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How can the NFL balance media access with mental health?

After Naomi Osaka withdraws from the French Open, Mike Florio and Chris Simms assess whether NFL players should be required to speak at press conferences and examine possible repercussions of making them optional.

Reporters who cover the NFL have in recent years become more and more sensitive to the mental health of the men who play professional football. As long, that is, as the sensitivity to mental health doesn’t threaten media access to players after every game, no matter how agonizing the outcome.

That’s the balance that needs to be struck, and the sports media issue of the moment. Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open brings to the front burner the tension between player mental health and mandatory participation in press conferences. I recently wrote that players should be give the option to talk to reporters, and that if it were voluntary plenty of players would still choose to speak. Many in the media strenuously object to that approach, for obvious reasons; they don’t want their jobs to become harder if players have to be coaxed to speak. They prefer the automatic, knee-jerk entitlement to players being available after every game, even if the players don’t want to be.

The position that access should remain mandatory continues to ignore the fact that players aren’t actually required to say anything. As long as they show up, they can give non-responsive answers or repeat catch phrases like “I’m just here so I won’t get fined.” And they won’t get fined. Thus, if it truly were voluntary to show up in the first place, plenty would still choose to talk.

But how do we balance the mental well-being of players with the expectation that they’ll hold court with a gaggle of strangers and be forced to re-live in the fresh fumes of defeat their own failures of performance that contributed to the outcome? It’s not, as some would argue, just a game. Players can lose their starting jobs and, eventually, their roster spots if they make too many mistakes. They can land elsewhere, but at less money, and they’ll have to move. Eventually, a career will be over before the player wants it to be, forcing him to prematurely figure out how to finance a lifestyle based on consistently earning an NFL salary.

Too many fans have a “shut up and entertain us” attitude when it comes to pro athletes. Plenty of those same fans also have a “shut up and talk when you’re expected to” attitude when it comes to press availability. Even those fans who pay no attention at all to the things said by players in post-game press conferences will rattle off phrases like, “You’re paid to do it, so just do it.”

It’s appropriate to have the broader conversation about whether they should be required to do it. Years ago, the NFL needed players to be willing to talk to reporters in order to give reporters reasons to write articles about the game. Today, media outlets don’t need to be plied with automatic access to write about the NFL or its team. Media outlets and those who write/speak for them will find a way to cover the teams and the games.

Again, I’m not suggesting that there should be no locker-room access. But the players who don’t want to talk shouldn’t have to.