Contact Tracing: What We Can Learn From The Challenges And Pitfalls Of Remote Sports Media

Contact Tracing is a three-part series examining the decisions the NBA has made in a year since the 2019-20 season was suspended due to COVID-19.

Part 2: The Curious Case Of Soft Tissue Injuries In The NBA
Part 3: The NBA Has Spent This Season Caught Between Its Moral And Business Compass

It started like many things did in 2020: over Zoom. Fred VanVleet sat for post-practice media availability seven weeks into the NBA’s Orlando Bubble, and by now, the routine had grown rhythmic — a second to get himself settled, a welcome from one of the team’s remote PR people running the call, then the familiar order of beat writers called on for their questions. Only that day was different. Jacob Blake had been shot by police in Kenosha, Wisc. on August 23 and footage of the event quickly spread across social media.

Social unrest ran parallel with the league since its return to play. It was a prerequisite from players that the league show visible support for the Black Lives Matter movement during broadcasts and throughout the Bubble so that the protests and social action many players had been involved in after the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd not lose momentum. But the shooting of Blake seemed to suddenly put things in stark perspective: Nothing had changed in the world that existed outside of their Bubble.

What unfolded can be unpacked a few ways. Sports media, traditionally, has not been the most adept at sensing when to shift the familiar line of questioning in the face of what could be taken as aberration, whether from an event or its emotional fallout. There is a weird propensity to press on as usual even when the situation is anything but. Then factor in that most media members weren’t in the same room with a player, who wore a mask, and more social cues that might’ve been picked up via proximity were lost.

Still, within the seconds it took for VanVleet to be asked his first question that morning — whether he was excited about Toronto’s upcoming series against the Celtics — some palpable signs of discomfort were there. His shoulders square, his blinking gets more rapid, his chin tenses in the way that happens when pressing your lips together.

“I was pretty excited,” VanVleet says, crossing one of his arms against his chest, tucking his hand under his elbow, “and then we all had to watch Jacob Blake get shot yesterday.

“Coming down here, making the choice to play, was supposed to not be in vain,” he added. “It’s just starting to feel that everything we’re doing is going through the motions and that nothing’s really changing.”

It was an honest, painful disclosure. The gravity of what VanVleet just said made the follow up question feel perfunctory: Where was he when he saw the video, and how did he try to make sense of it?

“I don’t know,” VanVleet says calmly, the only thing betraying his steadiness are his hands just out of frame, running up and down his legs. “I would like to ask you, what do you think about it? How do you make sense of it?”

The reporter, Sportsnet’s Michael Grange, is clearly caught off guard. His response, in the moment, academically abstract. When he’s finished, VanVleet just nods.

“We’re the ones with the microphones always in our face,” he says. “We’re the ones always who have to make a stand. But like, we’re the oppressed ones and the responsibility falls on us to make a change to stop being oppressed. That’s my point in asking you the question. At what point do we not have to speak about it anymore? Are we going to hold everybody accountable? Or we’re just going to put the spotlight on Black people, or Black athletes.”

“I’d say what was probably missing the most was off the top, I regret not reading the room better right off the start,” Grange recalls. “Because clearly I think I was a little bit out of tune when I was looking to ask about the playoff series when that wasn’t what was top of mind. I think sometimes when you’re in your own little bubble, your own environment, and you don’t sometimes sense the weight of that moment as they’re experiencing it, as Fred was, clearly that was the wrong opening question.

“I respect him for doing it,” Grange adds. “He was asking a pretty sincere question. I was doing my best to give a full answer on a massive topic, and I wish I’d done a little better.”

The fourth wall VanVleet pressed up against by turning the question back around on media had been one perceptibly closing in, at times uncomfortably, awkwardly, or outright strangely, by the day. When play resumed at Disney following a league-wide stoppage in response to Blake’s shooting, media did along with it, and Zoom calls became a daily routine for team beat writers.

Initially, there was a friendly sense of reunion, calls featured two-way video and the novelty of seeing faces after months of hiatus lent an affable tone, at least in one area, to the resumption of play in arguably the most performative place in the world. There was added levity in on-the-fly troubleshooting, media figuring out how to ask questions, and team communications staff adopting and adjusting best practices both on the ground at Disney and remotely.

“I honestly had never heard of Zoom before March,” Phoenix Suns communications manager Cole Mickelson says, laughing at the disbelief of a pre-Zoom world. “And so it [was] kind of a whole new world in terms of navigating that. The NBA were the ones who set up everything as far as all the infrastructure, these giant TV monitors that had cameras attached to them that each of the practice gyms and the game gyms had. Setting up in front of those was definitely an adjustment. The first time having each player, when they did the Zoom, having to give them a brief beforehand just saying, this is something you haven’t seen before but this is how it’s going to be in the Bubble.”

While acknowledging the NBA did an incredible job creating everything from scratch, Mickelson says “constant little corrections” were necessary, like making sure microphones and monitors were ideal for each press availability. He recalls the first Zoom presser for Suns coach Monty Williams, who prefers to be seated when meeting with the media. The issue: He had nowhere to sit.

“So I got him a chair at the last minute but because of that, just the way the camera was set up, the quality of the shot was really terrible,” Mickelson gives a little groaning laugh, recalling the mistake. “For that first one, you could only see the top of his head.”

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Mickelson made sure to get the same kind of chair for every call after that and eventually noticed, as other teams followed suit, a readily available ocean of high seats. Teams began to emulate other blanket best practices, too, notably switching mid-Bubble from two-way Zooms to a one-way model.

With about 90 percent of the media accessing Orlando remotely, there was a noticeable uptick of attendance in every team’s availability. Access, for the first time, wasn’t bound by physical location — media could now “attend” any team scrum so long as they made the request through that team’s PR channels. With double the attendees, it made sense to shift away from two-way video, as calls could get cacophonous. Of the switch to one-way video Mickelson remembers, “it was almost as though the player was talking to themselves in the mirror.”

But it was in that zeroing in, however necessary, that some crucial elements began to get lost. Remote video communication platforms, as much as we’ve grown familiar with them since last spring, have made us painfully aware of the things we miss from traditional face-to-face communication. Subtle facial expressions don’t do well with video delay, and the second-nature elements of human interaction that stem from social cues, are lost in something as scheduled and expedited as a remote scrum.

While Grange didn’t want to paint Zoom as the villain in his exchange, he noted that in person, “you’d have a sense of the room, the energy of the room, and maybe you’d be a little bit more … you’d just sense things better.”

In person, there are ways to potentially soften what might be a difficult or pointed question. A reporter can talk about the game that just happened, or talk about something completely unrelated to the game, signaling their intention and giving a player time to absorb their meaning. With scrums turning one-way, it became evident, even without the traumatic events that prompted VanVleet’s earnest exchange, that questions from media were growing bolder by virtue of their remove.

“I would think the very first and most significant loss is simply setting the tone for a friendly interaction,” Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University and New York Times bestselling author of a dozen books on discourse analysis and interpersonal communication, says. “Things like a smile, a facial expression of goodwill, a friendly remark, some comment. It’s easy to make fun of human interaction because people so often are not talking about anything substantively important, talking about the weather, but all that is very important because it’s what establishes the human relationship. That is the basis for whatever information is now going to be exchanged.”

Tannen says not seeing one another and establishing those initial markers of connection can, in effect, skip ahead to the activity “before you’ve established the relationship.”

“Things are coming at you but you don’t really see where they’re coming from,” she says of the one-way Zoom set up in the Bubble. “I would think that would make you feel bombarded, cornered.”

Another byproduct of this acceleration in communication was that interviews began to feel transactional. In even the most hectic of scrums there’s a necessary attentiveness required when asking questions, even if it’s to gauge when it’s time to ask one. In a Zoom scrum, attendees just need to press a button to raise their hands and wait to be called on. Preparedness, in some cases, felt secondary to the urgency to just get in the queue.

“What you’re describing, in the way it was before, the athlete knew they were speaking to someone with whom they shared a lot of basic information: what happened in the game, the person was there, they know that you’ve waited to see him. So you have made an investment, too. And so, I would guess, they would feel motivated to make more of an investment in answering you,” Tannen says, when asked how speed and ease of access may have changed media’s approach to conversations. “But now it’s a situation where you might’ve just popped in, you certainly didn’t attend the game because nobody could, and so the answer may be abrupt for a lot of reasons. One could be they don’t know how much you’ve invested, so why should they invest more than necessary?”

While what was happening in the Bubble was in some ways a microcosm of what was going on in the wider world, the shift in personal investment brought on by expanded access and the lack of opportunity or desire for preamble had another adverse effect: a loss of empathy.

Jamie Aten, a disaster psychologist, told Dime that we’re in a kind of paradox with the pandemic in that we have less physical access to one another but more means of remote access to conversation than we’ve ever had before. Like Tannen, Aten agrees we’re missing out on non-verbal communication even over video, and that to some degree, our brains have grown rustier to once familiar social cues. He went as far as to compare “an informal walk up and small talk,” once a constant in everyday life, to “that scene from Mission Impossible where you’ve got Tom Cruise’s character hanging down and there’s the lasers on the ground.”

“If you were to ask something that was more of a bold question, you probably wouldn’t do that in a large town hall situation, it would probably be in a situation where you had the ear of that player,” Aten says. “You know that certain questions should be asked in certain circumstances where you’re more likely to get an authentic response based on when, where and how you ask it. What I’m starting to notice is now, we’re treating every interaction with the people being interviewed in the same way. And that’s probably one of the reasons the players are starting to pull away to some degree.”

This overarching slackening of attention and empathy via video conferencing, while not unique to the Bubble, did combine with the ongoing social and power dynamics to create a very specific set of circumstances. Players were being asked again and again to not only emote, but to explain deep feelings of grief, anger, and incredulity by a disassociated voice coming out of a computer. If they didn’t get it quite right, there could be a follow-up, then a completely different question about, say, their shooting percentage, then another cursory prompt to explain their reaction to racialized violence by someone who’d just entered the scrum because they clicked on a link instead of walking into a room and being able to read it. It was an exhausting, bizarre, and wholly disconnected loop.

“The power imbalance between journalists and the people they’re writing about, it’s a very interesting thing. Access, of course, is to some extent in the power of the people being interviewed or being covered,” Tannen says. “But the power of how they’re going to present you and the power to make you look good or bad, the power to put you on the spot in the way that they’re not on the spot, from that perspective the journalists have the power.”

What made the disruption of play in the Bubble so powerful, aside from the players’ palpable frustration and quick and actionable demands for change, was how abrupt it was. In an environment controlled down to the minute, that could only really exist under the continual renewal of the players to opt-in to that state of control — and those watching, in silent contract to the belief that control was possible when the rest of the world was spiraling out of it — they, for a few days, opted out. VanVleet’s turning around of a question that in some ways was meant to maintain the same rhythm was the same. They were real, reactionary moments. They were also adept at pointing out how embarrassing it was that it needed to take all of that for players to be better understood as not needing to appear sanguine in the face of staggering emotions, or to always answer the questions asked of them, to be authoritative to the league or those involved in it.

“Maybe it is an offshoot of what we’ve been talking about that the players are more, freer, to turn that around,” Tannen says, speculating on a potential upside of the hot seat players have been put in. “And say, you’re not the only one who gets to ask questions here. Why can’t I ask questions? You should have some skin in the game, too. You should have to answer to what’s going on as well.”

The remote approach to scrums first utilized in the Bubble has remained in place in all markets, even where some media have returned to games. It varies from team to team, but two-way video is now largely the best practice, with the choice to have a camera on or off left up to the individual. This falls in with the suggestions from experts like Tannen and Aten on improving a sense of connectivity, to have video for both participants on in an interview setting, or at the very least a photo, as well as with what Mickelson felt would be an improvement to give players a better sense of mentally placing reporters.

But remote media still presents its challenges and biases — journalists being called on in a fixed order, limited player availability, technical constraints, and the reality of life in anxious times inevitably entering into conversations a screen-length away, with both parties physically distant and not as emotionally equipped to handle them. It’s possible to attend more than one team scrum simultaneously but impossible to have a sense of investment in either, our mental capacity static or, in some ways due to Zoom and pandemic fatigue, much worse.

The hope is that we will all bounce back from this period as equipped as we were before for the in-person interaction we’re currently so bereft of, but the larger, psychological fallout from going through the motions and this kind of generalized “flattening” of human contact remains. There should never need to be an occasion where a player, like VanVleet, is put on the spot by tragedy, but the reality is that at some point they will be. Our concern has to be that in this interim of being unable to look someone in the eye, we’re able to retain the crucial, connective sense of what that leveling can feel like.