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Freedom of football 

The Internet, big money and football combined for a page one news story in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette last week.

The Southeastern Conference has proposed rules to extract money from media covering football games. Traditional media have blown a gasket.

Bones of contention:

• “Real-time” sideline blogs. The SEC proposes to ban this instant reporting, distributed by Internet. Why? Probably because it would go to webpages surrounded by advertising sold by the website operators, not the SEC, and directly compete with broadcast rights holders.

• Future use of video and audio recordings and photos taken at SEC events. Again, continued media sales of these, without commission to the SEC, constitute competition to the SEC's own image marketing plans.

I think the SEC is making a mistake by riling news media that provide so much valuable publicity. But I can see where the conference is coming from.

A major college football game is just a commercial product, the same as a Rolling Stones concert. Newspapers are not granted free rights to record the Stones.

I also have to laugh at the Democrat-Gazette's self-interested portrayal of this as a fight for the public's right to know. That newspaper, and a relative handful of other lucky media outlets, get free admission to the games of a public institution, the University of Arkansas. They receive expensive services – quotes, stats, arranged interviews – not to mention press box food and drink. Having been given valuable free access to the press box and sidelines by a publicly supported institution, the newspaper also wants to hang onto exclusive marketing rights of the valuable images it obtains there. It wants to pay nothing for future books emblazoned with Hog imagery, though others are regularly sued for publishing commercial items that bear UA trade dress.

You do know, too, don't you, that you can't read the Democrat-Gazette, not even on-line, for free?

Many newspapers say they won't cover games under an admittance policy conditioned on their accepting the SEC's proposed publishing rules. These include providing copies of their work to the SEC at an advantageous rate and accepting restrictions on use of images in ways other than regular news coverage.

I don't blame media outlets for resisting. Video and still photographs are a form of speech, too, just as much as the written word. It just so happens images have greater value. The SEC has not proposed restraining written speech, except on those “real time sideline blogs.”

That  blog rule, by the way, makes little sense in that the SEC has dropped the impractical idea of prohibiting fans – as opposed to the “real” media -- from Twittering, Facebooking and otherwise posting “real time” game accounts. In today's world, everyone with a smart phone is a publisher.

Who'll blink? The SEC, in search of still more gold from a sport that is amateur in name only? The newspapers, an ailing industry that depends on football for circulation and ad stimulus? Would they really dare not cover the Hogs, Tigers, Longhorns, etc.?

I'd feel more sympathetic if major newspapers would fight the restraint of trade in which they have participated for so long. A relative handful of media shouldn't have the special and valuable access to sporting events they now enjoy.

Here's an idea on that: Football pool coverage, just as the traveling White House is covered. The “real” media can gather and use their game day images as they wish, just so long as they provide copies free to anyone else who asks. It is about the public's right to know, isn't it?

 

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