MASSACHUSETTS — The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) may be a champion of athletes, but when it comes to journalists, the NCAA appears to play a different game.
The NCAA has butted heads with the press — both the student and professional corps — with policies that consistently seem to make life difficult for the journalists who deal with the organization that oversees college sports.
Using credentials as leverage
Perhaps the most highly publicized recent controversy between the media and the NCAA occurred at the beginning of 1997. In January, the NCAA threatened to deny press credentials for the men’s basketball tournament in March to publications including USA Today that ran advertisements for services that provide “tip sheets” on athletic events, which the NCAA says promotes illegal gambling.
Journalists across the country protested this year’s threat, widely viewing the ultimatum as an act of blatant censorship. Paul Bowker, former president of the Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE) decried the threat and helped negotiate a compromise with the NCAA.
Just weeks before March Madness began, APSE agreed to send a letter to its more than 400 member publications reiterating the joint concern of the APSE and the NCAA over illegal gambling on college athletics. In exchange, the NCAA distributed credentials normally.
But Bowker says a last-minute solution will not prevent the same controversy from coming up again next year.
“We [the APSE officers] view it as a First Amendment issue,” Bowker said, adding that the APSE was fully prepared to take the NCAA to court. “APSE officers felt it was out-of-bounds for us to tell [our member publications] what ads they could run.”
Bowker acknowledged that the NCAA has a legitimate concern with illegal gambling, but stressed that refusing credentials is “not the right way to attack.”
“It’s wrong to hold an ad over a sports editor’s head. We have no control over what ads go in the paper,” Bowker added.
This kind of tactic, furthermore, “sets up a dangerous scenario” not just in the sporting world, but for any credential issue, Bowker said. The NCAA threat is just a step away from any organization saying “Give us favorable coverage and we’ll give you a credential.”
Bowker also said that the letter sent out by the APSE has “aroused some attention. That’s what the NCAA wanted from the beginning.”
If this controversy arises again and evolves into formal lawsuit, however, it is not clear that the First Amendment will necessarily protect journalists. While the NCAA cannot restrict what is written in a newspaper, some would argue that the NCAA, because it is not a government agency, has no legal obligation to provide credentials fairly. Without any recourse, some reporters might have to buy their own tickets to sporting events, something the NCAA could not prohibit.
The counter-argument remains, however, that by forcing a newspaper to choose between courtside and locker room privileges and what advertisements they print, the NCAA would still be indirectly censoring a paper by asserting undue influence on content decisions. As a private actor, however, the NCAA might still be acting within the law.
Looking out for number one
The NCAA has seemingly tried to resolve its own institutional concerns about secrecy in another recent instance, this time coming into conflict with the student press.
Currently, the University of Maryland at College Park is appealing a lower court decision that ruled the student newspaper, The Diamondback, should have access to campus records regarding thousands of dollars in unpaid parking tickets by athletes and the resulting inquiry into the sources used to pay off those fines. (See story in the Fall 1997 SPLC Report).
The NCAA filed a brief on behalf of the university, stating that forcing the school to disclose records that may contain mention of NCAA violations “… would have a chilling effect on NCAA members’ obligation to self-report [violations].”
The brief also warns that a consequence of the lower court’s ruling is the “negative publicity in the press” that a violator might be subjected to. The brief states that self-reporting of violations will be put in jeopardy “for fear of being tarred-and-feathered in the press.”
Elizabeth Koch, attorney for The Diamondback, said the NCAA is “trying to make public policy-type arguments by somehow claiming the press is the enemy.”
Koch also noted that in this case, the NCAA had at one point disclosed information to the press, later claiming that other related information is confidential. In the brief, the NCAA claims the information was released “to clarify and correct media misinformation.”
Koch speculated that the NCAA is “implicitly making the argument they should be able to disclose information when it suits their purposes, but claim confidentiality for publicity reasons.”
Apparently, the NCAA may be more concerned with protecting its own internal mechanisms for seeking out and correcting violations, even if it comes at the expense of the student press and the public.
“The fact [the NCAA] thinks they should be able to police themselves in secret … is so counter to all our principles of a free press,” Koch said.
Some college newspapers have also run into problems simply obtaining credentials from the NCAA for tournament events. In most instances, the NCAA does not grant credentials to college newspapers directly, but instead issues them to schools’ athletic or sports information departments.
Tom Eblen, adviser to the Daily Kansan at the University of Kansas, experienced difficulties with the NCAA in 1995 when the newspaper was not granted a photo credential beyond the round of 16 in the men’s NCAA basketball tournament.
“The NCAA did not grant more than one [credential] to an institution. Our athletic department retained it,” Eblen said.
The next year, the newspaper received all the credentials it requested from the athletic department after Eblen made repeated efforts to secure them. Nothing in NCAA policy had changed.
“The university simply provided us with theirs,” Eblen said. “We couldn’t get the NCAA to budge. The NCAA is nothing if not set in its ways.”
Eblen attempted to address the basketball committee after the initial difficulties, but was not even granted an appearance.
Eblen explained that the NCAA is “hard and fast” in its policy that one photo credential and one reporter credential is available to each institution, meaning the university, not the university’s student newspaper. He said he thinks the newspaper is not seen as a separate entity from the school, despite the fact that it operates independently.
The NCAA’s official policy on credentials states, “Two individuals, certified by the director of athletics or designated representative of each participating and host institution, who will be the sole representative of all media organizations affiliated with any such institution” receives credentials.
However, the meaning of “affiliation” remains unclear. Even if a college newspaper is completely financially independent from the educational institution, the NCAA does not seem to recognize the newspaper as a separate entity from the school.
Some college newspapers have not been affected by the NCAA credential policies, but sports editors are aware of a potential for harm.
According to Chris Nehls, sports editor of the Cavalier Daily at the University of Virginia, the newspaper receives its tournament credentials from the university’s sports information department and has not yet had a problem. But he admitted that “we are pretty much at the whim of the athletic department.”
“I guess there would be no recourse for us if they ever got really annoyed at us. They could give them to someone else,” said Nehls.
He also pointed out that while the credentials for the NCAA tournament only come from the sports information department at the school, the Daily gets its credentials for the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) tournament directly from the ACC office.
At the University of Minnesota, sports editor Michael Rand of the Minnesota Daily said his paper “had to go through a variety of avenues” for tournament credentials.
“[The Sports Information Dept.] is not obligated [to give us credentials],” Rand said, “but it’s in their best interest.”
But while Minnesota’s Golden Gophers appeared in the Final Four in March, the college newspaper only managed to receive one extra credential beyond the one provided by the university from the NCAA whereas the professional Minneapolis Star Tribune received four or five credentials, he said.
While different college newspapers have different experiences getting credentials, often depending on the relationship between the student paper and the school’s athletic or sports information department, the NCAA has not necessarily proven to be especially helpful or recognized the autonomy of student papers from their respective schools.
“From my perspective, and I think from the student press perspective, the NCAA response has been totally unsatisfactory,” concluded Eblen. “The NCAA washes its hands of the student press.”
Even in the high schools
High school journalists have also run into problems with the NCAA. In order to play Division I sports in college, high school students must gain eligibility. Many students have found that the journalism courses they planned to count as part of the NCAA’s four-year language arts requirement do not measure up.
For a course to count for language arts credit the NCAA demands that at least 75 percent of the curriculum must be in the areas of grammar, composition, literature or oral communication. The NCAA emphasizes the need for large amounts of reading and writing.
“In a lot of cases — if not the majority of them — [journalism courses] don’t have those elements in them,” Steve Mallonne said, Director of Member Services at the NCAA.
Mary Lou Bowen, president of the Kansas Scholastic Press Association has a different take on the NCAA standards.
“I don’t think there is any course more comprehensive than a good journalism course,” Bowen said. “To break that down to percentages is really disgusting.”
Bowen said that journalism production courses certainly can meet all the NCAA requirements for an English class, not only through writing and editing, but also because of the interviewing and research that production requires.
But NCAA Member Services Representative Israel Negron explained an important characteristic that the NCAA looks for in determining whether core credit is available, noting there is no “blanket system” for determining what is accepted and what is not.
Negron said “a course about journalism, for instance learning to write different kinds of stories” is looked upon more favorably than “a course that puts together a school newspaper.”
Negron continued by explaining that a production-type course in which “50 percent of the time is spent on photography or layout” probably does not qualify for language arts, even if those skills are beneficial.
“Layout isn’t assisting a student in developing his English skills,” Negron said. “And English is important to a student no matter what coursework they go into.”
Negron defined “English skills” as “things that will be helpful [to students] in communicating their ideas in college.”
Linda Puntney, executive director of the Journalism Education Association (JEA), is well aware of the problems that high school journalism teachers have had getting their courses accepted and their students eligible for Division I.
“The more you can show thinking, writing, creative processes, the better off you are,” advised Puntney, who emphasized that the way a teacher writes a course description can make a big difference.
While mentioning desktop publishing or advertising can be a strike against a course, when emphasizing writing and editing, “Things seem to be OK,” Puntney said.Bowen called it “all a matter of wording.”
“It’s another call on our expertise for words,” she said. “You can’t use the word ‘publication.'”
An indirect result of the NCAA’s limitations, Puntney said, is that at some schools facing a budget crunch, funds for the journalism program end up being cut. She also explained that in some states, journalism teachers have traditionally emphasized the more production-oriented aspects of a course in order to receive special funding for “vocational” programs from the state.
“In order to get vocational money from state programs, you need to emphasize the other things,” Puntney said. “If they write it to apply for vocational funding … then their students get struck down by the NCAA.”
And when the NCAA denies a journalism course for core credit, that denial also means the same course could not count for an additional elective requirement that can be taken in either language arts, math or science.
Bowen said she finds the NCAA clearinghouse that makes decisions on course eligibility “nonsense.”
“[The NCAA] has lost track of the very young people they set out to help,” Bowen said.
Not seeing eye to eye
From the professional ranks to high school, NCAA policies have proven an aggravation to journalists that critics say shows a lack of interest in supporting the free press. What makes change difficult is both the unrestricted power the NCAA possesses and the freedom to not have to worry whether it makes friends at every turn.
“There’s not a lot we can actually do except inform our members,” Puntney said in reference to the course credit debate.
As both Bowen and Eblen noted, in their respective experiences, the NCAA had not shown a particular openness to outside arguments.
“I don’t think reasoning [with them] has much success,” Bowen said.
Instead, it may take a more concerted effort from national journalism organizations, professional publications and state and federal legislators to influence the NCAA’s pattern of behavior that seems to be pushing the institution further away from the same press that so voraciously covers the athletic events it controls.