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Teams should not force athletes to speak to the media

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Do professional athletes truly have an obligation to do regular interviews with the media?

New York Yankees v Detroit Tigers Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Many fans have seen the clip of Gerrit Cole’s interview with the press this past week, which can be described in many ways, but “awkward” is probably the best word choice. We only see the athlete during the interview, not after, so only Cole knows the extent to which the situation bothered him. Most of us would like to think that it didn’t bother him at all, as outwardly, Cole appears unflappable – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he is. Similar to how most of us like to think we can assign value to players’ on-field performances, we often behave and speak as if we have a clue about what’s going on in players’ minds, typically using pop psychology terms to assess players mental and coping skills.

There have always been players who’ve made no secret about detesting answering questions from the media as part of their job descriptions. In Ron Blomberg’s new book about him and Thurman Munson (which I spoke to Ron and wrote about here), Blomberg made a point of illustrating that Munson despised having to speak to the media and made that very clear to reporters, often in an aggressive manner. Whether or not that was a factor in Munson not being elected to the Hall of Fame is a legitimate question to ask, according to Blomberg.

On a larger scale, tennis star Naomi Osaka’s recent proclamation that she was skipping the French Open out of concern for her mental health raised more questions about how athletes and the media interact. The fact that Osaka quite bravely announced that mental health was an issue for her, specifically regarding post-match press conferences, the issues of mental health and athlete/media relations have been brought to the forefront of conversations more than usual.

With regards to the former, more open discussions about mental health benefit many and harm no one. We’ve certainly come a long way from the days when athletes such as then-Yankee Gary Sheffield said psychology coaches were for the “weak-minded.” Due to space concerns, and more importantly, out of fear of becoming one of those aforementioned amateur pop psychologists, I’ll leave that discussion for people more qualified than I am to address it thoroughly. As for how athletes and the media interact, the question now at hand is: “Do athletes have a professional obligation to speak to the media?”

All of us have seen postgame interviews littered with questions ranging from nonsensical to ones seeking irrelevant information. Frankly, I’m surprised that athletes don’t explode more often hearing some of these questions asked immediately after a competition in which a countless number of people — who have significantly less invested in the competition than the athlete — watched the athlete struggle. If an adult human being (and it must be remembered that they are in fact, imperfect humans like the rest of us) simply chooses to not speak, shouldn’t they be allowed to do so? Wouldn’t “Sure, no problem” be the decent, adult human response to someone not wanting to talk to the media?

Yes, of course, it would. Yet matters have a tendency to become complex when money, especially the amounts of money involved in professional sports, are involved. So in the interests of fairness, let’s play devil’s advocate.

Teams have a significant financial interest in their players speaking to the media. On a passive level, fans seeing and hearing from the players creates more fans who are likely to be interested and invested in the games. “Invested” in both the figurative sense and the literal, as the more involved a fan is with their favorite team's players and outcomes, the more likely that fan is to watch the next game, or even better, but a ticket to one.

On a far more tangible level, sponsors deliver Brink’s trucks stacked to the ceiling with cash to teams for the right to put their logo on the banners behind athletes during interviews. The Yankees are able to go to Toyota for example in the offseason and say to them “Look, we have guys like Gerrit Cole, Aaron Judge, and Giancarlo Stanton among other famous players, who are going to be talking to the media after games. Many, many, fans are going to be watching them with your logo in plain sight for all to see.”

That is an enormous revenue generator for the Yankees. Consider how many times Cole’s interview was viewed online with the Toyota logo right behind him. I don’t have an exact number, but I know it’s exponentially more than if a long reliever on the Pirates was asked about Spider Tack.

That’s just one very small example in an ocean of them. Next time you’re opining about the latter part of Alex Rodriguez’s contract with the Yankees being a bad one for the team, ask yourself how much money Dunkin’ Donuts, Poland Spring, Lexus, etc., paid the Yankees to have their logos visible during post-game press conferences in that era — specifically, the ones during the time Rodriguez was approaching 600 home runs and 3,000 hits, among other newsworthy situations. I can’t tell you exactly what the numbers were, but I know that it was much more than if the Yankees ran Yangervis Solarte out to third base every day instead of A-Rod.

That’s not a criticism of Solarte, because even in the absence of stars like Cole and Rodriguez, teams get significant sponsorship deals from companies as a result of post-game interviews. Joe Girardi had many strengths as a Yankee manager, but being aware of product placement was not one of them. It was routine during post-game press conferences for him, after being reminded by someone off-camera, to spin the Poland Spring bottle set in front of him – the one from which he clearly was not drinking – so the Poland Spring logo was facing the cameras. (Seriously, Joe, Poland Spring wasn’t writing the Steinbrenners checks to have everyone see the back of their bottle – it’s definitely not what they wanted.)

Post-game interviews and press conferences are massive revenue generators for teams. The devil’s advocate would say this: Assuming teams were upfront about it and explained to the player the financial windfall that comes with the player speaking to the press, and that was part of the reason the player was getting the salary that they are, then it’s perfectly reasonable for the team to expect the player to regularly speak to the media. If Hal Steinbrenner is paying Cole $324 million, in part because of the sponsorship revenue Cole can generate, then Steinbrenner has every right to expect Cole to speak to the media.*

*To be clear, that’s a hypothetical example, I’m not claiming they’ve had that conversation.

Perhaps athletes don’t owe the fans anything in this regard. Sports are entertainment and there are countless other options available if we feel that we aren’t being thoroughly entertained. They certainly don’t owe the media anything, as it’s the writers' responsibility to create content, not the athletes’. Perhaps it could be argued that players have an obligation to their employers – if, that is, professional sports teams were regular businesses.

They are not. Many fans talk about teams like the Yankees as if they were the same as the local hardware store, just bigger. Phrases like “Well, it’s a business and they have employees, and they’re allowed to turn a profit like any other business” are often thrown around and completely miss the point in the process.

Professional teams receive advantages such as taxpayer-funded infrastructure and congressional exemptions among many other benefits that other “regular” businesses do not receive. As a result, they have so many different ways in which they can make money it’s almost inconceivable to anyone who runs a regular business. Specifically, in relation to baseball, MLB team ownership isn’t quite like having a personal mint that can print money, but it’s pretty close.

As a result, whether or not players have an obligation to speak to the media should be completely up to each individual player. They absolutely don’t owe the fans or the media that time if they don’t want to grant it. And if a team feels that a player’s reticence to speak to the media may cost the team money, well that’s on the team. They certainly can work out new agreements with sponsors and find other ways to make money if need be. The checkbook balance of a corporate behemoth shouldn’t take precedence over an individual’s wants or needs.