I’ve only been a full-time reporter for about three months, and there’s a lot I still have to learn. That said, I do know one thing: journalism is a field built upon human connection. No matter what you cover, you won’t be able to cover it well if people don’t want to talk to you. And why would people want to talk to you if you disrespect them?
Apparently, this question did not cross the mind of some reporters who approached NFL running back Giovani Bernard in the locker room on Dec. 18, 2022 after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost their Week 15 matchup. Bernard fumbled a fake punt attempt, which helped the Cincinnati Bengals erase a 14-point deficit to prevail over his Buccaneers 34-23. It’s normal for sports journalists to talk with a player whose actions had a major impact on the game, but it is also normal to do so professionally.
That didn’t exactly happen here. According to a video taken by ESPN’s Jenna Laine, Bernard says something as he walks through a group of reporters, prompting some to respond belligerently with: "Well, you were injured all year," and "what have you done for us to talk to you all year?" The Buccaneers running back was visibly stunned and asked if he could see his family.
One man replied, “Just don’t say we didn’t talk to you all year.”
The video cuts out, and when it resumes, Bernard says that the botched trick play was his fault. The only reason we know about this tense episode is because Laine posted the clip to her Twitter account. Her caption read: "Bucs running back Giovani Bernard didn’t want to talk to the media about what happened on the botched fake punt. Here’s that interaction. Note: As reporters, it is our job to seek clarity on what happened, especially on the most pivotal play of a game."
It appeared as if Laine tried to justify her and her colleagues’ treatment of Bernard by sharing the video. That didn’t go over well. Many criticized her decision to make public a testy interaction with an athlete after a frustrating loss.
Three days later, Laine walked back her actions on Twitter and revealed that she’d apologized to Bernard in private. She claimed she was trying to illustrate how tense things can get on an underperforming team, but realized later that there was “no benefit” to posting the video. She also called Bernard “a better person than [her] for many reasons.”
I don’t know Laine personally, but I’m going to assume her apology is genuine. Either way, the incident reminds me of two other cases where sports reporters needlessly antagonized their subjects.
On Jan. 15, 2021, then-Philadelphia Flyers winger Jakub Voracek was asked by Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Mike Sielski about his feelings on the NHL’s shortened 56-game season that year. Voracek promptly tore Sielski to shreds.
“Doesn’t matter what I say, Mike, you’re gonna write f–king s–t every time,” he snapped. “It feels different, I mean… I wasn’t even gonna answer your question because you’re such a weasel, it’s not even funny. Next question.”
Why did a professional hockey player respond to a seemingly innocent query with such venom? It may have been because of a 2019 column where Sielski wrote that Voracek and former teammate James van Riemsdyk were laughing while head coach Alain Vigneault urged his top players to lead the Flyers. Sielski had also mocked Voracek’s trade value and appeared to blame him for the Flyers’ struggles in 2016, with both jabs delivered on Twitter.
About a year after Voracek’s outburst, Edmonton Oilers superstar Leon Draisaitl went head to head with Edmonton Journal reporter Jim Matheson. It was Jan. 18, 2022, and the Oilers had lost 12 of their last 14 games. When Matheson asked Draisaitl for the “No. 1 reason” why the team was struggling, the German forward replied, “Yeah, we have to get better at everything.”
"Would you like to expand on that?" Matheson queried further.
Draisaitl rebuffed him. "Nope. You can do that. You know everything.”
"Why are you so pissy?" Matheson demanded.
Some athletes would have walked out of the press conference immediately, or incinerated Matheson the way Voracek did to Sielski. Draisaitl instead responded with passive-aggressive sarcasm, deflecting Matheson’s remaining questions until it was time for him to go.
Respect: a two-way street
I’m well aware that any good journalist needs to tell the full story. That sometimes means asking tough questions or portraying certain people in a negative or unwelcome light. Sometimes, we need to stand our ground when others take issue with us for doing our jobs professionally.
Yet, professionalism is based on respect, and there are ways to fairly criticize people and things without using the word “pissy.” Hot takes may be great for driving content engagement in the short term, but they do not foster long-term respect between a journalist and the subjects on his or her beat. We are hard-pressed to do our jobs properly when the people we need to speak with don’t wish to deal with us.
But wait, some may say—professional athletes and a lot of other public figures are obligated to make themselves available to the media! Yes, they are. However, no one who sits in a press conference is forced to answer any question honestly or with any detail. Bernard chose to take the high road, but Voracek and Draisaitl had no interest in cooperating with reporters whom they felt disrespected by. That made it harder for Sielski and Matheson to cover their respective teams.
Imagine if Voracek had been comfortable with Sielski. He might have spoken candidly about the ups and downs of playing a shortened season during a pandemic—a challenge facing all major-league athletes at the time. It was an important angle, but one that Sielski was ill-positioned to pursue.
Draisaitl could have offered a genuine insight about what was holding the Oilers back from being a top team in their division. Edmonton has perennially been inconsistent, despite having Draisaitl and the peerless Connor McDavid on its roster. Matheson could have helped a lot of fans learn more about why their squad was floundering.
Instead, he—and not the Oilers—became the story.
Being a sports journalist is a privilege. If you’re in this field, you get to make a living covering something that brings happiness and excitement to many. In return, you are (or should be) expected to tell the stories of sport in good faith: with truthfulness, insight and respect for the athletes you owe your career to.