So you want to be a beat writer? Grantland’s Curtis shows how the sausage is made
Distant Thunder: What Did Oklahoma City’s Media Do to Piss Off Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant? is a look into the Thunder locker room and what it’s like for the beat writers who work there.
It isn’t pretty.
It’s also nothing I haven’t seen before in various locker rooms around various sports. The athletes find the media an intrusive annoyance, the beat writers, wanting to get on with their jobs, wish the athletes would answer a few questions, preferably without being ridiculously rude. Nobody’s particularly happy.
The situation in Oklahoma City seems a bit more tense than most, but it’s a difference of degree, not kind. Curtis attributes it to the team’s fierce lockdown on access:
It was a gripe I heard again and again from the Thunder press corps. Nobody held a grudge against Durant or Westbrook. They knew the locker-room scrums would produce a poor harvest. What frustrated the press corps was that the players—especially Durant and Westbrook—remained largely out of reach. While complying with the league’s minimum standards for access, the Thunder carefully proscribed their availability …
In the Thunder locker room, there’s a watchfulness that prevents all but the most formal interactions. Reporters said that nearly every time they approach a player, even with tape recorders holstered, a Thunder PR rep sidles up to listen. “If you have a conversation with a player about parenting, someone is going to be standing right there hovering and trying to steer it whichever way they think it should go,” [Oklahoman reporter Darnell] Mayberry said. “That’s the kind of culture they’ve created here. No one has a personal relationship with any of these guys.”
I might have used the headline “So you want to be a beat writer.”
Curtis writes that Berry Tramel, the Oklahoman columnist Russell Westbrook barked at in January, stands “feet away yet miles apart from” the star 30-plus nights a year. “It’s not going to be any kind of relationship-based situation,” Tramel tells Curtis. “I’m just going to be writing about how great he is. I’m never going to be writing about who he is.”
Which makes me wonder: Why bother? Why does the world, or at least the sports readership, need a talented, trained journalist to stand next to the locker of an athlete and write down the banalities he reluctantly utters?
Curtis writes that after Marshawn Lynch’s anti-media routine at the Super Bowl, “One common response was: Why bother players after a game? I don’t care what they say, anyway … ‘Yes, you do,’ said [ESPN writer Royce] Young. ‘There’s a reason NBA TV runs every playoff postgame press conference.’”
That reason is that coaches and players tend to answer questions at those press conferences, so they can be worth watching. They know they’re in front of the public, and they generally cooperate and don’t act like jerks. It’s completely different than a locker-room situation.
I wonder if The Oklahoman, and lots of other media outlets, could learn some things from The New York Times, which, according to Poynter.org’s Ed Sherman learned some things when it pulled its Knicks beat writer.
That happened, Sherman writes, not because locker-room interviews were going badly, but because the Knicks were so bad and uninteresting that sports editor Jason Stallman decided to liberate Scott Cacciola from having to write about them, assigning him instead to more interesting basketball stories around the world. Those included the tales of a powerful fifth-grade girls team in Springfield, Ill., and a New Zealand team in Australia’s National Basketball League.
The Times’ name for Cacciola’s series of articles: Not the Knicks.
I wonder what stories all those reporters are not covering when they’re standing around clubhouses, locker rooms and dressing rooms, waiting for some star player to deliberately go through his post-shower routine before reluctantly agreeing to mumble a few clichés.