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July 06, 2020

John McMullen: NFL using COVID-19 to restrict media access — and fans will suffer

Opinion NFL

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080318_Carson-Wentz_PV Matt Mullin/PhillyVoice

Training camp is going to look quite different in 2020 than it has in the past.

The NFL and the Players Association have been hammering out the plan to keep COVID-19 at bay in an attempt to get through the 2020 season and you the fan not knowing who might be practicing in certain sub-packages for the Eagles is every bit as important as masks, social-distancing, and proximity alarms.

That’s a bit facetious of course but, under the cover of COVID, the league is trying to tack on some pork at the end of massive legislation to better control the dissemination of information.

Buried in the proposed media access protocol for training camps, leaked to NFL Media’s Tom Pelissero, is some very draconian restrictions on the reporters who will be given access to practices.

The most notable one is “no reporting of which players are practicing with individual units (goal-line offense, nickel defense, etc.).”

I can tell you right now with virtual certainty that barring some kind of health issue Nickell Robey-Coleman will be lining up with the first-team defense in the nickel for the Eagles whenever team drills begin, but if I’m on the field when those drills do kick-off, I can’t proffer that information to you, at least not in the traditional way.

Conversely, if Robey-Coleman is banged-up and you’d like to know the next man up in that circumstance I couldn’t tell you that Cre’Von LeBlanc was in with the first-team for some reason.

More so, for a reporter who did not make the cut to attend practice among the shrunken media contingent, it would quite acceptable to cite an unnamed source on lineup tweaks — perhaps even me as a reporter who was there (and let that sink in for a minute) — but the guy who saw it with his own eyes not only can’t report it on the record, it can’t even be reported at a later date.

Forget about hearing about Jeff Stoutland dressing down a struggling offensive lineman, by the letter of this law we can’t even report encouragement or teaching techniques we might overhear.

It’s all very dumb but it’s also revealing.

First off a couple of stipulations here: Yes, this is sports and not a big deal in the real world. More so, we can all agree no one cares about the media. We might be the only people in the country who could top Congress in the race for the lowest approval rating. As a member of the media, I don’t like how many of us do the job to be honest.

The knee-jerk reaction on social media to me pointing out the awfulness of these restrictions was to pile on by claiming we are all selfish, entitled jerks who believe we should get unfettered access even if the era COVID-19 as if hanging around an NFL locker room for an hour waiting for a bunch of people who don’t want to talk to me on the best of days is on my top-100 hit list.

You might think that’s cool or believe we do. Well, it’s not and we don’t, but reporters — real reporters at least — take the gathering of information very seriously and this is not a serious policy.

As vice president of the Philadelphia chapter of the PFWA, I’ve been aware of the skeleton of these COVID-19 precautions for months. The understanding of a new Zoom-centric world has been in place since March.

No one is asking for additional access, but if a reporter has been cleared to be on the field by the league and has passed all the needed protocols to get there, actually reporting on what he or she sees is essential to the industry, especially in training camp, the only time of year reporters get to watch entire practices. 

You might think you will not miss it because you may not like the messenger. And you probably won’t miss it right up until the minute you do.

Ultimately it’s probably not going to be an issue and unlikely to be adhered to. It was written by a bureaucrat who doesn’t understand the nuts and bolts of the process and skipped the preseason for more stringent regular-season rules. The PFWA also quickly chimed in with a more acceptable version of the new landscape that will be closer to what happens.

You can see the sentiment behind the version from the NFL and the Players Association, however. 

Ironically, before the XFL was destroyed by the pandemic it was gaining a foothold with more access, whether it was transparency on instant replay or listening in on a coach’s play call, the broadcasts brought the average fan closer to the game. 

Those who watched Matt McGloin imploding on the sidelines as the starting quarterback of the New York Guardians saw something they had bever seen before, the raw emotion of game plan and preparation falling apart in the middle of battle. It was compelling.

The NFL has been headed in the opposite direction of that for years, creating a bubble long before COVID to keep state secrets safe. Call it a prison of popularity. Coaches don’t want to be second-guessed, the officiating department is under perpetual siege, and quarterbacks certainly don’t want microphones thrust in front of their faces after throwing a pick-six. So, you end up with the CIA-like atmosphere.  

Years ago in Minnesota, Mike Tice would walk around the practice field several times to get some exercise in and invited the media to join in. You only have to rewind a little bit to a time we were allowed in the NovaCare Complex and would often see a player or coach walking through the hallway. Relationships were built and information flowed freely.

Some of it was innocuous but filled in the details of a story like Chip Kelly refusing to make eye contact and Doug Pederson belting out a hearty “Hi, guys.” Jeffrey Lurie’s emotional intelligence in all its glory.

For the past few seasons, the media was placed across the parking lot in South Philadelphia to the somewhat-famed media house and summoned for antiseptic press conferences. Now public health demands yet another scaleback.  

We’ve now reached the bottom of the slippery slope and it’s fair to say a public health crisis demanded it. 

But pay attention to the restrictions and demand they be removed whenever possible. Otherwise, enjoy state-run media. It’s what you deserve unless you’re willing to demand more.


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John McMullen is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media’s Football 24/7 Network and also contributes Eagles and NFL coverage for PhillyVoice and SI.com. You can reach him at jmcmullen44@gmail.com

Follow John on Twitter: @JFMcMullen

You can listen to John during the week on @SIRIUSXM’s Tony Bruno Show with Harry Mayes, every Tuesday and Thursday with Eytan Shander on @SBNationRadio, and daily on your favorite podcast platform for "Extending the Play." 

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