when compared to those in other sports: LeBron James and Mike Trout routinely speak to the media twice in the same day.

• Mary Kay Cabot, Browns beat reporter, I dislike the fact that we’re not allowed on the field before the games. We used to be, and I always took advantage of it. In addition to running into some interesting people and celebrities, you can often the read the vibe of the team or the mood of a player heading into a game. You can glean something from pregame warmups and you can see how players interact with each other and their coaches. You see who the owner likes to talk to before games, and you have some great photo opportunities. There are tons of people on the sidelines before the game, from guests to corporate sponsors to people’s children and grandchildren—and the media covering the team is not allowed down there. The other thing I don’t love is the once-a-week player designation. In the NFL, a few star players only have to talk to the media once a week, but lately it seems like too many players are only talking once a week. Here’s another way to solve the access issue. Once or twice a week, in addition to locker room access, let the media into the players’ lounge to have a more relaxed conversation with a player sitting on a couch, or over a game of ping-pong. Let us get to know the players and tell their stories. Don’t be afraid. It will be O.K.

• Mike Freeman, NFL writer, Bleacher Report. The most ridiculous restriction of all time is not allowing journalists to cover practice. You hear from coaches and players how writers don’t understand football. So the logic is then to let us see less football?

• John McClain, NFL writer, Houston Chronicle.  Don’t get me started. How in the world did Vince Lombardi, Don Shula, Tom Landry, Chuck Noll and Bill Walsh build dynasties while they allowed reporters to watch practice and interview their assistant coaches? Most coaches are so paranoid today. Not allowing assistants to talk to the media except when it’s required by the league is preposterous. I think these restrictions on assistant coaches are ridiculous. I value relationships I built with players and coaches with the Oilers that I never will be able to forge with the Texans because the rules are so different. You can’t just talk and get to know them anymore because access is so limited. And who decided so many players talk once a week and players don’t have to do but a few conference calls with visiting media? Why were those rules implemented?

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• Armando Salguero, NFL columnist, Miami Herald. I covered Don Shula. And the way it worked was, after practice he’d come over and speak to reporters. And if, during that time, I preferred to go an speak with an assistant, I could do that—all the time recognizing I was missing what DON FREAKIN’ SHULA was saying. The point is Don Shula didn’t keep his assistants off limits. He had no fear that their message would be different than his message. (Maybe because he put out a message and everyone fell in line). I find that keeping assistants off limits to the media is about fear by head coaches and organizations. They are afraid someone might say something that doesn’t agree with the “one voice” message. That’s not an attempt by an organization or the head coach to protect position coaches. That’s an attempt by an organization or the head coach to protect itself or himself.


The Noise Report

( examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)

1. If you missed it, the media panel above answered a number of NFL-related questions including the most under-covered story in the NFL, how forthcoming teams are about injuries, what it’s like to get beat by national reporters, how issues of concussions and domestic violence have changed how they feel about the beat they cover and much more. Here’s the piece.

1a. Final NFL viewership numbers for the divisional round of the playoffs:

• Packers-Cowboys drew 48.5 million viewers on Fox, the most-viewed NFL Divisional Playoff game on record. Sports Business Daily reported the game was up 13% from the 43.0 million viewers for Broncos-Steelers on CBS last year, which aired in the same Sunday late afternoon window.

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• Falcons-Seahawks drew 28.7 million, per Austin Karp of SBD, down 9% from the equivalent game last year.

• NBC drew 37.1 million viewers for Steelers-Chiefs (the game was moved from the afternoon to primetime), the most-watched primetime playoff game ever on either Wild Card or Divisional weekend.

• The Patriots-Texans game on CBS drew 29.8 million viewers, the lowest audience for a Saturday night Divisional game since Cardinals-Panthers drew 23.8 million viewers on Fox in 2009, according to SBD.

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2. Earlier this week the Pro Football Hall of Fame released a fantastic piece of rare audio: A recording of the Super Bowl I postgame press conference. The 27:53-minute tape features a Vince Lombardi press conference (he comes off very Belichickian) as well as Pat Summerall conducting interviews throughout the locker room. Here’s the recording and a piece on how the Hall procured it.

3. Episode 99 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features Sports Illustrated senior writer S.L. Price. Along with his work for SI, Price has a new book out—Playing Through the Whistle: Steel, Football, and an American Town—which examines the history of Aliquippa, Pa. and football’s place in an American steel town.

In this podcast, Price discusses how to approach longform sports writing; what makes certain subjects interesting to write about; the difference between sports feature writing in 2016 versus 2000; the process of interviewing dozens of people for a piece and how to organize it; why he wanted to examine Aliquippa, Pa., the home of Mike Ditka, Darrelle Revis and Ty Law among other NFLers; how he finds stories and profiles; how to write a feature when your main subject will not talk to you; whether you have to like a subject to write about them; playing basketball against candidate Barack Obama in Iowa for an SI column in 2007; how often he likes the pieces he wrote; why what the immediate future holds for Roger Federer; Rafa Nadal and Serena Williams; and much more.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.

3a. Episode 98 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features two guests: James Mirtle, the editor-in-chief of The Athletic (Toronto) and a former NHL writer with The Globe and Mail (Canada), and Bruce Arthur, a sports columnist for the Toronto Star. Both Mirtle and Arthur also work for TSN.

In this Canada-centric podcast, Mirtle and Arthur discuss the NHL coverage in Canada in relation to the United States; whether there is a Canadian style of sports journalism versus an American style; how Arthur approaches sports column writing; why Mirtle left the Globe and Mail for The Athletic; what the charter is of The Athletic and what it needs to do to be profitable; how Mirtle views the use of sabermetrics in hockey writing; the potential of Auston Matthews and the Maple Leafs, and where Matthews might end up all-time; how growing up in Vancouver shaped Arthur; how growing up in Kamloops shaped Mirtle; covering losing teams in Toronto versus winning teams; the challenges that exist for Arthur being very politically active on Twitter; the hot take culture in Canada versus the United States; covering a national team (such as the Blue Jays) versus a local one (Maple Leafs); the future of the Canadian sports media amid job cuts; whether Canadians view a job in the U.S. as more prestigious than a Canadian job, and much more.

4. Fox Sports made an excellent hire with the addition of Kate Abdo, who hosted the network’s Women’s World Cup coverage and has a résumé that includes work at Sky Sports. Abdo speaks English, Spanish, French and German. SI’s Grant Wahl has Abdo a guest this week on his Planet Futbol podcast.

4a. Former U.S. and MLS soccer player Herculez Gomez has joined ESPN as a studio analyst for its English- and Spanish-language networks including working as a studio analyst for ESPN’s coverage of MLS, USMNT and other international soccer competitions.

5. For fans of Cruella De Vil, North Korea and the Death Star, Monday was an excellent day. The Skip Bayless-led Undisputed, fueled by the Packers-Cowboys classic finish and people home for the Martin Luther King holiday, set an alltime viewership record with 283,000 viewers. More interestingly, the show beat SportsCenter (airing on ESPN2) head to head in the 10–11 a.m.  hour (219,000 viewers). 

That’s a very good one-day narrative for FS1 executives and its p.r. operatives, who did a nice job of pushing it into the marketplace. If nothing else, the show reached a number that many would not have expected so soon. (Those 800 promos during the Packers-Cowboys games paid off!)

Now the reality: The show’s primary competition, First Take, drew 851,000 viewers on ESPN and a replay of First Take later in the day topped Undisputed with 285,000 viewers. On Tuesday, in the post-Cowboys era, reality set in: Undisputed drew 102,000 viewers, per Sports TV Ratings.

5a. The not-so-close Warriors-Cavaliers game on Monday drew 4.5 million viewers, the most-watched NBA regular season game on cable since the Bulls-Heat on opening night of the 2013–14 season (5.4 million viewers).

5b. Via Karp and John Ourand of the Sports Business Daily: Eighty-eight of the top 100 most-viewed shows on television last year were live sports telecasts.