Locker Room Interview as the Athlete’s Last Stand

There is no equivalent to the post-game locker room interview. Think about it — what other job requires you to answer reporters’ questions while changing out of your work clothes? Picture Ruth Bader Ginsberg, shedding that iconic black robe in judge’s chambers as the Supreme Court press corps grills her about the day’s courtroom action. Can you imagine Kanye West opening up his dressing room to the media after a concert, discussing the show with entertainment writers while removing his stage makeup? I’m guessing that when Dr. James Andrews took off his surgical scrubs after he’d repaired Adrian Peterson’s torn ACL, nobody stood by with a recorder to grab a few choice quotes for a recap of the operation.

And yet, guys like Peterson go through this rigmarole every time they clock out. Following intense competition that drains the physical and mental energy from their bodies and minds, they’re asked to deliver cogent reflections for worldwide broadcast, to be cemented into the annals of history. Often times, they carry out this task in varying states of near-nakedness, excruciating pain, or both. But somehow, we’ve come to see this peculiar ritual as normal, and we expect or even demand it.

Grantland’s Bryan Curtis highlighted these “locker-room scrums” in “Distant Thunder: What Did Oklahoma City’s Media Do to Piss Off Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant?”, the most recent of his thought-provoking series of articles covering the messy relationship between pro athletes and the media. For this latest piece, his lead example focused on a January 16 encounter between Westbrook and Berry Tramel, a columnist for The Oklahoman.

The Thunder’s star point guard had just posted an inhuman 17-15-15 to propel his squad past the visiting Golden State Warriors, but he showed no joy about the feat, at least not to the pack of reporters huddled around his locker. Quite the opposite. Westbrook turned the group interview into a humorless parody of the cliché-riddled conversations typical of these situations, responding to every query with some stock comment about his team’s “good execution.” When Tramel attempted to break this monotonous cycle by asking, “Are you upset with something?”, Westbrook retorted flatly: “I just don’t like you.”

I’ve been riveted by Curtis’ articles because they provide a behind-the-scenes peek at the process of sports reporting, and I was intrigued by this particular piece because I’ve reported from locker rooms a few times. In my scant experience, entering that space as an outsider hoping to collect information feels profoundly uncomfortable — and I’ve never even been rebuked by an MVP candidate, for all the Internet to see.

Curtis has done a stellar job scrutinizing the various dynamics that unfold between the press and pro athletes, but one facet he hasn’t really explored is race. In wrapping my head around what’s been going down in the Thunder locker room, I was thinking this facet would be worth investigating.

After all, most journalists in this country are white, and most players in the NBA are black, and sometimes this creates tension. African American athletes have good reason to distrust the media, which has shown an unfortunate proclivity for depicting them as thugs and lowlifes, diminishing their humanity by tossing around demeaning stereotypes in biased coverage. So, when they lash out, as Westbrook did, we might be inclined to view it as a retaliatory gesture, a public protest, a bid to wrestle control of their own image away from the stodgy, bile-spewing hack who’s driven to sully it. You know the hack I’m talking about. Jay Kang once described him this way:

“The crusty old sportswriter who hates hip-hop, only lionizes white players, talks mostly in racial euphemisms, and truly believes, in his heart, that four years in college is God’s greatest gift to mankind.”

But look — it sounds pretty clear that Berry Tramel is not that guy. He comes across as humble and even-keel, with no agenda. Any statement that Westbrook might have been trying to make during their exchange was not of a personal nature. As the columnist said of the athlete, “He really doesn’t dislike me anymore than he dislikes somebody else. He couldn’t pick me out of a crowd.”

Perhaps Westbrook sought to convey a broader message to haters at large by laying into one anonymous sap? In the weeks leading up to January 16, he’d already had several terse interactions with the media, lending credibility to the notion his postgame remarks that evening were premeditated. Reading them as racially conscious or politically motivated, however, requires an overreliance on circumstantial evidence and a rooting interest in radical subtexts. Paradoxically, what you really need to do is ask the man about his motives, straight up. But of course, that’s easier said than done, as the Thunder beat writers can tell you.

Besides the awkward locker-room atmosphere that chills communication, reporters must also wrangle with public relations staffers who run relentless interference. And these conditions aren’t exclusive to Oklahoma City; professional sports teams everywhere know they can get away with limiting the media’s access to their players, relying more on their communications departments to churn out sanitized, fan-friendly content for promotion through their own channels.

This leaves all of us in the dark about guys like Westbrook. The resultant vacuum can lead us to interpret their ambiguous actions with our own wild speculations and imaginings. With that in mind, let’s look at more of Jay Kang’s quote, which comes from a profile of Rasheed Wallace:

“You can’t be an NBA fan without building up a straw man or two. Just as the SABR nerds shake their fists at something called ‘Murray Chass,’ which, in truth, may or may not exist, the generation of basketball fans who grew up with Iverson and the Fab Five have built their own golem: the crusty old sportswriter who hates hip-hop, only lionizes white players, talks mostly in racial euphemisms, and truly believes, in his heart, that four years in college is God’s greatest gift to mankind. Rasheed, even more than Iverson, became the hero for young NBA fans who wanted their players to stonewall the golem with, ‘Both teams played hard, my man.’”

That sentence gave Wallace the copyright on interview parody; Westbrook — and Marshawn Lynch, too — should be paying him royalties. All three received a lot of attention for their performances, which I’m still trying to figure out how to rate. Were they speaking truth to power, or just being unreasonable jerks? I really can’t say. But I am willing to declare that, as flawed and fraught as locker-room scrums may be, they can still generate something worthwhile.

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