The NFL has shared its COVID-19 protocols for the 2020 training camp and preseason. And it looks dramatically different from previous years.
“Training camp for reporters is such a valuable time — both for beat writers and national writers who ordinarily travel to different camps and get to speak with players and coaches from a variety of teams,” said Bob Glauber, NFL columnist for Newsday and president of the Pro Football Writers of America. “There’s nothing quite like it, and not having that sense of normalcy presents major challenges.”
Before coronavirus, training camp practices were open to both fans and reporters. But now, the NFL has created various “tiers of access” to help mitigate the risk of virus transmission.
Training camp kicks off on July 28. The number of media personnel allowed access is limited, and live tweeting, blogging and texting during these practices will be prohibited. Fans will not be allowed to attend this year.
We reached out to Glauber to learn how journalists can cover the preseason amidst these new restrictions.
How will limited access to the training camps affect reporting this season?
Glauber: I think it will have a tremendous impact on reporters, even if readers might not always be able to tell. Under normal circumstances, training camp can be the most productive time in an NFL season because you get to see the players practice on a daily basis, see how they interact on the field and get a sense of how the coaches are carrying out their vision of what they want their teams to look like.
Now, not only will there be potential limitations on how many reporters can watch practice, but the practices themselves will look very little like what we’re used to. I expect there to be very little full-scale, 11-on-11 drills, and with the players not having been on the field since the end of last season, there will be a long adjustment period to try and get them back into football shape.
The other issue for reporters is that our interviews with the players will all be virtual, so the chance for the casual one-on-one conversations that we ordinarily have will be mostly gone. I would expect teams to accommodate individual interview requests in addition to the group Zoom interviews, but these will not occur nearly as frequently as they would in a normal training camp setting. Readers will get their stories and will see plenty of quotes from coaches and players, but it will be more challenging for reporters to come up with ways to differentiate their stories, given the reduced capability of more organic conversations that occur in a regular setting.
What is the Pro Football Writers of America doing to help improve coverage of pre-season football?
Glauber: The PFWA has been in regular contact with the NFL and the NFL Players Association to advocate for as much coverage as possible. I do believe that the league and the players heard our concerns and reacted favorably to what we asked. There are limitations because of health concerns, but I am certain that we will have gained more access than what might have originally been the case. Our conversations with both sides were productive, and the system of allowing reporters into practice that was eventually agreed to at least gives us a chance to watch the players at a critical time in their preparation for the season. I expect there will be a large number of interviews of key players and coaches during training camp, so the material will be there.
What are alternate ways journalists can get training camp stories when in-person interviews are restricted?
Glauber: I think this is where journalists can separate themselves, because coming up with different angles or stories will mean more in an environment where most reporters are participating in a lot of the same interviews. Even though interviews won’t happen in person, telephone or Zoom calls done on an individual basis will make news because the content will be different than what you see and read from the group sessions. That has always been the case, but I think it will be more so now because of the limitations we’re dealing with.
Talking to people outside the organizations is also a way to make news. I mean, Joe Namath interviews about the Jets are still noteworthy, even though it has been more than 50 years since he guaranteed the Jets would win Super Bowl III. Readers have a strong connection with players from the past — even the distant past — so that is an area that won’t change. Reporters who have been plugged in before the pandemic spread will be positioned to create plenty of content that will stand out.
How has remote media access to the league impacted sports coverage?
Glauber: The model has completely changed, because very little has been done in person as far as interviews and coverage. There is still an acclimation process, but it is also a time of creative thinking and writing. Baseball workouts have suddenly taken on greater importance, and writers in press boxes at stadiums covering these workouts have material that wasn’t there before the owners and MLBPA agreed on a restart.
Football-wise, the NFL has operated in as normal a way as could have been imagined, and they had the benefit of time. Going ahead with free agency in March provided an incredible amount of content, and the virtual draft was a major hit with fans. It will be more problematic moving forward if and when the teams return for training camp, so a different set of challenges awaits.
What advice does PFWA have for writers and photographers without access to the training camp?
Glauber: I think it’s going to be much easier on writers without direct access to training camp than it will be for photographers, who need in-person visuals to do their jobs. I can’t speak to those challenges, but I do know that writers who can’t attend training camp will at least have the benefit of being on the virtual calls with players and coaches.
For those who aren’t familiar, what is special about covering the training camp? How has COVID-19 changed this?
Glauber: COVID-19 has changed everything about training camp — assuming there will be a training camp. The whole nature of preparing for the season has changed, because players simply haven’t had the ability to participate in organized activities for months, with limited exceptions of them working out in groups. But even then, they’re taking risks that the NFL Players Association would rather not see them take. Training camp for reporters is such a valuable time — both for beat writers and national writers who ordinarily travel to different camps and get to speak with players and coaches from a variety of teams. There is no pressure of having to play the next game during training camp, and players and coaches tend to be much more open. No one has lost a game, there’s optimism for just about every team, and this is where you get to establish relationships that will largely form the basis of your reporting in the days, weeks, months and yes, years ahead. There’s nothing quite like it, and not having that sense of normalcy presents major challenges.
What do you anticipate regular season access will look like?
Glauber: Access to regular season practices always diminishes in the regular season, because clubs do not permit reporters to see team drills. That has changed over the years, mostly because coaches are secretive about strategic issues and don’t want to give other teams any knowledge of what they might be thinking. We used to be able to watch every minute of every practice during training camp and the regular season, with the understanding that we would not report about any plays. But those days are over, so we get about half an hour to watch the individual drills in practice and then leave for the team portion.
I would imagine the interviews with players and coaches will be conducted mostly on a virtual basis unless there is a dramatic change with the prevalence of the coronavirus. Sadly, that means there won’t be locker room access — which is another incredibly useful time to get to know players.