NPPA To NFL's Tagliabue, Owners: "Extreme Disappointment"

DURHAM, NC – The president of the National Press Photographers Association has sent a letter to National Football League 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 the NFL owners’ recent unanimous vote to ban local affiliate television photojournalists from sidelines during games.

 “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.”

 The NFL’s 32 team owners voted during their spring meeting in Orlando, FL, at the end of March to adopt a new policy that removes local television affiliates from the sidelines of all NFL games. Television photojournalists from local stations in the NFL teams’ area will no longer be allowed to shoot from the sidelines during the game, preventing them from capturing game action images to show on news and highlight shows. Their vote on the Broadcast Cooperation Resolution came as a complete surprise to television news directors and sports producers at affiliate television stations in NFL cities, who were unaware that the NFL was even considering such action.

 “We’re asking all NPPA members to organize and take action about the NFL’s sideline vote on a local level, which is where we can have the most influence,” Calzada said. The NPPA’s president suggested working with state and national associations of broadcasters as well, in an organized effort to address each NFL team in its own market.

 The day after the owners’ vote, NFL spokesperson Steve Alic gave this explanation to News Photographer magazine: “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.”

 “If the NFL wants to limit game action footage from being used on Web sites, then just make that part of the credential agreement and enforce it legally,” said NPPA past president Todd Stricker, a sports photojournalist in San Antonio, TX. “There are already all kinds of limitations to the credential agreements that we sign allowing us to shoot from the sidelines. Just enforce what’s already there.”

 Caught off guard at first by the NFL owners' vote, the broadcast industry and press associations have been busy organizing their response. The Radio Television News Directors Association urged the NFL to reconsider implementing the policy and raised questions about First Amendment rights. The National Association of Broadcasters issued a statement saying it would appeal the decision. The Society of Professional Journalists came out strongly against the ban.

 And the Michigan Association of Broadcasters, representing 300 TV and radio stations, sent a letter to the Detroit Lions owner, called on the NFL to reverse the ban, and contacted the Michigan governor and Detroit legislators and asked for their support fighting the ban. MAB president Karole White said in a statement: “For more than 40 years, local television stations have helped build a relationship between pro football teams and their viewers. The move to ban local TV crews from game coverage will deny viewers the unique local coverage of NFL games they’ve come to expect."

 Calzada’s letter from the NPPA to Tagliabue and NFL team owners asked them to consider the following points:

The heart of a team’s fan base is in its local supporters. The local media’s ability to cover its teams has a direct effect on the local fans’ ability to follow the team. This is especially true for teams that don’t have a sell-out crowd every Sunday.

Local coverage tends to focus on the human-interest side of team sports – the kind of stories that build fan involvement and loyalty. Footage provided by the team and network feed does not allow for the original, in-depth storytelling that is common on local affiliate sports programs. Furthermore, the networks themselves constantly rely on local footage from sideline coverage to improve their programs.

No other private business receives as much exposure as a professional athletic team in its hometown. However, that coverage must be balanced in order to retain its credibility. Balanced coverage requires original news gathering. Journalists must have the ability to gather their own footage if they are to continue creating the numerous quality local sports programs that they produce at this time.

While we recognize that the NFL and the individual teams are private corporations and thus not subject to the same free-press regulations as public entities, nearly all of them play in stadiums that have received incentives and tax breaks from local governments. For this reason there is a clear public interest in the teams and the news related to the teams. It remains essential that the local media be able to cover the teams in an unrestrained manner.

“If (posting video on the Web) is indeed the reason (for the owners’ vote),” Calzada wrote to the league and owners, “then we suggest that the NFL take steps against the individual station that violated your broadcast agreement instead of punishing everyone for the actions of a few. We urge you to reconsider this ban and join with us in creating a coalition that can offer solutions that work with the media, not against it. Such a solution would serve to benefit the NFL as a whole, as well as the individual teams.”

 Calzada says that Stricker would like to hear from NPPA members from local television affiliate stations who can give him their best examples of stories that relied on NFL sideline access during the game in order to properly tell the story. Contact Stricker at [email protected] with these comments and experiences by the end of this week, Calzada requests. “We’re collecting these stories to illustrate the extreme importance of sideline game access,” she said.