It was the yellow rubber duckies that did it.
I suppose up until that point I’d been on auto-pilot, I was just waiting for an interview. But when one of the NBA’s biggest stars pulled on a pair of blue socks – festooned with bright yellow ducks – it struck me that this assignment was way more surreal than anything I was used to. Or, for that matter, comfortable with.
With a group of about 20 other men and women, I had just watched the Houston Rockets’ shooting guard James Harden emerge dripping wet from the shower, dry off and get dressed … all from a distance of about two and a half feet. This was my introduction to the world of sports reporting in the United States!
It doesn’t happen like that in Europe. Every professional team that I’d ever covered kept the media on a tight leash. Many a long hour was spent waiting in the players’ tunnel or kicking my feet in parking lot, hanging around until after the coach’s debrief, until all the showers and the massages were done and all the clothes were on.
And even then it was controlled; mixed zones mean that everyone has to walk past the media but there is no obligation to stop. It’s very easy for anyone who’s had a poor game to avoid the most pertinent questions.
In the U.S. however, it’s open season. The biggest cultural difference between reporting on sport in the UK and across the pond is that everyone here is allowed into the locker-room. The access is great, but it does create some very unusual situations.
Harden had just played the game of his life, scoring a career-high 45 points against the Atlanta Hawks. His reward? The opportunity to get dressed in about two square feet of real estate, the only space left available once a semi-circle of reporters and cameramen had formed around his locker.
We patiently waited as he reached for his underwear, which for the record was green, and as he struggled to maintain his balance while pulling on those socks - everyone trying really hard to give the impression that they weren’t watching someone getting dressed.
That’s pretty hard to do at point-blank range, but it seemed that I was the only one who thought this was all rather bizarre. In the U.S., this has become the norm for athletes and reporters.
I’ve discussed it with seasoned sports reporters who cannot imagine a world in which they wouldn’t have regular access to the players on their beat. A player you are chronicling needs to have a right of reply; the journalist reporting a missed tackle or a dropped catch needs to know why it happened. Otherwise, too much is assumed and the sports fans are cheated.
In the UK and most of Europe, there’s no way that professional teams would ever willingly open their dressing-room doors. But they’re coming under pressure. With more and more overseas interest in products like soccer's English Premier League, and with the value of each new television contract soaring ever upwards, broadcasters are demanding more for their money.
A request to bring cameras into an area long considered sacrosanct was rebuffed during the latest contract negotiations between the Premier League and BT Sport, one of its two British broadcasters, but it’s getting harder to say no. The very notion of such access creates panic among club chairmen and managers who worry that prying eyes will broadcast behavior which could bring their team, or the game as a whole, into disrepute.
Britain’s tabloid culture makes Premier League teams especially nervous; many journalists could exploit and make hay with such unfettered access. But in any case, most of the players have become so used to keeping a low profile that the pressure to constantly explain themselves would be overwhelming.
They’ve had a long time to get used to it in the U.S., but that doesn’t mean the players actually like it. According to one NFL veteran, the players would vote against it if they could. Whether they’re muddy and sweaty, half-dressed or totally undressed, none is a particularly good image with which to send out a message.
From their perspective, it’s like the running of the bulls in Pamplona when the door is opened and the press pack is allowed in. Some will reach for a towel before taking questions, but others – usually those who hold the media in contempt – make little or no effort to cover up.
In one instance a few years back, a football player took questions while he was sitting naked, "meat on seat" as the jocks would put it. He kept his legs wide open as he appraised his role in the game. If you think that might be odd for a male reporter, how do you think female journalists feel?
The push for equality in American sports reporting was an uncomfortable one for all concerned. The behavior was boorish, reporters were harassed, lawsuits were filed. It was an era recently profiled in the ESPN documentary "Let them wear towels" and although things have since calmed down, players’ wives are far from thrilled that their partners are in a state of undress with other ladies present.
I’m sure that in time I’ll get used to this new reporting culture and I’ll watch with interest the developments back home in Europe. Is there a happy medium? If so, I’m sure many would be keen to find it, but there’s another reason American reporters like it their way: the sooner the post-match interview, the better it is. In the locker-room, the haze of battle has yet to clear, the emotions are raw, observations less guarded. Wait a while and their views become more objective and much more filtered.
Given that it’s the fans we’re all doing this for, I suspect that in the U.S. they like it just the way it is. Just don’t mention the socks!