After putting the horrible Michael Vick story aside for a moment, NFL fans are in celebration mode this week because training camps are opening around the league. While there may not be the same passion or personal ties that many of us feel with our high school teams that are preparing for their annual two-a-day practice season, the NFL is clearly this nation’s number one spectator sport in terms of television ratings.
The NFL has also been known for a long time to be very controlling of the image that America sees on its television screens, enforcing strict uniform requirements, carefully controlling the length of broadcasts and in some cases even the content of media coverage. There are limits to the number of people allowed on sidelines. A recent action by the league, though, has many media outlets seeing red — literally. Beginning this season, sideline photographers will be required by the NFL to wear red vests, which is a pretty harmless request. The rub comes because the vests contain large logos for two of the league’s corporate sponsors.
Several national newsgathering organizations including the Associated Press Managing Editors (APME) and Associated Press Photo Managers have formally objected to the new requirements. According to Karen Magnuson, President of APME as well as editor and vice president for news of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle in New York, the new rule would make photographers “walking billboards for NFL sponsors.” She went on to say that, “the working press should not be incorporated into the marketing apparatus of the NFL and its individual teams.”
Dallas Cowboy fans will remember earlier flaps over league sponsors — owner Jerry Jones has had several very public battles with the league over marketing opportunities. Those opportunities range from league approved shoes and uniforms, signage on the field and stadium, the game ball manufacturer and more. Jones felt that he should be able to make his own deals for his team, which at the time was winning multiple Super Bowls and among the nation’s most popular. In his heyday with the Chicago Bears, Jim McMahon was fined for wearing an Adidas (a non-league sponsor) headband on the sideline. Just recently, San Francisco 49ers Coach Mike Nolan had to make special arrangements with Reebok in order to wear a coat and tie on the sideline.
This controversy goes beyond battles over which logo appears on a vest. Members of the media have worn credentials and vests for years. Both are ways to establish that they are supposed to be in an arena and vests take the extra step of quickly separating on-field reporters and photographers from the general public.
The question being asked of the NFL is whether or not an independent media should be required to wear any logo in the course of normal event coverage. It’s one thing to limit the number of media representatives allowed on the field, or in the locker room — there are reasonable space and safety issues involved. But credentialed reporters and photographers are not employees of the NFL, they are not paid by the teams they cover — and they should not be subject to complying with marketing agreements the league has made for its own benefit.
The media’s responsibility is to cover the games, the players and the teams that make up the NFL, and share that information with readers, listeners and viewers. Because that relationship has worked so well over the years, the league has grown by leaps and bounds and become the country’s most popular sport.
That relationship is a two-way street, though, consisting of generally objective coverage free of any corporate obligations. That goes away as soon as the relationship takes on a marketing standpoint. The next logical step in this scenario is that photographers will only be able to use league-endorsed camera equipment and reporters wear approved apparel.
This requirement is a bad move by the NFL, and will open a Pandora’s Box of conflicts of interest. Outside agencies cannot be allowed to use working media as part of a marketing plan against their will. The jobs reporters and photographers do are important, and their objectivity must be maintained - even if that doesn’t always sit well with the home-team’s fans.
Bill Crist is associate publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Wednesday. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.