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Will Reporters Ever Be Allowed Back In Locker Rooms? Sports Journalism Turned On Its Head By Pandemic

DENVER (CBS4) - It's early afternoon and the sports world is changing. Again. The Big Ten announced there would not be a fall football season, and a few hours later the Pac-12 followed. CBS4 sports anchors Michael Spencer and Romi Bean are following every development for sports fans, but they also understand days like this have deeper meaning.

Pac-12 Conference Basketball Tournament - Quarterfinals
A passerby is reflected in a closed box office window with a note taped to it informing fans of the cancellation of the Pac-12 Conference men's basketball tournament at T-Mobile Arena on March 12, 2020 in Las Vegas. The tournament was canceled in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus. (credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

"It hit me today, around three o'clock. This feeling of disappointment and sadness at the stark reality that this is still going on," Michael tells me. "People look to sports as kind of a guide to where we are as a country in dealing with this pandemic. I wonder if the Big Ten and Pac-12 cancelling is going to impact not only the sports landscape but the country as well."

Romi agrees, "It shows you how far we still have to go, that we can barely get sports back. A huge reminder that what we're all going through is really serious. These schools believe it's not safe to play college football -- what does that mean for everything else?"

Romi Bean
(credit: CBS)

Professional sports is defined by its seasons -- a predictable schedule of training camps, regular games, playoffs and championships. For the journalists who cover the games and the athletes, the days are typically hectic but structured. Lately, of course, the days are anything but "structured." I wanted to talk with Michael and Romi about how all this is changing their work, but I quickly realized the pandemic is also changing how they think about sports journalism and the role of sports in Colorado and the country.

It all began, of course, with an abrupt halt to professional sports in mid-March.

"Almost overnight it went from knowing exactly what your day was going to be to asking, 'What are we going to do today?'"

Michael Spencer
(credit: CBS)

Michael says the CBS4 Sports Department quickly created a game plan.

michael malone xml
Denver Nuggets Head Coach Michael Malone joined Xfinity Monday Live. (credit: CBS)

"We had to take a step back and think about how to do things differently," he says. For Michael, that meant more long-form interviews and in-depth reporting. "I actually got an opportunity to do more one-on-one interviews, virtually."

Romi at Home
(credit: CBS)

Those interviews appeared in CBS4 sports specials and on CBSN Denver.

Romi says the shutdown forced her to re-think what makes a great sports story. "Finding even the smallest sports story was really gratifying. I went to a 6th grade baseball practice! These kids were doing everything possible just to play sports. It felt normal, watching the happiness that sports brings to people of all ages -- my appreciation for that has grown again."

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Matt Hegerle (credit: CBS)

It's not just her appreciation that's growing, Romi says she is growing as a journalist as well.

Romi Bean
(credit: CBS)

"This really slowed down the job for me," Romi says. "In football, they talk about how when the game slows down, you get it. Taking away all the travel has allowed me to develop my writing abilities and other areas of my work. I started digging and finding stories and looking for new ways to make those stories interesting in my writing and interviews. It gave me the opportunity to step back, before things get crazy again."

Romi Bean
(credit: CBS)

One reason we are drawn to sports is because the outcomes are uncertain. We can make our predictions -- but we watch the games for the exciting, unpredictable and dramatic twists and turns that can take us on an emotional roller coaster over the course of a single game. Michael and Romi say that's exactly what they expect in the days and months ahead -- more dramatic twists and turns.

"The long term effects are really hitting me in waves," Michael says. "This is going to be something that impacts sports for a really long time."

Michael Spencer
(credit: CBS)

Michael says the current environment allows teams to better control the narrative, and he's concerned that may limit access in the future.

"I worry that as reporters, we're going to lose that opportunity to interact with players and get a sense of what's really going on. Those conversations offer insight into the athletes and teams," he says. "It's easy for these guys to come on Zoom, put on a smile, and say everything is great. It's another for us to be in the locker room and really get a sense of it for ourselves."

Michael Spencer in the field
(credit: CBS)

Romi shares this concern, "We may never go into a locker room again. Once you take that away from reporters, it may be hard to go back to the way it was."

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Denver Broncos quarterback Drew Lock (credit: CBS)

Michael and Romi also say this virtual access makes it more difficult to build the relationships that allow them to break big stories.

"So many of the relationships we build happen off camera," Michael says. "It's a big part of our job. Now it's going to take more time for those players to trust you, and know who you are."

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Another big part of the job for Michael and Romi is making predictions. They love to pick winners and losers and offer analysis for an upcoming game. However, they're reluctant to predict the future of professional sports.

"It still feels like everything is so far from normal," Romi says, "I have no idea what it's going to look like in 2021 and 2022."

Michael Spencer
(credit: CBS)

Michael is optimistic that the return of sports, while slow, will provide some reason for hope.

"It's more than just a game. It's the financial impact, the mental impact. Sports offers an escape and when it's not there it's shocking. Hopefully, as things improve, sports can serve as a rallying point that everything is going to be OK."

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