Adam Silver, the NBA and the Unsaid Reason for Stopping Locker Room Access
In this post, I’ll try to explain two things that haven’t been well-explained by NBA commissioner Adam Silver: Why locker-room access exists and why players want to end it.
Right now, it would appear that the NBA is attempting to take locker-room access away from reporters permanently. One of the reasons I quit my media job and started HoS was because I believed that the NBA, in a Shock Doctrine maneuver, would use the pandemic as a pretext for further restrictions on reporters. A lot of that push is coming from the players, who are increasingly unhappy in general, and especially unhappy with media coverage.
Their unhappiness with the media is understandable. Sure, star players have always chafed at criticism, but this era is uniquely paranoia inducing. These guys, especially the superstars, are living in a panopticon where they’re constantly observed and discussed at a scale beyond their control.
That insatiable demand for stories can inspire some stupid ones. I remember feeling a pang of self-hatred when, in the locker room, I asked Steph Curry to explain an Instagram post he liked about LeBron’s then-Cavs struggling. He could tell I didn’t want to ask and I could tell he didn’t want to be asked, nice though he was to answer. At the start of the beat-writing journey, I was writing in-depth features. By the end, I was rummaging through slips of the Like button to please my bosses. When I was fired by ESPN less than a month later, I took it as a blessing.
My former existential dread aside, it’s hard to blame players for feeling surveilled and overanalyzed. Every moment is potentially captured on a phone and every stray interview could be taken out of context. That isn’t what NBA commissioner Adam Silver is fixating on, though, when it comes to media reforms. No, on this issue, he’s been focused on the bodily privacy, just like Players Association head Michele Roberts is.
Silver’s comments from this All-Star Weekend on potentially ending locker-room media access were muddled and self-contradictory, but also unintentionally revealing. Later, I’ll get into the real concern that Silver is attempting to launder through the concern he offered, but for now, let’s look at the entirety of his meandering thoughts, bolded for emphasis:
In regard to reporters returning to locker rooms, I recognize what I am about to say may not be so popular with this group. It's not going to be so easy. I think that depending on where we see this virus, potential variants, you know, I think creating a little bit of distance may make more sense for the foreseeable future.
I also think it's a bit of an anachronism to have reporters in the actual room where players are dressing. I mean, it used to be, for those that have been around a while, in the old days it was about female reporters, and we all got past that issue. It was ridiculous. It was discriminatory and made no sense. At least from my standpoint, I never hear about those issues anymore.
I think it's different now. I think there are different expectations of privacy, but at the same time I recognize we have to create an environment where you all can do your jobs. I think it's something, there is an association that you are all members of, that we should sit down and work together.
To me, there are two issues: There's just the health and safety issues for the players and for all of you as well. Then there's also — I'm not sure if we were designing a system from scratch today, we would say come stand next to the players at their lockers as they're dressing, and that's the appropriate forum to interview them.
So, preventing women from being in the locker room around the changing men was an anachronism, but now having both genders in the locker room while men change is an anachronism. Or something. It’s dizzying to absorb the dissonance of Silver’s politically correct instincts seeping in as he explains the need to, again, oust women from this private male space. Of course, he seeks to also ban men for the reasons women once were banned, which is now good because, um, uh, hm, well…anyone wanna ask about the wide range of charities the NBA contributes to?
Silver was prodded on the issue again, to which he responded:
Just on your first point in terms of reporters' ability to do their jobs, of course we understand building relationships is critical, and I think when you talk about the last two years or so, so much of that, of course, is pandemic-related.
What I'm just really pointing out is we should look to see whether there's another way to build those relationships other than being actually in the locker room while players are dressing. As I said, I think if we were designing this from scratch today, it is an anachronism. I think we have a different sensibility, different sense of privacy than we used to, and I'm not sure that's the right way to do it. We should think about that.
I’m not sure what our modern “different sense of privacy” is. Silver’s almost portraying these players as victims, like they’ve been MeToo’d by tradition. But, so NBA fans know, the routine isn’t exactly a free-for-all invasion of space. Generally, the protocol is to avoid players unless they’re dressed. Sometimes a reporter knows a player well enough to break protocol and scandalously walk over to a shirtless man, but the idea is that you’re interviewing the fully clothed. Incidentally, as a younger reporter I got snapped at by James Harden for asking a question before his shoes were tied. In his book, the outfit had to be wholly complete.
A chunk of time passes between the final buzzer and the opening of locker-room doors. Usually, there’s about 15 minutes of space between the end of the coach’s address to the team and the media entrance. One can get dressed during that time, theoretically. Or, if they’re not into a quick-exit routine, there are other areas where players might change. Some dudes are more comfortable changing at their stall, so they opt for that. Given that they’re among the world’s fittest people, NBA players by and large do not have the body-image issues that afflict the broader public.
Many players believe there are a few media oglers, which might have something to do with Player Placater Silver’s awkward focus on “privacy.” Then again, the locker-room setting is a bit like middle school, where accusations of outsiders acting gay or “suspect” fly around constantly. In this context I’m not sure how to gauge the accuracy of these suspicions, but hey. Maybe so.
It would be brazen for a male reporter to try anything considering that NBA players usually tower over media members and boast the ability to shred reputations to their many social media followers. It’d also be bold because, as hinted at earlier, NBA culture is, on average, more homophobic than the standard office. As in, try that shit at your own risk. Speaking of which, it’s funny to watch Adam Silver carefully do the neoliberal bureaucrat version of Eddie Murphy’s first jokes in Delirious when he attempts to translate player concerns on this issue.
Anyway, players who want changing privacy have a point, but it’s easy enough to ensure such privacy exists while maintaining locker-room access. Tweak the timing a bit, and boom. Any theoretical problems are solved.
But it’s not about changing privacy, now is it? It’s about something else, something I’m not entirely certain that Silver grasps.
Privacy vs. Exposure
Former commissioner David Stern certainly understood. After the league signed its 2007 national TV contract, Stern announced at the annual coaches meeting in Chicago that there would be TV cameras in the locker rooms. Former player and then-Chicago Bulls coach Scott Skiles raised his hand and said something to the effect of, “No disrespect, but the locker room is my sacred space.”
“Well, let’s see,” the smiling commissioner began. “On the one hand, we have eight billion dollars from our broadcast partners. And on the other hand, we have … Scott Skiles!” Stern then lit into him, telling Skiles to shut the fuck up and that he didn’t want to hear any more out of him. The room suddenly got very quiet.
Stern didn’t care what the coaches or the players wanted. Most were totally disconnected from the decisions that brought them their dollars. The day-to-day NBA folks just craved a path of least resistance outside of their already demanding primary job of winning games, but the commissioner didn’t have the luxury of shrugging off the sport’s marketing side. Skiles wanted privacy. Stern wanted exposure. Fuck your privacy. It doesn’t pay the bills.
The current commissioner seems more enamored with abstract distractions than in selling the game’s ground level reality. Absent media pressure to this point, Adam Silver has turned into a human TED Talk. He doesn’t seem to know how marketing works, as evidenced by his league losing half its viewers during his reign, but still prattles on unchastened, like Steve Jobs of the hardwood, excited to launch the next paradigm-shifting innovation.
I’d hazard that he so often speaks about liberating us from our antiquated station because so few are willing to confront him with his present failures. For that, he’d have to trawl quasi-anon accounts on Twitter.
So what is Silver’s big bold futuristic league? Obviously it’s not some sweaty palmed Steve Buscemi lookalike who trundles into a locker room and drools over his Zoom recorder while staring at dicks. It’s something transcendent, like the dickless metaverse!
Once we all plug our brains into the singularity the league’s problems will be solved and all will be clothed. Count on it.
A few NBA reporters pushed back on Silver’s rationale for banning them, and good on the NBA media people who did. You can call it self-serving, but there’s nothing more pathetic than cheering on your own disempowerment.
I wasn’t surprised to see The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears oppose this floated ban. Spears, an NABJ fixture, has often publicly advocated for the hiring of more Black journalists. That’s a goal Adam Silver would loudly agree with, or at the very least, be terrified to disagree with. Yet, he’s pushing a “reform” that would disproportionately fuck over Black journalists under the guise of social progress.
Why is the impact disparate? I think it sort of goes without saying but here we say all. Shared cultural reference points inform an ability to forge connections. Said differently, because my name is Ethan Strauss and not Ethan Smith, David Stern would speak to me in a way he wouldn’t with some other reporters, sparking a fast familiarity. And while I wasn’t the smoothest at working a locker room, I could easily carry on a conversation with Stern where he bemoaned my grammatical mistakes with “It’s a shanda!”
While the impact of a locker-room ban would be disparate, it would be a negative for almost all. I frequently criticize media in this space, but that’s done from a perspective of wanting better. Take away people from real, ground level NBA scenes and coverage gets worse. You get more of that “Twitter reacting to Twitter” bullshit.
So by now you might be wondering, what is locker-room access really about? I’ve left the need to be in a locker room. Why am I even defending its existence?
Here’s the simple reason that media people hardly ever explain about the locker room’s value: It’s a place where all the players are around one another.
To the fan, that might seem like a normal scenario. But it’s not. Teammates usually aren’t friends with one another. Sure, it happens, but that’s more the exception than the rule. Teammates do, however, share some ineffable bond that comes from fighting together against common enemies in a form of physical combat, played in front of massive crowds. Those bonds are visible in, yes, the locker room. That’s where they’re joking about what just transpired with some swashbuckling esprit de corps, at least after a win. “Did you see what my guy over there just did?!”
In the locker room, a media person can quickly bounce from person to person, taking minutes to glean insights that would otherwise take months. As a small example, one of my best performing Athletic stories was this game-night feature on how the Warriors’ strategic shift helped win them the Western Conference finals. I got the necessary audio off maybe five minutes of locker-room interview time with four relevant actors (Steph Curry and the big men who implemented the far away ball-screen strategy). I spoke to Curry, Jordan Bell, Kevon Looney and Zaza Pachulia within that five-minute span, jumping from station to station. At one point, Curry and Bell, whose lockers were neighboring, acted out the plays together.
I had many experiences like that as a beat writer. Sure, reporters talk about building relationships from the locker-room setting, but what about the game-night stories themselves? You get better info when you’re on the ground after the main event and everyone relevant is in the same spot, relaxed and regaling.
Good luck getting these guys all together outside the locker room, let alone discussing the same subject. Even when sharing the practice floor they tend to drift apart. They’re broken up into their own drills with their own rebounders. There’s no adrenaline aftermath to loosen the scene. It’s all very controlled, contained and sterile.
Fear of Ben Dowsett
So why are the players in favor of controlled, contained and sterile? There’s some reflexive turf defense, sure, but they also fear the Ben Dowsett situation. What’s a Ben Dowsett situation, you ask?
He was a Utah Jazz media member who, at the height of Warrior mania, tweeted that the Warriors were in the visitors’ locker room, scoffing at a Jazz team they’d just beaten.
From my article on the invisible wall between athletes and fans:
Superstar Steph Curry and center Andrew Bogut would also take shots at Dowsett. Draymond added, “I get along with just about all the media very well... But, the NBA need to tighten up on who get a credentials to the locker room!!!”
He wasn’t alone in this sentiment. A big-time NBA newsbreaker came up to me after this, and insisted something must be done. “Can you imagine,” he said, “What happens if bloggers just start doing this? And people find out what these guys are saying? The shit they talk about? About their women and everything else?!”
As I so frequently quote from Charles Barkley: "The locker room is racist, homophobic and sexist and I miss it.”
Adam Silver presents the locker-room problem as a bodily privacy issue because he can’t say what the real issue is. It’s a little more complicated than squeamishness over changing rituals. The fraught topic is that when NBA players are together, as they are in a locker-room setting, they tend to discuss NBA player shit. They sometimes do this even if they know media people are present. In the aftermath of an exciting victory, it’s probably hard to help yourself. Maybe you let your guard down a bit and just hope the nearby media people are trustworthy.
In the Twitter era, it’s hard to trust. Anyone can blast out some half-heard conversation and it makes its way around the world in seconds. This was not an issue in, say, 2007, around when David Stern was biting Scott Skiles’ head off. Today, it’s a real issue in part because the league’s self-conscious image of social progress champion is at odds with, well, jocks being jocks.
Adam Silver can’t say, “We need to ban media from the locker rooms because these guys are saying all kinds of crazy shit like which women they’re cheating with, which sideline reporter’s ass they like best, which Jews control the government, and which opponents are secretly gay. We can’t have one of you naïve idiots starting a news cycle over the most valuable employee of a multibillion-dollar corporation using the wrong f-word.” I mean, I’d like for Silver to say that, but he won’t.
What’s my solution, should media ever be allowed back in the locker room? Stiff-arm Twitter. Make it a hard-and-fast rule: You can report on what happens here, within reason, but whatever you use from a private interview setting is for use only in articles or podcasts. That should cut down on indiscreet in-the-moment reactions, not that they happen all that often. Maybe that’s not a perfect solve, but I believe it’s a better option than banning what’s been a useful multi-decade institution.
Sometimes, there are reasons for why something has survived long enough to be an “anachronism.” A man whose league keeps moving backwards as he fashions himself forward thinking should wonder about that. Maybe this odd tradition exists to help you. Maybe, just maybe, it’s actually useful, possibly even more useful to your league than the metaverse. To see that, though, you’ve got to be looking at the NBA itself, a sport that exists in reality. But, it’s hard to do that when you spend so much of your time looking past it.