I have a message for the Carolina Panthers players who thought hiring a uniformed cop to keep reporters away from Tuesday's workout session at a Charlotte high school was a good idea. And against all logic, I'm going to deliver it without the benefit of police protection:
You guys are acting like morons – and wimps.
Yep, I said it, and I'm prepared to own it, because it's my job to enunciate opinions and accept the consequences. Then again, I'm actually being paid for my endeavors, unlike Panthers workout organizer Jordan Gross(notes) and his locked-out teammates, who nonetheless behaved as though the flow of information from day one of their faux minicamp was as privileged as their condescending owner, Jerry Richardson.
This just in, guys: Nobody wants to steal any of your secrets, unless they're looking for a primer on how not to play professional football. And by locking out reporters – and, by extension, your fans – in the midst of a lockout, you are damaging your cause on numerous levels.
First, you're missing an opportunity to cast yourselves in a positive light during a time of tumultuous discord that threatens to get worse as the scheduled start of the 2011 season nears. With the lockout approaching its three-month anniversary and lawyers for NFL owners and players preparing to duke it out Friday at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in St. Louis, fans are frustrated with people on both sides of the dispute – even though one side (the owners) is clearly prohibiting the other from going about its business.
Nothing screams "We just want to play football" like 50 non-compensated, uninsured and banished employees getting together to hone their collective craft and prepare for a season that their bosses are prepared to deny them. That's something even the knee-jerk, pro-management apologists have to concede is a powerful public-relations pitch on the players' behalf. (OK, maybe not. But it's nice to dream …)
Letting reporters film a little video and take a few notes during these player-run practices would seem to be a no-brainer. Pausing on the way back to the car to give a few innocuous quotes for the cause doesn't seem like an especially painful price to pay, either.
Trust me, the reporters being kept out by the police officer weren't there in search of some sort of sneak peak into new coach Ron Rivera's playbook or a blow-by-blow account of the impending quarterback battle between No. 1 overall draft pick Cam Newton(notes) and 2010 second-rounder Jimmy Clausen(notes). Rather, they were looking to give their readers and viewers a glimpse into how the Panthers' players are handling the lockout and coping with the challenges of this unusual offseason – and a chance to enunciate their views on a very contentious issue.
There's no reason for any player to fear such a scenario. If a player prefers to keep his thoughts to himself, it's a relatively easy thing to do. That's the way members of the Miami Dolphins behaved in April, even during the lockout's brief court-ordered hiatus, and it has been the Indianapolis Colts' modus operandi as well.
I think the actions of the Dolphins and the Colts in question were as absurd as those of their Panthers counterparts, but at least they had some semblance of an excuse: They're accustomed to control-freak regimes whose obsession with secrecy has been hammered home repeatedly by esteemed football men (Colts president Bill Polian and former Dolphins vice president Bill Parcells, respectively), and their perspective is consequently warped.
The Panthers had a far less repressive mentality under general manager Marty Hurney and former coach John Fox, and yet they chose to repel reporters in a conspicuous and heavy-handed fashion. Other teams have handled the situation differently; the New Orleans Saints even raffled off an opportunity for fans to join their workouts.
Any player on any team who believes the former approach is preferable to the latter can spare me the indignant complaints the next time they play for a hyper-paranoid coach who treats them like children. For all the conversations I've had with players who bristled under the paranoid leadership of failed head coaches like Josh McDaniels and Eric Mangini, I'm now wondering if some of them aren't secretly enjoying the insulation from reporters that such environments provide.
Being sequestered from the masses, after all, can be quite intoxicating. There are plenty of people on NFL rosters accustomed to life in the VIP room, and stationing a cop outside your wannabe OTAs is simply another means of copping an elitist attitude. It projects a sense that the players are special people cut off from the common man, when at the same time the people advocating for their labor interests are trying to cast them as unfairly treated employees getting a raw deal from The Man.
The sad thing is, on one level, these employees are special. Lost in the lazy argument from numerous fans that players should be happy getting paid good money to engage in a kids' game, no matter what terms management offers, is the fact that these are highly skilled workers who've leveraged those singular abilities toward commanding a sizeable share of the massive kitty provided by insatiable consumers. That's capitalism at its finest, and players shouldn't have to apologize for their unique vocational opportunities, even as some fans moan, "If they don't like it, they should try digging ditches."
That said, you won't hear the Panthers' players enunciating those sentiments, because they've got a cop blocking the door. And this seems like an excellent time to point out precisely how gutless a move that is.
Trust me, no NFL player needs hired muscle to keep me from imploring him to answer questions. If someone tells me "No comment," I may not be thrilled with that response, but I'm not going to stalk him, either. We're all grownups. Commissioning a police officer to ensure that I don't even have the opportunity to pose the first question is a punk move, pure and simple.
OK, I lied – in this particular circumstance I don't have a ton of respect for "No comment," either. If the Panthers, Colts and Dolphins in question think they're honoring some organizational code by keeping quiet, they're missing the larger context of this work stoppage. It's bigger than team solidarity or catering to your head coach's or GM's wishes. It's a fight for the future of the sport and what rights and protections players will have going forward, and while coaches and front-office executives may be caught in the middle, by no stretch do they have the players' backs.
Bottom line: If you're a player who's desperately trying to kiss up to his bosses during a lockout, you're nothing but a lackey, and I have no sympathy for your plight.
To be clear, I can understand why players would be frustrated by media coverage of the labor dispute – in my opinion, it has been largely superficial and slanted gratuitously toward the establishment, and outright lies on the owners' side (i.e. We locked them out because they decertified) have gone unchallenged. However, that equation works both ways: Cut yourself off from the media at a time when access should be your best friend, and your message might not be broadcast as effectively as you'd hoped.
If I sound angry, I am – not because I have a desperate desire to see the Panthers parade around in shorts in June, but because I think they're fools for not enthusiastically welcoming anyone in my business who wants to watch. Access is something I take very, very seriously, and when people deny it for no apparent reason, I tend to be a lot less receptive when they or their agents inevitably hit me up for coverage down the road.
I know there are many of you out there who think I'm merely whining and profess to prefer a reality in which reporters are routinely denied access and stonewalled at every turn. And I think you're delusional. I demand access because, in most cases, you, the fan, seeks information. From what I can tell, many of you have a ravenous appetite for stories and rumors surrounding your favorite NFL teams and players, even in the middle of the offseason. Would you be cool with subsisting on team-issued press releases and players' Twitter feeds?
To be totally honest, the Panthers' decision to put a cop outside their practice session is but a minor annoyance to me. On a metaphorical level, however, it's infuriating. My job is to care because you care, and you should be thankful that I'm good at it, even when people put up barriers.
Usually, it's the Polians and Parcellses of the world who go to great lengths to keep my fellow journalists and me from getting the real story. This time, it's a bunch of well-compensated athletes who've incorrectly identified the enemy while appearing clueless and intimidated in the process.
Nice work, Panthers. On a positive note, once the lockout ends and the games begin, you'll have to play a lot better than you did last year to merit any coverage whatsoever from reporters like me.