A Matter of Access to Sporting Events

Student and professional journalists dealing with restrictions on sports coverage

By Frank D. LoMonte
Executive Director, Student Press Law Center

Fueled by billions in television and licensing revenues, college athletic departments are increasingly stiff-arming journalists by restricting access to practices and games. Meanwhile, media industry leaders are looking for ways to respond.

The start of football season in August 2012 brought a wave of new restrictions on journalists–professionals and students alike–who cover college athletics. Threatening to revoke press credentials or close practices, coaches at several schools, including the University of Southern California, Washington State University and the University of North Carolina, ordered journalists to refrain from reporting on player injuries observed during practices.

In recent years, colleges and athletic conferences have become increasingly assertive about controlling how media organizations use the information and images they gather at sporting events.

The Southeastern Conference’s standard media credential, for instance, prohibits the sale for profit of any photo that includes recognizable athletes or coaches, and prohibits anyone other than a broadcast news outlet from posting online any game-action video other than video clips provided by the conference. The NCAA maintains – and colleges have occasionally threatened to enforce – limitations on the frequency with which blogs (including Twitter feeds) may be updated with game action in order to prohibit “live blogging” that might draw viewers away from officially licensed telecasts.

In response to these restrictions, the Student Press Law Center and leading organizations representing the professional news media. including the American Society of News Editors and the Associated Press Sports Editors, have formed an informal working group to exchange information and to advocate for better access policies.

“First, and foremost, sports events are big news,” said attorney Kevin M. Goldberg of Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth, P.L.C., who represents ASNE on these issues.  “Not just in terms of reader interest, but in many cities and towns around the country, especially those with a large university prescience, they can often be the biggest business or social issues as well. Second, the restrictions being levied are so outrageous that they simply demand a response.”

“These issues will become more complex and difficult to manage going forward,” Goldberg said. “Sports teams, leagues, venues and events, at the professional, college, high school and local levels are trying to harness technology in ways that make them competitors to the local news outlets, effectively cutting out the local media. They are seeking not only to control the message but commercial aspects of that message as well. They are learning from each other, talking to each other and occasionally working with each other to perfect these restrictions.”

While public universities are governed both by the First Amendment and by open-meetings laws that grant the public a right of access to government activities, there is no clear legal basis on which to demand unfettered access to sporting events.

Public-access laws cover only “meetings” where government policy is deliberated or decided. The fact that an event takes place inside a publicly financed stadium is not, by itself, a basis for claiming a “right” to attend. A government agency can restrict access by issuing credentials, and can impose and enforce reasonable conditions for receiving credentials.

Courts have held that the First Amendment does provide a right of access for journalists to observe important government activities, such as criminal trials and official police activity occurring in public spaces. It is questionable whether a court would recognize a constitutionally based right to insist on sideline access to a football game.

Once access is granted, it cannot be selectively revoked for retaliatory reasons, such as when a journalist expresses a viewpoint contrary to the government’s. And government agencies cannot selectively discriminate only against journalists. They cannot, for example, enforce a policy that enables fans in the bleachers to shoot and share video freely but restricts journalists from doing the same.

Most sports teams specify that ticketholders may not rebroadcast any game action, though it is questionable how that can be enforced. It’s also not clear whether live-blogging or live-tweeting restrictions will actually hold up in court if they’re challenged legally. However, news organizations should consider whether they are willing to forfeit their credentials while being a “test case.”

There are no known cases of media organizations actually losing credentials for providing live-blogging coverage, but the closer the coverage gets to a literal play-by-play description of events in real time, the more likely it is to draw a reaction. If threatened with the loss of credentials, journalists on the scene would probably be best advised to:

  • Immediately involve a sports editor or editor-in-chief.
  • Avoid a potentially heated on-the-spot argument that distracts from covering the event.
  • Go along with the sports organization’s requests—thereby defusing the confrontation—by agreeing to post fewer blog updates or changing their vantage points on the sidelines.
  • Carefully document which official made what threats; this documentation would be important for any legal challenges that could arise.

Student journalists have a particularly strong argument for leeway, since they, just like the student athletes they are covering, are in college to receive training and prepare for careers. A college that uses its authority to de-credential and expel student journalists is both harming the college audience and harming the career preparation of the students it hopes to place in professional employment.

Journalists who have issues with access to sporting events – including restrictions on what they can post online when covering sports – are encouraged to report concerns to the Student Press Law Center at splc@splc.org or 703-807-1904. The SPLC is building a database of sports access issues in collaborating with the ASNE and other professional media organizations, to assist in identifying the restrictions that trouble journalists most frequently and that are most in need of reform, whether by regulators or by the courts.

Election Coverage on Campus

College journalists can and should cover the presidential race: Here’s how

By Sarah Maben and Dan Malone

Barack, Mitt, Paul and Joe. Their names are all over professional newsfeeds regarding the U.S. presidential election.

Illustration: League of Women Voters

If their names aren’t part of college media newsfeeds, they could be. The student press corps has an arsenal of tools to cover the 2012 presidential campaign and election night with relative ease and very little money.

“To prepare journalism students for the media world they are entering, I think it’s essential to have them cover election night in real-time,” said Jake Batsell, adviser to smudailycampus.com at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. “Election night provides journalism students with a perfect laboratory to perform under real-time pressure during a major news story.”

Continue reading Election Coverage on Campus

The Red & Black: The making of a student media revolution

The move from daily print to digital impacts advertisers, readers and, most of all, students

By Ed Morales
University of Georgia

The Red & Black: The Next Generation

Dynamic shifts sometimes find roots in the oddest of places, so the genesis of The Red & Black‘s move to a digital-first format can trace back to a summer night when an athletic director was caught red-handed with a pair of women’s underwear resting in his lap.

It was an early Thursday in the summer of 2010 when Damon Evans, then the athletic director at the University of Georgia, was pulled over in Atlanta and charged with driving under the influence. With him in the car when the arresting trooper approached the driver’s side window was a young woman who was not his wife, her red panties in his lap.

The news broke at 6 a.m., just as a weekly summer edition of The Red & Black (the paper was daily during the fall and spring semesters, weekly during the summer) hit the boxes.

Continue reading The Red & Black: The making of a student media revolution

Red & Black newspaper reinvents itself as Version 2.0

Student editor: I helmed a revolution

By Rachel Bowers
University of Georgia

I walked into The Red & Black newsroom with one goal: To cover the University of Georgia football team.

But I left having helmed a media revolution, transitioning from printing a newspaper five days a week to publishing daily online, along with printing a 24- to-28-page newspaper once a week and a new monthly magazine.

Red & Black Version 2.0 (University of Georgia)

The day Ed Morales, the editorial adviser, told me The Red & Black would change from a daily publication to a weekly one, my jaw dropped.

I was standing in his office in front of him as he sat at his desk. He let the idea resonant before continuing. After a long, in-depth conversation in which Ed explained the ideas of the new website, the magazine and the weekly format, I left his office bursting at the seams with excitement. I knew what The Red & Black was going to do would be innovative. I wanted to be a part of it, in whatever role — it just so happened my role would be as editor in chief.

Continue reading Red & Black newspaper reinvents itself as Version 2.0

‘Tweetalongs’ merge social media, traditional police ridealongs

Engaging Twitter Audiences

Washington State University student journalist’s live observations during police calls provide followers with glimpse of the nightlife near campus. Such reporting should be considered with caution, SPLC warns.

By Dan Reimold
University of Tampa

Stephanie Schendel

This past academic year, Stephanie Schendel, the cops and courts reporter for The Daily Evergreen at Washington State University, has participated in occasional “tweetalongs.”  During these weekend ridealongs with patrolmen from the Pullman Police Department, she has tweeted live observations, providing followers with a candid, witty glimpse of quirkier after-hours community goings-on.

Continue reading ‘Tweetalongs’ merge social media, traditional police ridealongs

Bisher a writer for the ages, for all ages

Sports journalism icon dead at 93

Robert Bohler
Texas Christian University

It may say the most about sports writer Furman Bisher’s impact on generations of readers as well as fellow journalists that two of the greatest tributes paid to him following his death at age 93 on Sunday came from scribes who make their livings covering stock car racing and golf. Both ESPN’s Ed Hinton, who covered NASCAR for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution under Bisher’s guidance, and long-time golf writer Larry Dorman describe a man who respected the disciplines of the sports and their place in sporting culture, and perhaps Bisher’s greatest mark was that he could embrace such separate—and disparate—cultures. He was as equally at home writing about Richard Petty and Bill Elliott as he was Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson. And in doing so, everything else fell in-between with equal doses of wit, warmth, respect and, if he felt the case warranted, sharpness of tongue.

Continue reading Bisher a writer for the ages, for all ages

Investigative Reporting on Campus

Kent State reporter draws national attention with unraveling of  university’s controversial relationship with would-be donor

By Dan Reimold
University of Tampa

Doug Brown, an enterprise reporter for the Daily Kent Stater at Ohio’s Kent State University, is the most famous student journalist so far in 2012.

Doug Brown

Early last month, Brown reported on the past legal troubles of Jason Cope, an alumnus who was preparing to donate $1 million to the Kent State athletics program and have the school’s basketball court named after him.  He dove into the story after the paper’s web editor received an email from a stranger with a one-sentence tip: “Google Jason Cope v SEC.”

What Brown discovered: A bit more than a decade ago, as branch manager of a financial firm, Cope had been part of a Ponzi scheme that defrauded investors out of close to $9 million.  He was found guilty of breaking federal securities laws that “involved fraud and deceit” and ordered with his co-defendants “to pay a total of more than $19 million in penalties.” Continue reading Investigative Reporting on Campus

Kent State Investigation: A Student Reporter’s Story

In Doug Brown’s own words on his investigative reporting:


Kent State University student journalist Doug Brown has received national recognition in journalism circles for his coverage of the withdrawal of a $1 million donation to the university’s athletics department from an alumnus whose investment firm once defrauded investors of nearly $9 million.

Daniel Reimold interviewed Brown about this continuing story and the reporter’s use of public records in his investigative reporting. Continue reading Kent State Investigation: A Student Reporter’s Story

Editor’s Corner

In with the old in the new year

If you’ve been following the CMA listserv since the first of the year, you’re familiar with the case of the East Carolina University newspaper adviser who was fired after controversy over the publication of a full-frontal photo of a streaker at a Pirates home football game. And, by now, you’ve probably heard about the blunder by a community news blog managed by Penn State students whose premature reporting of the death of coaching icon Joe Paterno was picked up by national media. Continue reading Editor’s Corner

Funding issues and independence

Dependence on student fees for media operating budget creates instant conflict of interest

By Debra Landis
University of Illinois Springfield

The scene seems surreal: Journalists asking politicians for money to help keep their operations going.

That is exactly what happens in U.S. institutions of higher education when the leaders of college publications that depend on student fees to augment newspaper operations are required to appear before student government groups to ask for money. Continue reading Funding issues and independence