NFL training camp and the month of August are synonymous for sports fans. As the days grow shorter but the weather remains steaming, everyone's excitement for football season ramps up. Hop on Twitter and you'll see dozens of training camp breakdowns, reports of who's ahead of who on the depth chart, and snap-judgments made by fans based off a 15-second video taken by their favorite beat writer.
This year, of course, things are different. COVID-19 meant camp started weeks later than normal. Rookies didn't get their minicamp, and vets didn't get the gradual warm-up they're accustomed to. Coaches are only just now seeing what their rosters look like after not being permitted to meet as a full team over the previous three months.
It's not just the coaches and players getting accustomed to this new normal, though. Reporters are having to adjust, too. With training camps devoid of fans, some teams have instituted new coverage rules for their media members in attendance at practice-- and the impact has been clear from the start.
Earlier this week, Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Gerald McCoy tore his right quad during practice. National reporter Ian Rapoport was the first to break the news, instead of the many Cowboys reporters who were there and saw it happen. Why? The Cowboys banned reporters from tweeting what they see during practice. They're forced to wait until they're out of the building to report any news. Clarence Hill Jr. of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, for one, was quite unhappy with how everything unfolded.
The Cowboys aren't the only team with rules that limit media members. On Wednesday, the Green Bay Packers announced what seem to be rather strict rules dictating exactly what media members can and cannot report during these practices, as shown by ESPN's Packers reporter Rob Demovsky.
As Demovsky points out in a later tweet, teams are well within their rights to limit what reporters can say when it comes to training camp. And there are ways for reporters to get around the rules, as Jim Owczarski of the Journal-Sentinel demonstrated on Thursday.
Chicago Bears reporter Adam Jahns got especially creative, tweeting out gifs to react to what he saw in real time, then explaining what happened once practice is done.
The big question here is why? Yes, these are unprecedented times, but some of the rules instituted seem unnecessarily restrictive to the reporters' coverage. It is still just training camp, after all. What's the reasoning behind prohibiting media members from doing their job to the fullest extent possible?
Speaking to reporters around the league, one of the big factors behind these decisions is the lack of fans in attendance. Due to COVID-19, fans are not allowed at training camps. In normal years, there would be a few thousand fans in attendance for each team's practices. They technically aren't allowed to film any of the practice, but in a crowd of thousands, where pretty much every individual has access to a camera and a way to broadcast it to the world, someone will end up posting footage. Thus, teams wouldn't prohibit reporters from doing that and disseminating other information gathered during camp in real-time because there aren't any secrets to be kept. That is no longer the case.
Then there's the fact that these aren't normal training camps. Teams don't have the usual time to prepare between the compact training camp schedule and complete lack of preseason games. What that means is that these early August practices mean much more than in past years. Coaching staffs only have so many practice sessions to introduce concepts and schemes they want to run in real games. In essence, these are more like regular-season practices than training camp sessions, and teams are treating it as such; once the games start to matter, reporters' access to practice is severely limited. In tandem with the cloak-and-dagger nature of the NFL as a whole, teams want to limit how much useful information comes out of these sessions, even if it comes at the expense of the media.
But how limiting is it, really? Not every team has global espionage-level rules their reporters have to follow. Greg Auman, The Athletic's Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter, told The Big Lead that the Bucs have been pretty loose with what they're allowing their reporters to send out. Auman said, "it isn't unlimited by any means," but it seems fair given the circumstances and a step below the rules other teams have put in place in terms of strictness. Raiders writer Vic Tafur, also of The Athletic, said the Raiders instituted a "no tweeting from the practice field" policy this year, but otherwise changes come in the form of cautionary pandemic-related rules, like Zoom press conferences.
Armando Salguero, the Dolphins beat writer for the Miami Herald, said the Dolphins have changed the coverage rules for the media this year because there are no fans in attendance. While this impacts his readers' desire for instantaneous coverage, Salguero actually believes it's helpful in terms of reception of the coverage because readers have to wait until after practice to get information.
"Fans want immediacy. But when that isn't available, they flock to the stories and notebooks that often describe what happened at practice," Salguero told The Big Lead. "So their hunger for information is consumed via stories rather than real-time tweets and this is clearly better for my newspaper. I'm fine with going back to 2010 in that regard."
The McCoy situation stands out as a worst possible scenario for beat writers, where they get scooped by a national reporter on something they watched happen but couldn't report on because of these rules. But, as Owczarski shows above, reporters are a creative bunch. There are ways to get around the rules that won't result in blacklisting from the team.
Everyone is adjusting to the new normal, especially reporters. It doesn't seem like teams will be loosening up on the rules anytime soon, but as with most things, there are positives and negatives that come with changes like this. For Salguero, Auman, and hundreds of others, it's about adjusting and adapting to get their readers the coverage they want. It doesn't seem like these rules will prevent that-- but they certainly don't make it easier.