Want a credential? Better not report on athletes’ injuries, schools say

When sports journalists received their credentials this past football season, new injury reporting policies left many unable to report what they saw with their own eyes.

The new bans limit reporting on injuries and practices and are now found at schools across most of the major conferences in Division I athletics.
The restrictions force reporters to make a tough choice — comply with schools’ restrictions or take a stand and risk losing future access entirely.

In September, reporters covering the University of Southern California learned the hard way how serious the university took its restriction after the L.A. Daily News’ beat reporter was banned from two weeks of football practices and the team’s next game as a punishment for reporting about an injury to the Trojans star kicker.

The private school, part of the PAC-12 athletic conference, implemented a policy this summer that forbids reporters from discussing injuries suffered at practice. The ban against reporter Scott Wolf was eventually lifted after talks between the school and local sports editors.

Similar bans are found at most other PAC-12 schools, including Washington, Oregon and Utah.

Washington’s policy prohibits reporters from discussing strategy and injuries observed at practice, said Jeff Bechthold, a spokesman for the school’s athletics department.

The school’s credential policy states that following these rules is a condition to enter practices. Reporters have generally followed the policy since it was implemented at the beginning of this season, said Kevin Dowd, The UW Daily’s sports editor.

“The new policy just kind of made it more going to practice as a time to do interviews than doing actual reporting,” Dowd said. “You were sort of restricted from reporting what you saw on the field.”

These types of policies often have ripple effects throughout entire conferences. After USC and Washington stopped discussing injures, the University of Utah’s football coach followed suit.

“It put us at a competitive disadvantage, he felt,” said Liz Abel, a spokeswoman for Utah’s athletics department. “He didn’t know why we had to announce who we had playing when they wouldn’t announce who they had playing.”

Others believe disclosing injuries violates the student athlete’s right to privacy.

“It’s no different than if someone is going to the doctor’s office, those records are confidential,” said Dave Williford, a spokesman for the University of Oregon athletics department. “It still comes down to the individual right to privacy.”

Coaches who do not want to discuss injuries often cite either the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act or the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, but neither protect information about student athletes’ injuries.

HIPAA only applies to people primarily in the business of providing health care, while FERPA only limits the disclosure of students’ education records. And many schools require their athletes to sign waivers that specifically allow the release of this type of information.

The lack of legal standing makes bans like these all the more frustrating, said Kevin Goldberg, a First Amendment attorney who represents the American Society of News Editors.

“The outrage from our side is you’ve got a reporter who is invited to practice and being told that you can’t report on this, this and this, even if you see it,” Goldberg said. “It’s just again way beyond what’s necessary and doesn’t serve the purpose they’re trying to serve.”

The restrictions seem to be there to discourage reporters from pursuing investigative stories, said Ryan McDonald, an assistant sports editor at The Daily Utah Chronicle.

“We don’t really do that a whole lot, and maybe we should be doing more of it,” he said. “We typically wait for a story to be there, and that may be because we don’t want to ruffle feathers for stories that might not even end up being there.”

“I think it is kind of a scare tactic,” he said. “I’m not sure if they would actually go through with pulling credentials. I do just wonder if its kind of an empty threat, but I guess the only way to find out is actually do it and see how they respond.”

Suspensions like Wolf’s are rare, Goldberg said. Most reporters play by the rules while also trying to compromise.

Restrictions on injury reporting vary outside of the PAC-12. The Atlantic Coast Conference is the only conference with a conference-wide injury reporting system, but even that system “tends to be manipulated,” Goldberg said.

Football coaches agreed to the system about five years ago and discuss at the beginning of every season whether they want to stick with it, said Michael Kelly, an ACC spokesman.

Two days before each conference game, coaches release a list of players out for the game, as well as those that are questionable or probable, Kelly said.

Some coaches are more specific than others in detailing specific injuries; others provide only the area of the body. And the ACC doesn’t enforce whether coaches comply; at least one, the University of North Carolina’s Larry Fedora, has publicly stated that he does not discuss injuries.

In the Big Ten conference, which does not have a conference-wide injury reporting system, injuries are often disclosed without specifics.

“Sometimes they’ll tell us what the injury is and other times they won’t, or they’ll say the certain area it’s in,” said Aaron Siegal-Eisman, a football beat reporter for The Indiana Daily Student, adding that he often has to do additional research to determine the injury.

The situation is similar in the Southeastern Conference. Schools handle injury reporting on an individual basis, said Sean Cartell, an SEC spokesman.

Some schools, like the University of Georgia, choose to disclose more than others. UGA’s sports medicine director releases an injury report after practice each day and notes each athletes that has an injury, location of the injury and if they can participate in play, said Claude Felton, a school spokesman.
McDonald said the lack of updates usually is not a big deal.

“I think people are just kind of used to the fact that coaches don’t talk about them,” he said. “We’ve kind of moved on.”

McDonald argued that the reports really only matter when it comes to high-profile players.

“If the star running back isn’t going to be playing, the public has the right to know whether they want to spend the money to come watch that game,” he said.

In the PAC-12, the uproar after Wolf’s suspension prompted commissioner Larry Scott to look into a conference-wide injury reporting system similar to the NFL, which requires each team to release an injury report each game week, according to Dave Hirsch, a league spokesman.
Hirsch said the division ultimately decided against the idea after talks with the schools’ athletic directors.

Because lawsuits are time-consuming, Goldberg said he advises reporters to try and meet with athletic department officials about changing the policies.

“Go in and play nice as much as you can,” Goldberg said. “Let people know you’re not going to back off, but go in and meet the people you’re going to be dealing with before you run into a problem.”

By Samantha Raphelson, SPLC staff writer.