The National Football League should quickly rethink its plans to forbid local television journalists from being on the sidelines during games for the 2006 season.
The league’s 32 teams voted unanimously March 31 to adopt a ban for local television stations not affiliated with the network carrying the local game. The stations would be required to rely solely on a network or NFL feed for any game coverage. Actual rules haven’t been written yet, but NFL officials have said TV journalists still would be allowed to record footage before games and from locker rooms afterward.
Working journalist groups are protesting the decision, including the National Press Photographers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists.
“This smells like an attempt by the NFL to censor coverage,” said SPJ national president David Carlson. “It will deprive viewers in NFL cities of the kind of localized information they want about their teams and players, the kind of coverage only local stations provide.”
The NFL has given vague explanations about protecting broadcast rights and reducing congestion. But the move fits a pattern of growing arrogance among professional sports associations toward independent coverage of their activities. Earlier this year, the Ladies Professional Golf Association sought to dictate all uses of photos taken by journalists at its tournaments. The LPGA backed away after media protests, with some groups suggesting the female golfers would be more upset to discover no one covering them anymore.
Sporting events are run by private businesses, but they also are big news in our TV-driven entertainment culture. That means the public is entitled to an unvarnished, independent look at what is happening, instead of being spoon-fed only the most positive moments. In addition, most professional sports stadiums are subsidized by taxpayers. They must remain accessible to America’s watchdogs — the media — so taxpayers can be sure their facilities are being used as intended.
Our cynical side says we shouldn’t be surprised that the Arizona Cardinals endorsed this ban. Team officials probably would like to focus as much attention as possible on the slick new stadium slated to open this summer in Glendale, in case it’s another dismal year for the Cardinals on the field.
But every local television station should have the ability to show us its version of the highlights — or the lowlights — of 2006.