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Story of a Lifetime…And Few Media on the Front Lines

The game is Sports versus The Virus. Any other competition is wholly insignificant, now that human rivals are united as allies and all strategies and tactics have been unleashed upon a killer pandemic. COVID-19 is the mightiest of dynasties, undefeated and prohibitively favored by Vegas sportsbooks to destroy, in succession, Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NHL, college football and, in the final nuclear scene, an NFL behemoth that might look like King Ghidorah after he was mauled by Godzilla.

A power sweep has become the Hazmat-level cleanup after each event. A double is the number of negative tests, two, necessary to escape MLB quarantine. The pick-and-roll refers to an NBA player picking at the stale roll from his Disney World food bag. Banging on a trash can is what the Astros will do when teammates are about to be Instagram-outed at a crowded bar. And maintaining six feet of physical distance?

“That’s how we guard anyways,’’ said coach Mike D’Antoni, managing a crack about the Rockets’ defensive challenges.

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It’s the biggest story of a sports journalist’s life, really — the audacity of this industry to defy the heavyweight champion of infectious diseases. What a damned shame that only a few will be able to legitimately cover it. Because leagues must minimize coronavirus risks within extremely strict protocols, welcome to a new world of Sports Reporting By Zoom, in which traditional locker-room access is long gone and almost all credible media members will be relegated to asking questions via group streaming sessions while tethered to seating areas with far worse sightlines than folks watching at home. I’d like to say the arrangement is temporary.

In truth, it’s the future. This is what sports leagues have dreamed of, marginalizing and controlling the media while hand-picking those who will remain obedient to the corporate cause. Now that a new order has been established, think they’ll ever return to the old way? Heh.

Only those who pay lucrative rights fees, the broadcast networks, will have any chance of in-person interviews with athletes and coaches during the sports reset. In the NBA’s case, just 10 national-scope reporters will be allowed post-game access in a socially-distanced news conference — and literally at a price: $550 per day in the Rudy Gobert Dome, with their news organizations ponying up for a hotel room, three daily meals, a once-a-day virus test, transportation to the gyms and, naturally, a waiver form absolving the league of liability if the reporter contracts COVID-19.

And make out the check to Walt Disney Company, please, which means news outlets are paying ESPN for coverage capabilities when, I dunno, I thought reporters were supposed to be competing against ESPN.

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Oh, and if one of those 10 league-approved reporters is switched out for whatever reason? The news organization will have to pay an additional fee of about $4,500, all according to the Miami Herald. As for dozens of other reporters who cover the league regularly and need to follow the 22 teams in Orlando? They can attend games but have to sit in some distant nether region, though they’ll have priority to ask questions via Zoom. Gee.

Some gig, right? Risk your life by flying to Florida, the bastard child of the American pandemic, and you still might have to call a buddy at home if you couldn’t determine if a game-winning shot beat the buzzer.

If our year from hell has changed life interminably, sports media have been reduced to the ranks of the utterly non-essential. With newspapers and websites on perpetual death watches, executives are faced with no-win decisions: Either spend money from ravaged budgets to pseudo-cover these games, or don’t cover them and risk losing readers accustomed to up-close-and-personal sports coverage. Specifically, how can The Athletic — maybe the last-gasp option for the sportswriting profession — continue to charge $59 a year in good conscience when its reporting no longer will be distinguishable from the free-of-charge digital norm?

And football coverage, though the sport has little chance of operating this season, will be even flimsier. When players are endangered by an in-your-face contact sport with lines of scrimmage and locker rooms lurking as coronavirus petri dishes, media members won’t be allowed in the same county, much less anywhere near field level.

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A sports fan might ask, “Why does a reporter need one-on-one access, anyway? What’s wrong with Zoom?’’ Once leagues and teams are allowed to cultivate pack journalism, the likelihood of original reporting shrinks, and coverage takes on a homogenous look. The sports industry doesn’t want fierce independence in media people. It wants yes robots who don’t rabble-rouse or break damaging stories. For years, teams have relied on paid broadcasters to carry the public-relations flag. Even they are being shortshrifted during these shortened seasons, with baseball announcers forced to call road games via remote from home ballparks or studios.

As I’ve always feared, leagues ultimately will sell their product entirely through broadcast partners — and writers hired as promotional flacks — and control all narratives and messages. They realize the sports media industry is in chaotic free-fall and smell an opportunity. This is the thanks we get for helping to popularize these sports and elevate them into multi-billion-dollar colossuses. America is about to witness the most bizarre few weeks, if not months, in its sporting history. It’s a story that requires large numbers of highly skilled, sophisticated journalists to make sure leagues are telling the truth and lives aren’t being jeopardized.

But based on the early work of ESPN’s embedded Malika Andrews, whose hard-hitting NBA reporting so far has entailed uninspiring food selections in the Trouble Bubble — falafel and oatmeal, yum! — I’m not sensing sports in a pandemic will be covered as the story of a lifetime. I was doing my radio program when planes crashed into towers on 9/11. I watched grown men dive under press-box tables during the Bay Area earthquake, then stayed for days covering the rubble. I was there, in Greece, when demonstrators threw rocks in protest of Colin Powell’s trip to the Olympics. And I would love to be at Disney World, raising hell.

Mickey Mouse has a better chance than any reporter does of breaking news, which is by design, of course. Sports wins, media lose.

Jay Mariotti
Jay Mariotti
Jay Mariotti, called ``the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes a weekly media column for Barrett Sports Media and regular sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.

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