NFL fumbles trying to control news gathering

By Freedom Newspapers

The National Football League has picked another fight this year with the news media, which have helped make it the world’s most profitable sports franchise.

There has been an uproar about vests that all news photojournalists are supposed to wear while on the sidelines of every football game.

The vests carry two versions of the NFL logo, which might cause fans to think news photographers actually are working for the league.

Both print and broadcast photographers are alarmed by two other logos on the vests for corporate sponsors, which essentially requires these journalists to become walking billboards.

But another NFL rule that has more serious implications for football fans and the public in general has received far less attention. The NFL now wants to severely limit the use of league-related photos and video on media Web sites. In general, local news sites could post the equivalent of only 45 seconds per day of all of their interviews with players, coaches or other team personnel at any NFL facility.

This time limit is ridiculously small. If this tactic is successful, the NFL will be able to force more visitors to Web sites that it owns or has strong influence over through partnership contracts, and make league owners even richer.

But imposing any limits outside of actual game coverage (which is copyrighted by the NFL) corrupts the entire news gathering process. Readers and viewers expect journalists and their editors to decide how much material should be delivered to inform and to entertain. Such control of the news never should be left up to the source, such as the NFL, which obviously has a biased interest in promoting positive moments and ignoring or covering up any negative events or blunders.

Most NFL facilities around the country are funded at least in part by taxpayers. That certainly is true for the Arizona Cardinals and its home games at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, its clubhouse and practice fields in Tempe, and its summer training camp at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.

Taxpayers are constitutionally entitled to independent reports on how these publicly owned grounds are used by the Cardinals and the NFL. Actual pictures and video often explain issues far more vividly and credibly than word descriptions alone. Imposing time limits on such reports significantly erodes any autonomy and increases the likelihood of biased reporting.

These new rules are part of an aggressive strategy by the NFL in the past couple of years to shape the news to its benefit, and media organizations are debating how to respond. Talks about boycotting key games apparently has fizzled, and the NFL has made it clear it’s sticking with the sideline vest mandate.

As for the Web issue, the media needs to look to sympathetic politicians, and possibly the courts, to remind the NFL that as long as it uses taxpayer-funded facilities, it must respect the role of an independent free press.