Athletes are paid to perform. They’re not paid to speak. It’s time for all sports leagues to recognize that fact, and to respect it.
Marshawn Lynch currently is trending on Twitter because tennis star Naomi Osaka has received a $15,000 fine for refusing to meet with reporters after a match at the French Open. The powers-that-be have threatened to expel her from the tournament. Lynch has entered the non-chat chat because many believe Osaka should simply show up and say as little as possible in response to the questions, including “I’m just here so I don’t get fined.”
I used to think that speaking to reporters went with the territory, a small price to pay for getting paid so much money to do something so many others would do for free (especially since no one would ever pay them to do it). While there may have been a time when forcing the athletes to participate in these P.R. exercises made sense, times have dramatically changed with the rise of social media and the various other channels for getting the word out about a given sport. Teams and leagues can now promote their endeavors in a wide variety of ways, up to and including launching their own media companies. Taking a step back in light of the current technologies, It seems more than a bit backward to think that one of the ways for promoting a sport includes forcing someone to speak to the media when that person doesn’t want to do it.
Here’s the reality with which reporters who crave maximum mandatory access must finally come to terms. For every athlete who refuses to speak, hundreds are happy to do so. They want to do it. They love to do it. They perceive the possibilities of getting endorsement deals and post-playing media opportunities if they are viewed as affable, charismatic, entertaining.
So why force talking upon someone who doesn’t want to talk? Why put them through an experience that they prefer not to experience?
For reporters, there will be other players or stories within a given sport to cover. There will be others who choose to speak. There will be other ways to fulfill the obligation to get a story written, other topics to discuss during a podcast, a radio show, or wherever.
The NFL has always expected players to meet with the media because the NFL has always drawn a clear line between meeting with the media and promoting the sport. But if the NFL will fine someone like Lynch for not showing up but shrug if Lynch shows up and provides a litany of non-responsive words until the reporters realize they’re wasting their time, what’s the point in putting the athlete through the paces of showing up to be grilled in the first place?
Before Bill Belichick starts nodding like a Jack Nicholson meme, only the players should have the option to not speak. Coaches should still be required to face the music after games and during the workweek. (Officials should have to talk to a roomful of reporters after each game, too. But that’s a different crusade.) Also, I’m not suggesting that locker rooms should be closed. They need to be open, and reporters need to be able to get raw, real-time reactions from those who choose to speak.
No athlete should be required to do anything other than show up for practices, team meetings, and games. The vast majority will choose to speak when given the chance to do so, even if they have the choice not to. Those who genuinely don’t want to do it should have the same right possessed by every American citizen: The right to remain silent.