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Q&A with New York Times NFL Reporter Judy Battista

Judy Battista has been at the New York Times since 1998, and she’s currently the paper’s NFL reporter. Who better to ask about the annoying NFL lockout? Battista also talked about how much her job has been shaped by the internet’s growth over the last five years and the time an MLB player started to read a Hustler Magazine during an interview.

Q: I have to get something off my chest: I’m terminally bored by the lockout and all the reporting is tough to sift through. It seems like a lot of fans are tuning out the lockout, too, perhaps because the season is still a few months away. What is the sense you’re getting while covering this mess? Is the general public hanging on your every word as they would during free agency or coaching decisions?

Battista: I agree with you that few fans are breathlessly following every minute development right now. Part of the reason, I think, is that this is arcane, complex stuff that is unfamiliar to most people — not just NFL fans. It is difficult to understand and it’s often mind-numbing. But I do think the calendar is contributing to that. If this were August, I think more people would be wondering on a day to day basis what is going on. Right now, I think it is just very hard core fans who are saying “wait, just two days of mediation in Minneapolis?” I have several friends who are season ticket holders for their respective teams and they are barely paying attention right now. When I talk to them, they’ll occasionally ask if it’s been settled yet. And at least one still refers to it as a strike. My guess, though, is that if we get to mid-July and there is still nothing going on — if the league hasn’t been forced to open (which looks unlikely right now) or if they are not engaged in serious negotiations to get back to work — that fans will start paying closer attention.

Q: What’s the most frustrating part of covering the lockout?

I don’t even know where to start answering this question. The most frustrating thing for me is that I’m covering something about which I have no knowledge. So you’re learning this stuff on the fly, often relying on the kindness of lawyers to explain it in simple language, while trying not to make a mistake. I am nervous every day I write that I’m making an error that astute lawyers who read the Times are going to be happy to point out to me. Every few weeks something new pops up — meet the Norris-LaGuardia Act! — that you have to try to understand. Every lawyer you talk to about this starts off by saying how unusual and complex this case is which makes me even more nervous because if they struggle to make sense of it, how am I supposed to figure it out and then distill it into 800 words that explain it? On one hand, it’s an interesting intellectual exercise — the idea that this is something that is going to create precedent for how sports leagues and unions relate to each other for years to come. There is little question that as sometimes difficult as it is to understand what is happening, this is one of the most critical times in the league’s history and so you’re happy to be covering that up close. On the other hand, I never thought I’d miss covering OTAs so much.

Another frustration is the almost endless spin by all parties. You know it’s happening, we know it’s happening, they know they’re doing it and that it’s their job to do it, and you’re stuck trying to sift through it to figure out where the truth is. It is inevitably somewhere in the middle.

Q: If you could sum up the lockout, would greed just about cover it?

Greed. And obstinance. By various people in both parties. There is plenty of both to go around. That makes it the same as any other business negotiation. I’m uncomfortable with casting this as some kind of morality play. It’s business, by all parties.

Q: When you compare your job at the Times five years ago with today, how much of a difference is there? Between twitter and blogs and the growth of ESPN … is this a 24-7 job? How often do you feel tethered to the computer? Do you have time to have a life?

Blogs, Twitter and the fact that there is an enormous emphasis on the Times website being updated 24 hours [a day] have certainly made this a more constant news cycle. If something happens late, you’re writing for the next print deadline, but then you always have the option of continuing to write for the web until quite early in the morning. On big events, the Times also likes to have fresh stuff to put on the website early in the day, so that creates another set of “deadlines” that are entirely different from the print ones. I think I’ve felt more tethered to the computer during the lockout, for instance, because it’s impossible to predict when court decisions will come. And when the more significant ones do come, you want to have something on the website fairly quickly.

Q: I couldn’t find anything on your career backstory. How and why did you get into journalism? Did you study it in college? How’d you land at the Times?

I got into journalism because I was always a news junkie and I liked writing. I always read the paper and watched the news at home — I originally expected I’d be a news reporter. I studied journalism and political science at the University of Miami and when I first went to the Miami Herald, it was as a local news reporter. Then I jumped to sports. From the Herald, I went to Newsday for two years, then to the Times near the end of 1998.

Q: Who did you read as a young journalist? Who do you read now?

I read everything, just like most other writers. I read a lot of books about sports and journalism. I read Sports Illustrated and the National when that existed. I read newspapers constantly, including the Times — Anna Quindlen, Gwen Ifill, Maureen Dowd. I read the Herald and the Sun-Sentinel. I still love to read Greg Cote’s weekly picks on the NFL because he is consistently funny and that’s really hard to do in print. At the Herald, there was a news reporter, Steve Smith, who is now at the Boston Globe, who I loved to read — he had a great, conversational style of writing. I’m sure he doesn’t remember telling me this, but he told me once to write the way you talk. Great advice. Keeps you from getting too stilted.

Q: In talking with one of your colleagues, Karen Crouse, three years ago, she went into detail about some of the problems she ran into covering men’s sports. The NFL beat is as male-dominated as it gets. Are there many other women in the press box? Have you experienced anything along the lines she has?

There are a few women in the press box, probably more than in other sports actually. I briefly covered the Mets before I started on the NFL and at that time I thought there were even fewer women in the baseball press boxes than in the NFL. That might have changed since then, though. I haven’t had much trouble because of gender issues, to be honest. There’s no doubt they exist — I’m still stunned at Tara Sullivan’s experience at the Masters. Just unbelievable that a guard could think it was okay to ban a woman from working in the locker room while all the men waltzed by. I was surprised by the Ines Sainz situation with the Jets last year because I haven’t seen anything like that happen in a while either.

The only kind of gender-based issues I’ve had were laughable because they were so stupid. In a baseball clubhouse, a player who shall remain nameless — not one known for his soaring intellect, though — opened up a copy of Hustler and read it while I tried to interview him. Then there was the player — widely considered to be smarter and more highly-evolved than the first guy — who asked another beat writer about me: was I a lesbian and that’s why I was covering baseball? That was a neat twist. Usually if players have a problem with women in the locker room, it’s because they think we’re in there because we want to see naked men.

But by and large, I think NFL players are pretty good to deal with. Most of them are young enough that they have probably had female reporters covering them at some point in high school or college, so it might not be a shock to see a woman there.

Q: What is the biggest misconception about your job as a journalist covering the NFL?

I still get the usual questions: do you talk to the players? do you go to the games? I think a lot of people still view us as fans with notebooks — we’re supposed to be supportive of the home team kind of thing. As you’d imagine people are very emotional about their teams — when you write something critical of them, watch out.

Q: Do you allow yourself to be a sports fan, or have you become numb to that covering sports for so long? What teams did you root for growing up?

I’m very much still a sports fan, although I think every sportswriter would tell you that you watch stuff differently sometimes. You probably know more about how some teams operate than is good for the ability to just root blindly….Occasionally I’m watching with the thought of “Oh my God, this is a deadline nightmare.” or “How would I write this?” running through my head.

I grew up in South Florida, so I rooted for the Dolphins and the Hurricanes (there were no Marlins, Heat or Panthers when I was a kid) and I still pay very close attention to them. When I’ve had the chance to interview Don Shula, I still get nervous. As a reporter, you’re rooting for a good story on your beat, no matter what team it happens to. But I watch most other sports strictly as a fan — baseball and tennis, especially. I’m not a particularly ardent NBA fan, but I watched The Decision just like everybody else because I didn’t want to miss the spectacle. And I get caught up in big events — I don’t watch soccer regularly but I really liked having the World Cup on all day. I’m an Olympics obsessive, too, but only when they’re happening, not in off years.

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