Back when I was a cub reporter, my editor sent me to cover an auction of wild horses. They had been collected on the Western plains and were being sold to farmers who would tame them. When I approached the pen, the dozen or so horses scampered away in a tight pack. Wild horses stick together for strength, and when approached by a stranger, they rushed together in a group to the farthest corner. As I rounded the pen, the horses pressed together and sprinted from corner to corner in their protective herd.
I thought of those horses a lot lately while watching the press corps that covers the Chiefs.
I spent a few days on and off over the last three weeks tailing Herm Edwards for this week's cover story in The Pitch. I found myself fascinated by the habits of the beat reporters who huddle together like those wild horses, day after day, as they churn out stories on who’s injured or which player is saying what.
Part of why they stick together is that you take what’s given to you when covering a sports team. Every week, the Chiefs release a schedule of activities for the reporters. The schedule comes out Mondays and appears on a restricted part of the Chiefs Web site. For example, here’s the media’s schedule for today:
The locker room is where you see the media’s herd mentality at its finest. The doors open to the media three or four times a week. Reporters stream in and mill about as the players pull off their sweaty practice clothes. (It’s wise to stay alert during this period, as players occasionally sling a dirty jock, jersey or T-shirt over their shoulders.) There’s an odd milling about time here where the press pool will essentially stand around and watch as players change. Eventually, one of the Chiefs will give a reporter permission to ask him questions, and the entire herd will move over to catch the comments. The group usually includes a dozen people or more, including TV reporters with their microphones, print writers with tape recorders, TV cameramen with camera lights on full blast, radio types with handheld recorders. You see them sometimes squat down and squeeze between each other’s haunches in order to stick a microphone in some player’s face. They have absolutely no regard for one another’s space as they push the weaker reporter to the back of the pack.
There’s also a distinct pecking order when it comes to player interviews. Some high-on-the-food chain players rarely give interviews. Reporters, it seems, know not to even ask running back Larry Johnson for his comments. The stars may also make you wait, as I learned when I wanted to question safety Bernard Pollard after the Green Bay game. “After I shower,” he said. I waited around for about 45 minutes, and finally Pollard came out. It was just me and the Star’s Joe Posnanski left from the media pool.
The starting quarterback gets preferential treatment regarding the media. While Damon Huard was the starter, he sauntered through the locker room without a single reporter asking him a question – they all knew the starting QB talks only at the scheduled press conference. When Brodie Croyle was the backup, I asked him if he had a minute for questions, and he was just about the nicest Southern gentleman you'd want to meet. Huard was benched while I was hanging around in the bowels of Arrowhead, and just like that, the weekly QB press conference was passed on to Croyle.
Some players seem untouched by fame. Tight end Tony Gonzalez gave the media horde all the time they needed, any time I saw them ask. I approached Priest Holmes a few days before his first start of the year and he said: “I’ll be giving a press conference a bit later.” I asked if it’d be all right to ask him a few questions right then. “Sure, yeah, no problem,” he said. While talking to Holmes, it occurred to me that he appeared as normal as anyone you’d meet at Lew’s.
Then there was backup defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson, who clearly liked to have a good time with the media. While the horde was bugging Kyle Turley for an interview one day, Wilkerson offered himself up to the fray. “Interview me!” he yelled from the other side of the locker room. “Hey, who wants to interview me?” Nobody did, and Wilkerson just about laughed his head off. Wilkerson is a guy who always seems to have a smile on his face, and you have to wonder if this line from his official Chiefs media guide profile is actually a joke: “During his youth, Wilkerson was adept at hunting a vast array of serpents, including poisonous varieties such as Copperheads and Water Moccasins.” On one afternoon before the Green Bay game, I was standing just outside the pack during Edwards’ press conference when Wilkerson passed behind me. He tapped me on the opposite shoulder as he passed, and I’m pretty sure I heard him giggle when I looked the wrong way like a dumbass.
There’s also the nakedness factor. It’s a locker room, after all, and no players seemed bothered by giving an interview with their junk in full view. It’s a bit disconcerting to ask Gonzalez what he thinks of Edwards’ playcalling when the only article of cloth on his body is the towel he’s using to dry his hair.
As in any herd, there’s a clear pecking order within the media. On game day, there’s assigned seating in the press box, and the front row is reserved for the beat reporters, the columnists and the national media. When I was there, Star columnist Jason Whitlock got the best seat in the room: dead center in the front row. The Chiefs assigned me a spot in the third row, next to a guy from The Kansas City Globe (is that even around anymore?). At least I had a better spot than the Manhattan Mercury’s beat reporter, who had to join other media outcasts on a row of stools behind the third row’s padded chairs. When the guy from the Globe decided to watch the game from the comfy couches in the media lounge, he was nice enough to give his seat to the poor schlep from Manhattan.
Feeding time comes twice a week. On Tuesdays, the Chiefs give the media a buffet lunch. It’s served after practice and before the coach’s press conference. On the day I spotted them eat, the TV cameramen literally dashed to the trough and piled meatloaf, scalloped potatoes, bread and salad onto their plates. During games, the Chiefs provide the media a hotel-quality breakfast buffet that included sausage, English muffins and scrambled eggs. At halftime, the press pool got free cups of Stone Cold Creamery. I never saw the beat reporters from The Kansas City Star eat the free food, and I wondered if their papers forbid them from taking free grub. TV and radio types, it seems, don’t have such restrictions.
One thing that puzzled me was why the reporters asked their questions during the press conferences. The Chiefs team of media guys said yes to most of my requests, including granting me an interview with Edwards alone in his office. So why shout out your queries in a room full of reporters who can learn what you’re writing about by the questions you ask? Laziness seemed the easy answer, but it also appeared like the reporters were proud of what they thought of to ask. KCSP 610’s Rhonda Moss, for instance, appears to pride herself in being a bulldog and seems to ask Edwards tough questions just to see if she can rile him. I’ll say this about Moss, though, she silences any idiot critic who says women can’t cover sports, because I don’t think there’s a player in that locker room who isn’t afraid when she puts her mic in their faces.
But the thing that surprised me most from being behind the scenes in Arrowhead: Herm Edwards is a hell of a nice guy. He gives his scheduled media interviews, and then afterward, he often stops to joke around with the herd. After the Green Bay game, I saw him walking through the locker room and asked if he had a minute for a question. This was breaking the media protocol, because I had my chance to ask anything I wanted during the press conference. Edwards didn’t care. “Sure,” he said, “of course.” Nearby, the media herd was in its protective pack, gathered around Holmes. – Eric Barton