And so it begins.
The NFL's Philadelphia Eagles ejected the longtime football beat writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer from the Eagles press box mid-game on Sunday, summoning team security to have Jeff McLane removed.
The Eagles later explained they banished McLane, an eight-year veteran of the Eagles beat, from the press box for being loud and refusing to follow orders.
Inquirer management in turn defended McLane, saying he’d done nothing wrong on Sunday and pointing out that McLane was banished from the press box just a couple days after he wrote a critical story questioning the player personnel moves of Eagles VP Howie Roseman.
So, a couple of things:
First, "too loud" and "refusing to follow orders" describes about 99 percent of the people in any press box I’ve ever been in. If that’s now the criteria for banishing a reporter, there are about to be plenty of good seats available in every press box on this continent.
And second, I’m suspecting McLane isn’t as squeaky clean in all this as the Inky is making him out to be either.
I’ve never met McLane, but I’ve met a lot of journalists and their type was best summed up last week by Clay Bennett, editorial cartoonist for the Chattanooga Time Free Press, who responded to a survey asking why he chose journalism as a career with the following:
"Because it was the next step up from being an amateur asshole."
Exactly. Also, me too.
But the point here isn’t whether McLane was talking too loudly in the Eagles press box on Sunday or even whether he said something that crossed the line after an Eagles staffer asked him and his colleagues to quiet down.
No, my point is that the next time you hear of a reporter being banished from the press box of a major professional sports team on this continent, don’t be surprised if it’s permanent rather than temporary and not just one reporter, but most of them.
Teams want team-approved news
The once unthinkable has become the seemingly inevitable in a world in which teams in the Big 4 of North American sports leagues — NFL, NHL, NBA and MLB — are doing everything they can these days to get their fans to turn their backs on the pesky mainstream media and get their news instead from team-approved websites and Twitter feeds.
Teams across North America are hiring their own writers to cover their own teams, frequently plucking the hires from the ranks of the same media that once covered them independently.
The Calgary Flames were the latest to join that club, last month hiring former longtime Calgary Herald columnist George Johnson to cover the Flames, for the Flames.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers did something similar last year, hiring away longtime Free Press football writer Ed Tait, ensuring Tait now writes under the Bombers' direction instead of ours.
How long do you think it will be before the beleaguered Winnipeg Jets also join that club and hire their own writer to generate team-approved news as an alternative to all these pesky stories currently circulating about poor goaltending, lousy special teams and wildly inconsistent play.
For what it’s worth, the Jets already took a step in that direction this season when they banished the print media to the outer reaches of the MTS Centre press box.
That move came after a writer for another publication had the temerity to report something Mark Chipman had shouted during a game from his owner’s box — which sits, quite literally, in the middle of the MTS Centre press box.
(That’s not as weird as it sounds. Bud Selig’s owners box was also in the press box of old Milwaukee County Stadium. Selig was the MLB commissioner when I stopped him in the Milwaukee press box one day and asked if he thought all the home runs being hit that season — this was back in 2000 — were because the ball was ‘juiced.’ Selig assured me the ball wasn’t juiced; he failed to mention the players were.)
Chipman, who has been, well, let’s say ‘vocal’ with his disappointment during games over the years, apparently felt anything the press overheard from his owner’s box during games should be ‘off the record.’
You’ll have to ask Chipman yourself what colour the sky is in a world in which things said in a ‘press’ box are considered off the record.
In any event, the ink-stained among us were subsequently banished this season from our press box seats directly next to Chipman’s box to new seats far enough away that we can no longer hear even the loudest tantrum.
One cannot help but wonder if our next move will be outside the press box entirely.
English soccer: media bans common
If that sounds alarmist, you haven’t been paying attention to English soccer, where teams have been banning media judged overly critical from their press boxes for years.
Legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson refused credentials to the venerable BBC for seven seasons and a report by Britan’s Channel 4 last year identified at least seven teams in the Premier League that had current or prior banishments of individual reporters.
And then there is Swindon Town, which has banned all media entirely from their press conferences, with the exception of outlets with which they have commercial relationships.
This is, of course, known as ‘pay to play.’ It will get you arrested in politics.
But in sports — where ‘rights holders’ have long gotten preferential treatment from teams in exchange for, well, let’s be honest here, preferential treatment from those same broadcasters — it’s becoming enshrined as an ordinary business practice.
Now, if you’re one of these people who writes to me weekly to tell me how tired you are of how critical I am all the time and demanding to know why I cannot be more supportive for once, I have two things to tell you:
1) Welcome to the club. My family feels the same way;
And 2) This new wave of team-approved news on team-approved websites will come as a welcome respite for you.
The Bombers, for instance, are right now in the midst of an epic series on their website that details, day by day, the history of every number ever worn in the history of the franchise, including, yes, ‘0’ and ‘00’.
They’re currently on No. 30. I lost interest after No. 1. But hey, to each his own.
My point is this: Be careful what you wish for. Alexis de Tocqueville — Or was it Joseph de Maistre? Discuss among yourselves — once said that people get the government they deserve. I’d argue the same is true of journalism.
We live in an age when it’s become en vogue to decry ‘lamestream media.’ And we have just seen a man who made a war against the press a central pillar of his campaign elected to the most powerful office in the world.
In the age of Trump, you think teams like the Eagles aren’t aware of how little sympathy anyone has for the working press as they summon security to haul beat writers out of the press box?
Look, personally, I don’t care if I never saw the inside of another press box again.
It’s just that I’m not sure I’d want to live in that world.