A rash of scandals isn't keeping big-time sports from picking fights with the media that cover them.
The most recent example is the National Football League's plan to require press photographers covering games to wear red vests bearing the logos of Reebok and Canon. Presidents of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), the Associated Press Managing Editors (APME) and the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) quickly denounced the idea, saying photographers would be like walking billboards on the sidelines.
The vest idea is so bad it could be in the script for a sequel to "Jerry Maguire." I'm just making this up, but the main plot line could be about a big sponsor (say Reebok) that stops selling the jersey of a star player (say a quarterback) accused of something illegal and disgusting (say dogfighting). Hard to imagine, but who knows?
Anyway, Tom Cruise as Jerry comes up with this brilliant idea to put the sponsor's logos on press photographers' red vests. As the TV camera pans the sideline, Jerry shouts "Show me the money!"
The logo vest idea comes just weeks after the NFL announced new restrictions on press use of audio and video clips from training camps and locker-room interviews. Meanwhile, the NCAA is trying to prevent reporters from blogging live reports to their Web sites, something that already is banned at golf's Masters Tournament. They fear blogs compete with their own live broadcast coverage.
Seattle Times Sports Editor Cathy Henkel sees these actions as just the latest example of commercialism consuming sports, like putting product names on bowl games and stadiums. "You just never expected it to be slapped on your body," she said.
In the Internet world, sports franchises increasingly see themselves in an evolving competition with the media that cover them.
"The leagues have their own Web sites and fan magazines. They are trying to monopolize their product. They want to maximize their financial return and control the message," Henkel said.
The press isn't pure of commercial motivation in all of this because newspapers are trying to stay financially viable. We build our circulation with sports coverage, and advertising revenue is tied to circulation. When the Mariners are hot, our single-copy sales go up. When the Seahawks went to the Super Bowl, we saw a spike in circulation and advertising.
Sports teams and the media are in a symbiotic relationship. News coverage helps sports franchises build their fan base. "Leagues on their way up understand that," Henkel said.
Karen Magnuson, president of the APME and editor of the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat & Chronicle, reinforced the idea of working together in a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. "We view it as a win-win situation for both the league and its fans, who also are our readers. But the working press should not be incorporated into the marketing apparatus of the NFL and its individual teams. It compromises our objectivity, our independence and our ethics."
SPJ National President Christine Tatum, an assistant features editor at The Denver Post, said, "For the sake of the almighty dollar, the NFL is clearly willing to compromise press freedom and independence. The League should be ashamed."
Rod Mar, Times sports photographer extraordinaire, took a philosophical attitude to the dispute. He'll let the editors argue the policy, and he won't let a logo vest compromise his ability to do his job serving readers.
"So far, they [the NFL] are not dictating in any way, shape or form how I cover the game. If the vest is on me, it's not in any of my pictures," he said.