Whenever I think back over the COVID-19 pandemic and the degree to which it has changed how my colleagues and I do our jobs, I think of John Hightower. Remember John Hightower? Wide receiver. Boise State. The Eagles selected him in the fifth round of last year’s draft. He played 13 games and had 10 receptions. During the season’s final eight weeks, he pretty much disappeared. He was targeted just three times over a four-week stretch and was inactive for three consecutive games thereafter. He might not make the Eagles’ roster this year.
I think of John Hightower because of the Eagles’ opener last season, a loss to Washington at FedEx Field. The game had seemed to arrive out of nowhere. There had been no preseason. There had been no daily immersion in training camp – hours under the July and August sun, watching the Eagles practice, interviewing players and coaches – which meant for fans, for anyone really, there had been fewer Eagles-related stories to read, fewer Eagles-related broadcast reports to watch, less Eagles-related content to consume. Suddenly, there was football, with no buildup.
In the second quarter, Hightower was wide open over the middle, and Carson Wentz hit him in stride, and Hightower dropped the pass. In the third quarter, he and Wentz read from different scripts on an out route, and the confusion led to an interception. John Hightower had contributed directly to the Eagles’ losing a game they had led by 17 points, yet how many people who cover the team had talked with him, had met him face to face? How many people who root for the team could have picked his head shot out of a two-person photo array? What had anyone seen from him at practice? No one had seen anything. Had he impressed the Eagles’ coaches in camp? There was no way to know for sure. There was no context in which his performance could be placed. John Hightower was anonymous and unknown until he stunk, and it was easy to say he stunk because he was and would remain, for the rest of the season, anonymous and unknown.
Benefits for both sides
If you’ve paid any attention over the last 14 months, you know that the primary prism through which everyone has viewed sports during the pandemic has been a screen: a television screen, a computer screen, a phone screen, pre- and postgame questions over Zoom, precious little interpersonal interaction. Now the country is opening up. COVID cases are dropping. Mask mandates are disappearing. So this is a request, almost a plea, for the major sports institutions in this country – the NFL, the NCAA, the NBA, MLB, the NHL, MLS, all of them – to restore as much independent-media access to their executives and coaches and athletes as possible. The closer that these leagues and franchises get to the way things once were, the better for everybody.
This is a self-serving plea, and I both acknowledge that obvious truth and make no apologies for it. Of course I want to resume working in the manner I did before the lockdown. The joy of a job in sports journalism for many of us is in the relationships built, the questions asked, the answers sought, the events witnessed, and the stories told only when you can get up close. That access helps us. Here’s the thing, though: It helps the franchises and coaches and athletes, too.
During the pandemic, viewership for most sports – even the NFL – has fallen, in some cases precipitously. There are plenty of varied explanations for the decline: The push to honor billion-dollar television contracts compelled the leagues to adopt some irregular scheduling – the NHL playoffs in August? – to finish seasons and squeeze in games. The absence of fans deadened the atmosphere in arenas and stadiums and ballparks, making for a less exciting and pleasurable viewing experience even on TV, making sports less of an escape. Superstars are sitting out games to rest, to avoid injury, and … just because.
But there’s another reason for the drop-off: Saturation coverage of sports – the personalities, the statistics, the stories, the trends, the controversies – drives interest in sports. And as much as teams would love to keep independent media out of locker rooms and practice facilities, as much as owners and executives and coaches want to maintain control over their messaging and narratives, they themselves can’t deliver enough of that content to satiate the public’s appetite for it.
They can’t write news stories or columns or posts for dozens of other websites, or record half a dozen podcasts a week, or fill a couple of hours each morning on the radio or 97 seconds each night on the local news. They can tout a direct-to-fan consumer model – Come to YourFavoriteTeam.com for our insider’s take! – but that approach has its limitations. Does every fan want only a shiny-happy perspective or spin on a team’s fortunes? Doesn’t a story about a franchise’s internal dynamics, good and bad, raise interest and add drama?
Stories to tell
“There has to be a happy medium,” Joe Favorito, who has served as the public-relations director for the 76ers, the Knicks, and the United States Tennis Association during his 35 years in sports, said Monday in a phone interview. “When the perception is that the person doling out the messages has all the power, that makes it very one-sided, especially in a time where teams, leagues, and brands need to make more revenue, need the wide-ranging storytelling to reach their audience. There has to be compromise, and I think there will be.”
More, the higher the barrier or the greater the distance that a franchise maintains between itself and the media that cover it, the more irresponsible and inaccurate the coverage is likely to be. I’m not suggesting that reporters should or must go soft on those teams and athletes who give them access. There doesn’t have to be a tradeoff. The best sports coverage comes from those media members who can report about, comment on, and critically scrutinize a franchise or player without sacrificing their independence, integrity, and credibility. But I am suggesting that, human nature being what it is, it’s easier to see a coach, an athlete, or anyone else as an avatar or a target – not as flesh-and-blood – when your only interaction with him or her is through the remove of an Instagram post, a tweet, Zoom.
That’s all John Hightower was last season. He wasn’t a 24-year-old rookie wide receiver. He was just one of many emblems of a strange and lousy Eagles season. He showed up on TV one Sunday, dropped a couple of passes, and after a while vanished. He was pixels on a screen … until he wasn’t. Maybe there was a story there. It would be nice to be able to read it, or tell it.