Football and the free press | Arkansas Blog

Friday, August 21, 2009

Football and the free press

Posted By on Fri, Aug 21, 2009 at 8:52 AM

Crocodile tears were shed on the front page of the Democrat-Gazette this morning over the Southeastern Conference's effort to control commercial use of images taken at football games and other athletic contests. It was a wholly self-interested report.

Here's the NY Times on this subject yesterday. The Democrat-Gazette requires a fee for access to  its work (even as it complains about the SEC attempting to do the very same thing.)

Yes, I feel a little contrary on this. Though public universities make up the bulk of affected colleges, they've long asserted commercial rights to their athletic product. Try to sell a T-shirt with a photo of a game-winning Razorback catch and see how quickly you get a cease and desist order from the Hogs. Has such an order ever been sought against any of the books, movies, etc., the Democrat-Gazette and other mainstream media shovel out in every state after championship seasons? The publishers argue that's merely the use of the inviolate product of a free press hard at work.

Right.

There is no free press right to cover Razorback games. Only a favored few are granted pressbox and sideline passes. Someday this, too, will become a big legal issue, though the D-G won't likely be fighting for blogger rights on its front page, because they're competition. There are hundreds -- thousands -- of writers and photographers with instant Internet access who can and do cover sports better than many of those granted sacred football coverage privileges. They are routinely denied access if they have the temerity to ask.

Covering a major college football game is about like covering a rock concert, from all outward appearances. Tickets are sold. Some press access is allowed, but the operators of such ultra-commercial enterprises can impose rules as a condition for entrance, including on recording of proceedings. That most universities are public institutions (though the UA, among others, will tell you no public money goes into sports) is a complicating factor. Even then, however, press laws provide no unconditional right of access to public facilities. Try to bust into a rump legislative meeting in the quiet room of the Senate someday.

You certainly can argue that the SEC is shooting itself in the foot by poking a stick at the media entities that provide its members so much free publicity. And it has backed off from the impossible task of limiting casual "amateur" electronic communications -- phone photos, Twitters, etc. -- from games. But the big noise from the press about all this is less about the public's right to know than it is about newspaper's desire to make money off their free admission and favored access to football games that others don't enjoy.

I await, I suspect in vain, the crusading daily newspaper that will look at antitrust implications of allowing some media access to lucrative coverage rights and not others. What say, Phil?

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