News

NFL, media battle in the trenches over access issues

Randy Covitz [The Kansas City Star]

A few days before the season opener, two Arizona sportswriters noticed during the 30 minutes of practice open to the media that the Cardinals had shuffled some offensive-line starters.

The writers confirmed the position moves with the two players involved and reported it in the next morning's newspapers.

Coach Dennis Green wasn't happy.

"One of the things you guys (reporters) make a mistake (about) is you see something and you write it as if it's true," Green chastised them. "The fans are counting on you telling the truth, and you don't know the truth."

Turned out the news was accurate as reported, despite Green's admonition.

Welcome to the sometimes contentious relationships between NFL clubs and the reporters who cover them.

The NFL is unquestionably the most successful and popular sports league in America, fueled by record attendance in 2005, off-the-chart television ratings and a TV contract worth nearly $25 billion over the next six years.

That kind of interest demands accurate, in-depth reporting by newspapers, radio and television stations and Internet sites, where fans historically have gotten most of their information on their favorite teams. It requires access to players, head coaches, assistant coaches and practices.

But the proliferation of so much new media, including talk-radio and Web sites - not to mention the immense pressure on head coaches to win - has led to an uneasy coexistence and even a distrust between the teams and reporters.

Consequently, newspapers and other media wanting to provide fans with satisfactory coverage are running into roadblocks.

All but nine of the NFL's 32 teams close practices to reporters; some high-profile players don't speak with the local media; at least seven teams limit or deny access to assistant coaches; and on game day, only one local television affiliate per market is allowed an on-field camera. That affiliate must share its video with the other competing stations if they want to supplement already-seen network game footage in their sportscasts.

"My nightmare scenario is 10, 20 years from now, you will not be able to cover the NFL unless you pay a rights fee," said David Elfin of The Washington Times and president of the Pro Football Writers of America.

"As The NFL Network gets established and the teams' Web sites get established, and you have the whole ESPN machine, anybody who is either not working for the team or not paying a rights fee is not getting great access."

Indeed, the NFL itself has moved into the media business, having launched The NFL Network in addition to its own Web site and team sites that show the league and franchises in a mostly favorable light. In other words, you're not likely to find a story about steroids on nfl.com, or the news of Jared Allen's DUI on kcchiefs.com.

"We know the NFL wants to govern everything it does," said Andrew Lackey, director of the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism at Arizona State University. "Any business can try whatever it wants, but they have to realize they're part of a public trust and have a responsibility to the public.

"A lot of it is about control, but one place they haven't been able to control is the media. Because the media are all over the place, and their job is to find what's interesting, unusual or perhaps negative in some cases, what (the NFL) is doing is keeping these people from doing their jobs."

Greg Aiello, the NFL's vice president for public relations_who, incidentally, has a master's degree in journalism from Columbia_says access to teams is better than ever. It's just difficult to spread the love to so many.

"There's more and more media covering a team," Aiello said. "It's more competitive than ever. If you watch television and read newspapers, it would be hard to conclude there is a lack of access to NFL players and coaches."

The latest flap involves restrictions on what newspapers can put on their Web sites from game-day coverage. An increasing number of newspapers, including The Kansas City Star , are posting game stories and still photographs from games on their sites during and immediately after games.

However, the NFL will not allow newspapers (or any non-rights holders) to show their postgame coverage of news conferences or locker-room interviews on their Web sites. Even video from a newspaper's reporter asking questions of a coach or player at a podium or locker cannot be posted on the newspaper's site.

The NFL contends anything that happens on game day is proprietary to the league and its rights holders, NBC, CBS, FOX and ESPN.

"We understand the rights issues with (not allowing) game action," said Jim Jenks, executive sports editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and the president of Associated Press Sports Editors. "But once you're in the locker room, in a media setting, at a postgame news conference where they bring in a coach and players, we don't understand why we can't use a talking-head video."

It's not just sportswriters and editors who are concerned about providing fans with better news. Any restrictions to newspapers' ability to provide information are unacceptable in the eyes of the Associated Press Managing Editors, said Otis Sanford of The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal . He is that organization's representative on dealing with NFL issues.

The Washington Post and The Associated Press, together with their attorneys, plan to ask new NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for permission to show postgame coverage online. Jenks will endorse the request on behalf of APSE, which counts more than 600 newspapers among its membership.

"Video from our stadiums on game day is one of our most valuable assets, including video of our people, players, coaches talking about the game," Aiello said. "The policy is designed to ensure that our rights holders, who have paid for access to that asset, receive the value they've paid for.

"At the same time, it ensures that news organizations have a fair, reasonable and equal opportunity to cover the news from NFL game sites. There's no limit to the amount of written NFL information that Web sites can carry."

Aiello emphasized that newspapers can post video interviews of players and coaches from weekday news conferences and open locker rooms on Web sites in addition to transcripts from game-day coverage.

"That sounds really nice, but the reality is the written transcript is very different from the audio or the video," said Bob Steele, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a training and research institute for journalists in St. Petersburg, Fla.

"Many of the users of Internet services will want to hear the coach talking or want to see the linebacker who bats down the pass at a key moment in the game. To say, `Well, you can put written words on there, not the audio or video,' is creating a restriction that is going to limit the storytelling ability of the journalists. When you do that, it ends up as a disservice to the public."

To which Aiello responded: "Of course, they'd like to see the actual play. At some point we have to draw the line."

By prohibiting postgame video on the Web site, the NFL says it is following the Olympics model, in which the International Olympic Committee forbids any cameras at venues except for its current rights holder, NBC. However, the United States Olympic Committee brings athletes to the main press center, and nonrights holders are allowed to put video on their Web sites, though it cannot be live, said Bob Condron, USOC director of media services.

"The million-dollar question is whether this is a journalistic question for (the NFL), or is it just money?" said Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, sports editor of The Washington Post. "Are they going to take and sell the access they are denying everybody else? They'll go to a Yahoo or Google or AOL and maybe sell that for $50 million."

Aiello says no plans are in the works to sell the rights to postgame video. However, the league, like any billion-dollar business, is always searching for more revenue streams, and what happens if someone makes an offer too good to refuse?

"There is a smell here," said the Poynter Institute's Steele, "and it gives the impression that the NFL and the teams are more interested in their own financial protection than they are helping the public understand what goes on in the field with the players in the games.

"If that's the case, the audience, the public, is the loser."

The NFL contends that there is more mandated access for the media than ever. After listening to concerns voiced by the Pro Football Writers Association and APSE, the NFL determined that locker rooms now must be open a minimum of four days a week instead of three; and for a minimum of 45 minutes, instead of 30.

On the surface, that sounds good. But on many occasions when reporters enter a locker room, key players are not around. They are in the weight room, training room, lunch room or meeting room until the 45-minute period ends. Some talk only on certain days. Others, like Chiefs center Casey Wiegmann and the Denver Broncos offensive linemen, do not speak to reporters.

When former Rams head coach Mike Martz returned to St. Louis on Sunday as offensive coordinator of the Detroit Lions, he was not made available to any media during the week of the game, even though he customarily has a Thursday news session. Nor was he available after Sunday's game.

Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre, the face of a publicly owned franchise who has been candid and cooperative throughout his 15-year career, is now talking to the media just twice a month.

"He has one bad year, and this is how he reacts," Elfin said. "What kind of message is he sending to the fans and younger players when things go bad? But they're letting him get away with it."

Unfortunately, there are no repercussions from the league or clubs for players who refuse to speak to reporters. Other sports, such as the NBA and NHL, have guidelines that try to ensure cooperation with the media. In the wake of the NHL's labor stoppage, the league adopted a media policy that states, in part, "Cooperation with the Media, to the maximum extent, is obligatory."

To those on the outside, it wouldn't seem that the availability of assistant coaches is important. But on some teams, the head coach has very little to do with one side of the ball. And some assistant coaches are more eloquent than the head coaches and give the fan more insight.

However, the NFL is a copycat league. Once New England coach Bill Belichick, who like his mentor, Bill Parcells, denied access to his assistants and won three Super Bowls, other coaches followed.

Historically, Chiefs assistant coaches have been available to Kansas City media, but all requests to speak with staff members must now be cleared with coach Herm Edwards through the public-relations department.

Under former Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil, practices were open on Fridays, but now all practices are closed, except the first 20 minutes or so when reporters can take roll and see what players might not practice because of injury.

Super Bowl participants Pittsburgh and Seattle are among the teams that open all their practices to local media during the regular season, along with San Francisco, Atlanta, Carolina, New Orleans, Houston, Indianapolis and Tennessee. Philadelphia offers open practice on two days.

There's a tacit understanding between the media and franchises that reporters who watch practice do not write about strategy and trick plays, but depth-chart changes are fair game. Or are they?

Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis threatened to eliminate the first 20 minutes of practice open to the media after a reporter asked who would start in case cornerback Deltha O'Neal was unable to play against the Chiefs.

Lewis announced it would be Johnathan Joseph, but when asked who would replace Joseph as the nickel back, he got testy.

"This is our business . . . that's why the rules are the way they are," he said. "Otherwise, we'll shut it down."

Elfin, president of the Pro Football Writers, believes newspapers will gain a more sympathetic ear now that Goodell has replaced Paul Tagliabue as commissioner.

"Goodell is more hands on, more involved with us than Tagliabue ever was," Elfin said. "Roger grew up as an intern in the business sort of like Pete Rozelle was, while Tagliabue was a lawyer who didn't know anybody. Roger is a politician's son, he's a lot smoother, he does appreciate what we do and that we still are important to this league. That's a positive."

___

© 2006, The Kansas City Star. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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