Michigan Legislation Would Prevent Sideline Ban In Public Funded Stadiums

LANSING, MI – Michigan Republican state representative Leon Drolet of Macomb Township has proposed legislation that would prevent stadiums that receive twenty percent or more of their funding from public money from banning local news media and cameras from game sidelines or otherwise "unreasonably" restrict their access when that access is granted to national network media.

The proposal is in part a delayed response to a unanimous March vote by all 32 National Football League team owners to prohibit local affiliate television cameras from having sideline access during NFL games. The restriction forces local stations to take a network pool feed or a network game highlight feed in order to prepare their local sports programs and news reports. The NFL measure bans local affiliates from shooting any game action themselves.

In the days following that vote, the chief operating officer of the Detroit Lions told the Detroit News that team owners voted to adopt the ban because the league wants to “protect its property rights and remove some of the congestion on the sidelines.”

Press organizations have been critical of the owners’ sideline ban, calling it just another attempt by the NFL to control its images and to restrict coverage.

The proposed Michigan legislation, introduced as HB 6465, is part of what Rep. Drolet calls a “Sports Fan Bill of Rights” that also includes a proposal to let Detroit Lions’ fans buy alcohol beginning at 7 a.m. on Sundays instead of the current law, which prohibits sales until noon, and would allow fans to wave signs inside the stadium that are critical of the Lions or its coaches and owners.

Committee hearings on the proposals could begin as early as next week.

Drolet told WZZM-TV in Grand Rapids that he considers it an outrage that the NFL team have attempted to curb free speech in a stadium that was built in part with tax dollars. He told reporters that in the past football fans have been removed from the stadium for yelling at a Lions’ coach, and fans who had signs that were critical of the team or of its management taken away from them by security guards. Under Drolet’s proposal, only signs that are obscene in content, or signs that are blocking the view of other fans or a safety hazard, could be removed. Signs critical of the chronically losing Detroit Lions, or calling for the firing of its coaches, would be allowed.

HB 6465 is categorized by the Michigan legislature as addressing civil rights issues, free speech and assembly issues, and unreasonable restrictions to media access.

After the NFL owners’ vote banning sideline access for local television affiliates, the president of the National Press Photographers Association sent a letter to NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, as well as to the 32 NFL team owners and each team’s public relations director, expressing NPPA’s “extreme disappointment” in their actions. “We believe this decision is extremely short-sighted,” Alicia Wagner Calzada wrote on behalf of NPPA. “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.”