Proposed Missouri Law Challenges NFL's TV Sidelines Ban

By Donald R. Winslow

 Is nothing sacred? Football and television are hot topics that can cross party lines and empty out church basements, at least in the "Show Me" state of Missouri and in the Bible Belt states Indiana and Ohio.

In Missouri, two state senators – one a Republican, the other a Democrat – introduced legislation challenging a National Football League policy that prohibits local affiliate television stations from covering game action on the sidelines. And in Indiana and Ohio, threats of legal action from the NFL cancelled church Super Bowl parties.

Legislation introduced on Tuesday by Senator Matt Bartle (R-Dist. 8) and Senator Victor Callahan (D-Dist. 11) would force the NFL to allow local affiliate cameras on the sidelines for games of the Kansas City Chiefs and St. Louis Rams, who both play in stadiums partially supported by public money, and would allow any media denied reasonable sideline access to sue the teams for damages.

A similar law was suggested last September in Michigan, where the Detroit Lions play in a stadium that involves public funding.

The 32 NFL team owners at their spring meeting in Orlando, FL, in March 2006 unanimously voted to adopt a policy that removed local television affiliates from the sidelines of all NFL games. Called the “NFL Broadcast Cooperation Resolution,” it was quietly passed at the end of their annual gathering, and it wasn’t until news organizations began ferreting out its meaning that broadcasters started to realize the ramifications of the new rules. Local stations would no longer be allowed to shoot from the sidelines during games, which was the source of most of their footage for news programs and highlight shows. Instead, local competing stations would all be forced to get their game action scenes from a common network or pool feed.

The National Press Photographers Association opposed the NFL policy as soon as knowledge of it became public, and in April 2006 NPPA’s then-president Alicia Wagner Calzada sent NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and all 32 team owners, along with each team’s public relations director, letters expressing NPPA’s “extreme disappointment” in the sideline ban. “We believe this decision is extremely short-sighted,” Calzada wrote. “We call for the NFL and the league’s individual teams to reverse this destructive decision. We further propose that you work with industry groups like NPPA to create a solution that balances the needs and concerns of the NFL with the needs of the local media to properly cover your teams.”

But the new policy took effect at the beginning of the 2006-2007 season, which just concluded with last week’s Super Bowl. Local television affiliates had previously had access to the sidelines before, during, and after NFL games. Without this access, sports reporters and producers said they were unable to customize their coverage, or to concentrate stories on particular players or game events, because they were all reduced to accepting the same pool NFL or network feed.

Senators Bartle and Callahan object to the restrictions being placed on the media in venues supported by taxpayer dollars. They say the policy also hurts the fans who follow their teams and favorite players through local television news and sports programs. “Ultimately, football belongs to all of us and should have access to all of us,” said Callahan, as reported by the Associated Press. This policy “is an attempt to block the public from what is America's pastime,” he said. His district around the Independence, MO, area includes the Chiefs' Arrowhead Stadium.

Bartle and Callahan’s legislation has the support of the Missouri Broadcasters Association, and the law – if passed – would only have jurisdiction over the two stadiums in Missouri; it would not overturn NFL policy in other NFL cities. The proposed legislation requires that “any entity owning, operating, or leasing a stadium for which at least 10 percent of the construction costs came from state or local taxes cannot prohibit media photographers from having reasonable access to the sidelines of the playing field.”

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello is quoted by AP as saying that the league would review the policy this year, before the next season starts. Aiello told AP the policy was to limit media congestion on the sidelines and to protect the NFL’s property rights regarding game video.

Last year, when the new policy was rooted out into public view, NFL spokesperson Steve Alic told News Photographer magazine that “the impetus for this was the unauthorized use of game footage that the NFL has seen most recently posted on a television station’s Web site. Use of game footage on Web sites is unauthorized. It’s been a big problem, especially recently. So the resolution’s goal is to curtail unauthorized use of game footage.”

Yesterday, Aiello told AP that the NFL “values the coverage of local stations in the promotion of the NFL, and this was by no means an attempt to restrict or limit that coverage.”


Taking A Hard-Line Approach

In recent years the NFL has exercised a hard-line stance to protect the use of its images, video, and logos – at a level that often seems to rival that of another corporation that has become famous for its brand diligence, the Walt Disney Corporation.

Days before the Super Bowl, the NFL served a legal warning on the pastor of the Fall Creek Baptist Church in suburban Indianapolis, IN, after the league learned that the church planned to show the Super Bowl on a large-screen television at a church-sponsored party. The NFL said this was because the pastor planned to charge a small fee to cover party refreshments and had used the NFL’s logo and the license-protected words “Super Bowl” to promote the event.

In neighboring Ohio, the River Hill Christian Church in Loveland cancelled plans for a Super Bowl event at their facility after learning about the NFL’s threat against the Indianapolis church. According to the NFL, people are not supposed to watch NFL games on screens whose size exceeds 55 inches. The screen at the River Hill Christian Church is approximately 22 feet larger than the NFL allows. Pastor Will Mullins told Cleveland’s WCPO-TV they decided not to risk it after reading the NFL’s letter to the Fall Creek Church – and that NFL stands for the “No Fun League.”

The Indianapolis Star reports that the NFL also took exception to the Indiana church’s plan to attract nonmembers with a video that showed the Christian testimonies of Colts coach Tony Dungy and Bears coach Lovie Smith. The Star quotes an eMail from an NFL lawyer, Rachel L. Margolies, who wrote that the NFL is “consistent in refusing the use of our game broadcasts in connection with events that promote a message, no matter the content.”

The NFL did not address the question of bars across America that featured the Super Bowl broadcast on big-screen televisions while charging customers for seats and drinks, but they did succeed in shutting down the party planned at the Fall Creek Baptist Church