How can the NFL balance media access with mental health?

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Reporters who cover the NFL have in recent years become more and more sensitive to the mental health of the men who play professional football. As long, that is, as the sensitivity to mental health doesn’t threaten media access to players after every game, no matter how agonizing the outcome.

That’s the balance that needs to be struck, and the sports media issue of the moment. Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open brings to the front burner the tension between player mental health and mandatory participation in press conferences. I recently wrote that players should be give the option to talk to reporters, and that if it were voluntary plenty of players would still choose to speak. Many in the media strenuously object to that approach, for obvious reasons; they don’t want their jobs to become harder if players have to be coaxed to speak. They prefer the automatic, knee-jerk entitlement to players being available after every game, even if the players don’t want to be.

The position that access should remain mandatory continues to ignore the fact that players aren’t actually required to say anything. As long as they show up, they can give non-responsive answers or repeat catch phrases like “I’m just here so I won’t get fined.” And they won’t get fined. Thus, if it truly were voluntary to show up in the first place, plenty would still choose to talk.

But how do we balance the mental well-being of players with the expectation that they’ll hold court with a gaggle of strangers and be forced to re-live in the fresh fumes of defeat their own failures of performance that contributed to the outcome? It’s not, as some would argue, just a game. Players can lose their starting jobs and, eventually, their roster spots if they make too many mistakes. They can land elsewhere, but at less money, and they’ll have to move. Eventually, a career will be over before the player wants it to be, forcing him to prematurely figure out how to finance a lifestyle based on consistently earning an NFL salary.

Too many fans have a “shut up and entertain us” attitude when it comes to pro athletes. Plenty of those same fans also have a “shut up and talk when you’re expected to” attitude when it comes to press availability. Even those fans who pay no attention at all to the things said by players in post-game press conferences will rattle off phrases like, “You’re paid to do it, so just do it.”

It’s appropriate to have the broader conversation about whether they should be required to do it. Years ago, the NFL needed players to be willing to talk to reporters in order to give reporters reasons to write articles about the game. Today, media outlets don’t need to be plied with automatic access to write about the NFL or its team. Media outlets and those who write/speak for them will find a way to cover the teams and the games.

Again, I’m not suggesting that there should be no locker-room access. But the players who don’t want to talk shouldn’t have to.

14 responses to “How can the NFL balance media access with mental health?

  1. I know that many who post here couldn’t care less about the health of the players (mental or otherwise), but the point Osaka has made (in part – I don’t claim to represent her entire thought process) is that long, droning press conferences with either endless mind-numbing questions, or sometimes hostile questions (more relevant to tennis than the NFL) is draining and not helpful…AND pointless, for the most part.

    She has cited past depression – which is something grossly misunderstood by most of the public as “feeling sad” – which is something greatly exacerbated by stress. Our country’s dismissive attitude and handling of mental health issues is shameful.

  2. The only reason I didn’t become a wealthy athlete is because I wanted to live a private life.

  3. I see both sides of it, but I always comes back to this: if you can’t handle the spotlight, perhaps living under the constant pressure of a public life as a professional athlete at the top of your sport isn’t for you.

    The popularity of tennis has declined significantly since the 70s through the 90s, and it’s the publicity that has allowed her passion to make her rich. Osaka has earned in excess of $50 million playing the sport she loves/is one of the best in the world at. I don’t see how it’s unfair for tournament organizers to expect her to do her small part in promoting the sport to help them help her.

    I also have a history of depression and can sympathize with her, but when my last career created conditions that aggravated it, I found a new career.

  4. Speaking as a member of (small-town) media, but as one who has covered every major sport regularly except Major League Baseball, here’s the deal: if you tell athletes they don’t have to “face” the media, or have postgame press conferences, then NONE of them are going to opt to do it except the attention-seeking Dennis Rodmans, Jalen Ramseys, Alex Ovechkins of the sports world.

  5. Too many fans have a “shut up and entertain us” attitude when it comes to pro athletes. Plenty of those same fans also have a “shut up and talk when you’re expected to” attitude when it comes to press availability. Even those fans who pay no attention at all to the things said by players in post-game press conferences will rattle off phrases like, “You’re paid to do it, so just do it.”

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    I’m not sure that is true. I know I sure don’t feel that way. As far as I’m concerned, neither coaches nor players should ever be forced to speak to the media. Nothing good for the team can come from it, and a lot of bad for the team does come from it. It is all league marketing/hype forced on teams by league policy.

  6. Player interviews are usually very boring and uninformative. The “reporters” seem to be on a quest for the gotcha quote. This fan wouldn’t miss the interviews one bit.

  7. Players shouldn’t have to do interviews. If the team thinks it benefits the team, then incentivize players to do interviews.

    The NFL players aren’t elected officials. There’s no right-to-know. If the players want to, that’s cool. If the players have a good reason to do it, that’s cool too.

  8. I think one solution is the NFL can require teams to make at least X players available to the media following practice, games, etc and require captains to have a weekly press conference and be available after games. Players will know there are media requirements as part of being a captain.

  9. It’s part of the job. Plain and simple. I have things in my work life I’d rather not have to do, but I do them because it’s part of the job. There’s always the option of getting a different job, but if you really enjoy what you do, you find a way to deal with the parts you don’t enjoy.

  10. I vividly recall Marshawn Lynch’s troubles around this issue and I said at the time it appeared he was suffering anxiety about the media and I did not receive a lot of supportive replies. If you have anxiety issues or other mental health problems you should be exempt from speaking directly to the media unless you choose to.

  11. Cmon already…. How soft are these athletes getting? The next thing you know is they won’t want people in the stands watching them. Quit making excuses for them, if they can’t sit there and give the media squat then they ain’t doing it right. I have no sympathy for them whatsoever.

  12. I personally could not care less about postgame interviews. They are not informative nor do they give any insight into the game just played. That said, if the ultimate employer of the players and coaches, the NFL, wants them to give postgame interviews, well that is just part of the job description. If you cannot stand up in front of the reporters, it begs the question of how you perform in front of many tens of thousands fans in attendance and millions of fans watching on TV. And if answering questions from reporters is too difficult, then maybe another line of work is in order.

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