No one is being oppressed or having their freedoms overridden because poor old beat reporters can’t breathlessly tweet out precious practice information. In fact, the actionable information NFL teams might actually find valuable — who is playing well and who is struggling — will still show up in Twitter timelines, columns, and stories. But when Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst defended new restrictions on media reporting as practical on Thursday, he missed the crucial reason it’s so troubling.
If media reports of who is playing on the first team or who is playing multiple positions are suddenly state secrets, then nearly all reporting falls into this category and becomes open to restriction by NFL teams.
Using a global pandemic to restrict access under the guise of competitive advantage doesn’t just feel opportunistic, it reveals a broader intent. Teams like Green Bay would love to restrict information more than they already do, but they can’t because there are explicit rules forbidding it. Instead, they capriciously dole out credentials and more often reject those requests, even from established digital brands or Hall of Fame beat writers like Bob McGinn trying to make it independently.
Gutekunst admitted that as part of normal due diligence, scouts will read local reporting from beat writers to get additional information related to player development. In a non-COVID season, that functions as supplemental information to more tangible tape study. But without preseason games, the team would be left to make decisions based almost entirely on the say-so of cargo-shorts wearing typewriter jockeys like us.
This admission reveals that teams already rely on the very information they seek to limit from their own shop, and that’s precisely the point. What they don’t realize is if they’re doing it because other teams are doing it, the rest of the league will no doubt follow suit. Competitive advantage neutralized. Now no one will get anything and they’ll have to like it.
Take that face, how do you like it without a nose?
And this is where the NFL, in conjunction with its media stakeholders and even the NFLPA, need to step in. Consulting with the Pro Football Writers Association, whose Green Bay chapter decried this decision but can offer little in practical pushback, would be a reasonable start. If one team does this, others will follow. Why would the Browns continue to stream their practices for fans if the Packers won’t even allow reporters to say who is running with the starters as opposed to rotating in with the No. 2s?
Gutekunst referenced this domino effect directly in his Thursday Zoom call.
“As we got into the first three days (of practice), and seen the landscape of what other teams were doing, and just the information we were gathering,” Gutekunst explained, “Without 8,000 people at practice and four preseason games, I thought we were at a disadvantage, and I wanted to equal the playing field.”
In short, why would we help other teams if they aren’t helping us? On its face that’s exactly right. But they do regularly hold practice in front of thousands of fans, practices that non-credentialed media, bloggers, and maybe even a curious NFL scout or two could attend. The Browns do stream practices. The same competitive disadvantages would theoretically apply, but this time the difference is preseason games?
The answer is they limit the information because they can.
There’s little stopping them from creating an NFL Cold War environment where every team is so paranoid about releasing information that no one allows anything to come out. How long before non-team site reporters only get to watch warm ups and stretches? And for what? A marginal advantage that goes out the window once everyone else does the same thing, one teams didn’t seem to care about before as more and more franchises realized how much fan engagement could be lucrative.
But given a little power to do a thing that teams — at least on the football side — likely already wanted to do? Crush those nerds and their spreadsheets.
Boo hoo, poor fake news reporters right? They’ll just have to come up with unscrupulous click-hungry narratives some other way. Here’s the problem: that’s right. The less information reporters can share, the more clickbait columns get written because that’s suddenly the only other thing that can be printed. Suddenly the proverbial blocking and tackling reports from practice turn into body language doctoring of Aaron Rodgers helping out Jordan Love during a drill. Imagine what Colin Cowherd’s programming would look like with literally no actual reporting from practice.
That’s bad for fans and for the teams. No one wants that.
Engagement from coverage drives attention. Fans crave this stuff. A commentary about a 1-on-1 rep gets hundreds of retweets. A.J. Dillon goes viral for wearing practice shorts from the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. A Patrick Mahomes absurd throw becomes 8 minutes of a Fox Sports 1 talking head show. This is what incites the kind of attention that puts money in the pockets of the league.
If it’s not a big deal to hold public practices in front of thousands of fans wearing green and gold, then it’s hardly going to change the outcomes of the 53-man roster if some blogger reports which guy is playing right tackle and right guard. If teams believe the balance of their seasons are truly that tenuous, it’s not showing very much faith in their own process — not to mention they’re only encouraging other teams to follow suit, which actively hurts their own scouting of other teams, because now they’re also relying on the word of a guy typing from his mom’s basement. He might even gasp care about analytics. Then what would teams do? How would they live?
This isn’t the first time the league and its member teams had to walk back media restrictions. At one point during a recent, misguided attempt to limit video in training camp, beat reporters resorting to sarcastically tweeting crudely executed photos seemingly made in Microsoft Paint. Local Packers writers have taken similarly sarcastic approaches to their Twitter activity, sending out purposefully nebulous messages. It’s ridiculous.
When fans return next year, assuming that happens, what’s to stop non-credentialed people from doing this? Plenty of members of the blogosphere, podcasters, and other established media creators aren’t credentialed. CheeseheadTV and Acme Packing Company have done it for years. Some of those people even became credentialed media (and then got un-credentialed before getting re-credentialed). Why have a policy that would be moot under normal circumstances? The benefit now is only marginally greater than it was before.
There’s no actual advantage once this becomes a trend. It hurts fan engagement and creates a media environment that must rely more on clickbait and engenders antipathy from those covering the team itself. It’s a no-win decision cloaked in pragmatism.
That’s why this move looks either blatantly punitive, or obviously short-sighted ... or as is often the case in the NFL, both.