New NFL Vest Rule (With Sponsor Logos) Has Some Seeing Red

By Donald R. Winslow

© 2007 News Photographer magazine

The National Football League has passed a new rule for the upcoming season that requires photographers at NFL games to wear red vests with Canon and Reebok logos on them, and the news is not being very well received by some editors and photography directors as word spreads through the journalism community.

David Shribman, executive editor of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in the NFL Steelers' hometown, responded to the news today by saying: "We're not going to become walking billboards. I hope that NPPA will challenge this and they have our support."

"In Seattle and at Super Bowl XL in Detroit, we wore bibs that blended into the background," NPPA president Tony Overman said today. "Making the vests red seems to go against previous practice, now making the vests highly visible (and therefore distracting) to everyone from players, officials, and ticket holders to television viewers.

"The NFL is an organization that strictly controls the presence of any non-sponsor logos (remember quarterback Jim McMahon and his [banned] Adidas headband?). Therefore the inclusion of sponsors’ logos on the photographers' vests can only be seen as a deliberate decision to give the companies added exposure. But the vast expanse of the NFL stadiums, and the army of workers staffing the games, provide an endless supply of opportunities to promote the NFL's sponsors without having to resort to forcing working journalists to unwillingly – and unethically – serve as advertising tools," Overman said.

"I think it's extremely unfortunate that the NFL, after limiting the number of local video photojournalists on the sidelines (last season), is now attempting to turn them into roving billboards," attorney and former photojournalist Mickey H. Osterreicher said today in Buffalo, NY, where for many years he covered the NFL's Buffalo Bills before becoming a lawyer who specializes in First Amendment and press freedom issues. "I would strongly suggest that any news organization whose photographers are required to wear such vests protest the requirement in the strongest of terms." Osterreicher is also NPPA's general legal counsel.

"It totally goes against our Code of Ethics to force photographers to advertise as if they were some sort of NASCAR vehicle," John Long, the chair of NPPA's Ethics & Standards Committee said today from Manchester, CT. "We are independent gatherers of news, storytellers with no agendas. Our integrity comes from objectivity. Do reporters put up with this kind of disrespect from the NFL?"

"This, of course, is not the first time photographers have been forced to wear vests at games that have advertising on them," Pete Cross said today. He's the assistant managing editor for photography for The Palm Beach Post in West Palm Beach, FL. "For instance, just this year at the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl (note it's not called just Fiesta Bowl anymore), photographers covering the game wore vests with the Tostitos logo on it. Many a shooter wore the vests inside-out in protest. Still, the thought of having to wear anything promoting products is not something journalists would choose to do. We consider it distasteful and unethical.

"I wouldn't be surprised if some newspapers get together and seriously discuss a boycott," Cross said. "The AP boycotted the Ladies Professional Golf Association's first round of the 2006 Hawaiian tournament in protest over photo rights. The LPGA backed off. We certainly will raise our concerns over the vests. Will we end up wearing them in the end? Maybe. Maybe inside-out."

Most people first learned about the new rule and red vests in a story in Monday's Wall Street Journal by Adam Thompson headlined "Sports Leagues Impose More Rules On Coverage." The reporter quotes the president of the Pro Football Writers Assocation, Alex Marvez, who is also a sports writer for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. Marvez told Thompson that the idea of using working press members as advertising vehicles was "really alarming." Canon Inc. is an official NFL sponsor, and Reebok is owned by Adidas AG, and is an NFL league licensee that makes clothing and merchandise with NFL logos on them.

For photojournalists who are also NPPA members, there's also NPPA's Code of Ethics to consider. Membership in the organization requires abiding by NPPA's ethical standards, and part of the Code says: "Do not accept gifts, favors, or compensation from those who might seek to influence coverage. ... Avoid political, civic, and business involvements or other employment that compromise or give the appearance of compromising one's own journalistic independence." The presence of corporate logos on game vests could be construed by some editors to be a violation of journalistic independence. As an example, many newspapers do not allow their employees to have political bumper stickers on their cars supporting candidates or political parties, or to donate to charities, or to participate in events that could be misunderstood or bring into question the organization's neutral or independent stance. In early July, the Richmond Times-Dispatch suspended a statehouse reporter and copy editor for 30 days without pay when they learned the two had made political donations, a breach of the paper's code of ethics.

"I consider this to be a blatant attempt to make our professional sports photographers into another arm of the NFL media monster," Larry Roberts said today. He's the assistant managing editor for photography for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "Besides trying to control what we photograph, where we publish, and to whom we can sell images, they are now trying to turn us into a part of the spectacle. Vests are de rigueur in places such as the Olympics and are often safety related. If this is the case, then I have no problem with the red vests and will simply have our shooters turn them inside out. However, I am fully against my staffers being used as billboards for companies which we may or may not support. The Post-Gazette, as a paper, uses Nikon equipment. I am sure Canon will love seeing their name behind a Nikon. ... Or, will we now be prohibited from covering NFL events if we do not use Canon cameras? And by the way, I am sure that the photographs will be so much better with flashes of red drawing a reader's eyes away from the action."

"Everyone who serves as a pitchman is compensated and does so by choice," NPPA's past president Alicia Wagner Calzada said today. "For photojournalists, covering NFL games is not a personal choice. It is one part of their job that must fit in appropriately with the rest of their job.”