SMG: Why did Bradley bother us so much?

On March 16, after I (and virtually ever other sports media commentator) loudly condemned Bradley University’s ever-loving stupidity for restricting the local beat reporter’s access for not promoting the school better, Bradley issued a statement:

The Bradley situation was low-hanging fruit for all of us who comment on sports media and sports journalism. A school or a team denying access to a reporter simply because they are not “promoting” the school is the easiest thing in the world to criticize. It’s important to do so anyway – the low-hanging fruit still needs to be picked, and this is a message that still needs to be delivered.

But why is this such a cause? Why did this get all of sports media twitter in a tizzy on Saturday?

What Bradley did was wrong, there’s no doubt. But I think it’s interesting to consider some of the root issues at hand here, to understand just why this turned into such an explosive story in our little corner of the world.

At some level, any restriction of access feels wrong. Even when it’s a private institution doing so, it has the whiff of censorship. We can justify our need for access by saying we are the conduit between the team and fans, and that by denying us, the team is denying the fans.

Access is such a tricky tightrope for any journalist. To do the job properly, you need to interview people involved in making the news. You need people to return your calls, to trust you with information. Any reporter who has had any success in this profession will tell you that building relationships with the people you cover is the key. But that need for access comes with peril.

It’s usually not as as pernicious as a lot of the Twitter journalism mob would have you believe. It’s not doing positive stories to curry favor with your sources. But the damn-the-man, full-speed-ahead, publish-everything ideal doesn’t always fit in the real world. The situation can be a lot more nuanced than that. Do you hold back on pursuing a story that might be a big deal but probably won’t because it’s going to unnecessarily burn a bridge? Do you hold back an adjective or two? Do you not use a quote that could get a player in trouble with this coach with the hopes that he’ll trust you to tell you something bigger down the road?

Also, you’re a human being interacting with another human being, not a collection of pixels on a computer screen.

None of this is nefarious. It’s the often-instantaneous, on-deadline decisions you have to make as a reporter.

Those decisions, though, can give access in journalism a bad name. They can also make our stridency over a Bradley situation look self-serving.

I had my own mini-Bradley situation in my career.

In 2002-03, before the St. Bonaventure scandal broke, I was told after the team lost at Davidson that no players would be made available to me. This was a new policy, they said. No players interviews after losses. I stood my ground enough that I got to talk to players back at the team hotel that night. But a few weeks later, the team tried that again, this time after a home loss to St. Joseph’s. This caused a legit controversy, with the Buffalo News and Yahoo! crushing the school. Our columnist, who was also our sports editor, threatened in print to have us stop covering the team. Coach Jan van Breda Kolff, who came up with the policy, relented a day later.

But here’s the thing: The threats that always worked don’t carry as much weight anymore. The St. Bonaventure men’s basketball team doesn’t need The Times Herald the way it did even in my era. They publish everything on their own website, their own Twitter feed. They don’t need the local paper. Fans don’t need us the way they used to either. So journalists have to rely on that professional relationship they develop with schools, the school’s understanding of what’s right in the big picture, and the school’s wherewithal to do the right thing.

For me, the Bradley story became a thing because it struck right at the core of sports journalism’s great fears.

The fear that we’re homers. The fear that we’re not real journalists. The fear that we’re perceived as the toy department.

There’s historical precedent here. Sports journalism began in large part as an economic engine for new daily newspapers in large cities. Michael Schudson has written about this extensively, how in an era when newspapers were overtly partisan, sports coverage was a way to appeal to a larger audience because conservatives and liberals still rooted for the home team. James Michener has written how the the most symbiotic relationship in media is between sports team and media outlet. The point is that historically, sports journalism has not been after truth and justice the way news reporting has. It’s always been much more promotional in nature.

That perception, the fear of it and fighting against it, lies at the heart of all sports journalism. I think it fuels so much of how we perceive ourselves and our work. It’s why we get so pissed off about election night pizza.

In the end, it comes down to agency.

The point is not whether or not Dave Reynolds could do his job covering Bradley without being able to interview players for his story. Of course he could. Any journalist worth their salt can write without being granted access.

The point is, that decision should not be made by the school because they don’t like the tone of the coverage. That’s part of the deal when you have an independent press. You can’t tell us what to do.

That’s why the Bradley story resonated so much in sports journalism circles. It was a heavy-handed attempt at forcing an independent press to act in certain way. It was asking the journalist to give up his agency for no good reason.

It also resonated on the long-standing fears and attitudes about how people perceive us.