NCAA blogging policy evokes concern

Basketball is king in Indiana. The sport is exciting; the athletes are exceptional; the fans are hardcore; and the newspaper coverage is plentiful.

In fact, John Wustrow, the summer sports editor at the Indiana Daily Student, said the Indiana University newspaper’s sports section is not big enough to hold all of the basketball coverage his staff wants to produce.

“And we have all these other sports we have to cover,” Wustrow said.

As the 2006-07 Indiana University basketball season approached, editors striving to give readers what they want had an idea: Basketblog, an addition to the Indiana Daily’s Web site.

Wustrow said the blog gives the sports staff an opportunity to write stories it would not have space for in the print edition.

And readers love it, he added. In June, editors looked at a Web site traffic tracker, which showed that Basketblog was by far the most-visited feature on their site.

“The blog definitely adds a lot to our newspaper,” said Wustrow, who estimated that it has between 4,000 and 5,000 readers.

In March, the newspaper sent two reporters to the National Collegiate Athletic Association men’s basketball tournament. The Indiana Daily Student reporters, along with journalists from across the country, blogged during the games, providing readers with the most up-to-date information possible.

The Indiana Daily Student never had any trouble getting press credentials, even for its bloggers, but Wustrow said he worried the paper’s blogging days might be over after a sports writer from a commercial newspaper was kicked out of a NCAA baseball game June 8 for blogging from the press box.

Trouble in Louisville

Brian Bennett, a sports journalist at The Louisville Courier-Journal, was assigned to periodically update his blog during a College World Series baseball playoff game.

About an hour before the game started, university officials sent a memo around the press box, reminding reporters that “any blog that has action photos or game reports, including play-by-play, scores or any in-game updates, is specifically prohibited.”

Bennett said Courier-Journal editors instructed him to proceed, nevertheless.

Bennett posted 17 messages, highlighting plays during the University of Louisville’s 20-2 victory over the Oklahoma State Cowboys. His posts were short, many of them giving just the score and a few sentences of commentary.

Before the end of the seventh inning, an NCAA official revoked Bennett’s press credential and told him to leave the press box because the association had a strict “no-broadcast” policy.

“…Any statistical or other live representation of the Super Regional games falls under the exclusive broadcasting and Internet rights granted to the NCAA’s official rights holders and therefore is not allowed by any other entity,” the memo said, according to Bennett’s June 10 blog entry titled “Ejected and Dejected.”

The newspaper considered legal action against the University of Louisville and the NCAA for violating Bennett’s First Amendment rights, said Jon Fleischaker, an attorney representing the Courier-Journal.

The NCAA was using its power to issue press credentials to tamper with freedom of the press, he said.

“It’s a real question that we’re being deprived our right to report within the First Amendment from a public facility,” Fleischaker said, according to Bennett’s blog. “Once a player hits a home run, that’s a fact. It’s on TV; everybody sees it. [The NCAA] can’t copyright that fact.”

In July, the official policy had been clarified to say that “in-game updates on score and time remaining in competition may be publicly displayed by any media entity whether credentialed or not.”

But Bennett’s 17 blog entries, which averaged about 60 words per entry and included commentary, are not allowed, said Jennifer Kearns, associate director of public and media relations at the NCAA.

Kearns said the NCAA has bundled rights agreements with certain media entities, which pay for the rights to cover NCAA championships.

“Bloggers have not,” she said in an e-mail.

Kearns said the policy applies only to journalists in the press box at championship games that are being broadcast. Bloggers, student or professional, who violate the policy will have credentials revoked, she said.

Fleischaker said the Courier-Journal decided against a lawsuit.

Legality of the policy

Howard Wasserman, a law professor and a regular contributor to the online Sports Law Blog, said the NCAA’s policy raises “some pretty troubling First Amendment concerns.”

The first of these concerns is freedom of the press, said Wasserman, who teaches at the Saint Louis School of Law and the Florida International University College of Law. The NCAA’s policy is “dictating to certain members of the press how they are able to do their job and how they are able to report things.”

The second is inconsistency, he said. The NCAA may be able to control blogging when it is happening in a press box, but it has no control over a blogger sitting at home and watching the game on television from his couch, Wasserman said.

“Are they going to crack down on that?” he said.

Wasserman added that blogs are vital to the continuation of newspapers.

“Gone — very far gone — are the days where people had to wake up in the morning to check the newspaper to find out who won the game,” he said. “People are going to get that information.”

Because blogging is critical to the success of newspapers, Wasserman said he expects newspapers to defend their right to blog, even if that means going to court.

“If you take that option away, you really are going to put, particularly, newspapers in a real bind as to what they are going to do and how they are going to continue to be a source of news,” Wasserman said.

He concluded, “We have to wait until the next controversy.”

Roy Moore, a mass communication professor at the Georgia College & State University, agreed that the policy’s legality is not clear, calling blogs a “gray area.”

“The problem, in this case, in this situation, is that technology … is ahead of the law,” said Moore, who taught at the University of Kentucky while Bennett was a student there. “I think the best solution would be for the NCAA to work with media entities to carve out a reasonable solution.”

And Gabe Feldman, the director of the Tulane Sports Law Program, said that if such a case went to court, the judge would have to decide whether the blog in question is competing with the broadcast of the game.

“Would someone read the blog instead of watching the games?” he said.

Student journalists react

Wustrow at the Indiana Daily Student said that if the NCAA begins enforcing its policy next year, his staff would be forced to change the way it covers games because reporters cannot afford to lose their press credentials.

But Wustrow said the staff has never had trouble getting credentials in the past, and the section will continue to plan its coverage as if the policy does not exist.

“Until we’re told [to stop blogging], there’s no reason why we would stop,” Wustrow said.

Sports bloggers at other universities are taking note of the policy, as well.

Dan Winklebleck, former sports editor of The Daily Collegian at Pennsylvania State University, said reporters at the Collegian will likely continue to blog, just not from the press box.

“You could have somebody live-blog from the TV,” Winklebleck said.

Winklebleck, who graduated in May, added that he “can understand where [the NCAA is] coming from.”

The association must be able to protect the interests of its broadcasters, he said.

But Andrew Alberg, the sports editor at The Hatchet, the student newspaper at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., said he does not believe live blogs affect the number of people who watch games.

“I don’t think anyone would read the blog instead of watch the TV if they had access to the game on TV,” Alberg said.

Although Alberg said he had heard about the journalist in Louisville, he said he did not think about the implication of Bennett’s situation on his own blogs.

“I didn’t really think about how it would affect me,” Alberg said.