Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The hazards of sports blogging – or is it time to duck?

In recent days two entirely different stories, both related to the ever-growing list of sports blogs have captured attention for all the wrong reasons. In notable case the NCAA ejected a reporter from The Louisville Courier Journal who was blogging from Sunday’s University of Louisville Cardinals baseball teams’ playoff game and was removed from University of Louisville's Jim Patterson Stadium in the bottom of the fifth inning in the U of L-Oklahoma State game. At the same time news broke in Toronto that the president of Hamilton-based Steelback Brewery has filed a $2-million lawsuit against an Ottawa-based sports blogger he claims repeatedly libeled him on his popular sports website.

The precedent set by the NCAA has been widely reported in the last few days. The Louisville Courier Journal reported Monday that: Gene McArtor, a representative of the NCAA baseball committee, approached C-J staffer Brian Bennett at the University of Louisville's Jim Patterson Stadium in the bottom of the fifth inning in the U of L-Oklahoma State game Sunday afternoon. McArtor told him that blogging from an NCAA championship event "is against NCAA policies. We're revoking the credential and need to ask you to leave the stadium." The University of Louisville was hosting one of the NCAA Super Regional baseball weekends. The Cardinals won the weekend event qualifying for the College World Series for the first time.

Live blogging from sports events is very much a grey area when it comes to media rights. Courier-Journal executive editor Bennie L. Ivory initial reaction to the NCAA’s sanctioning the paper wasn’t very good needless to say.

"It's clearly a First Amendment issue," Ivory said. "This is part of the evolution of how we present the news to our readers. It's what we did during the Orange Bowl. It's what we did during the NCAA basketball tournament. It's what we do."

The Courier-Journal did report in Monday’s edition that U of L circulated a memo on the issue from Jeramy Michiaels, the NCAA's manager of broadcasting, before Friday's first super-regional game. It said blogs are considered a "live representation of the game" and that any blog containing action photos or game reports would be prohibited.

"In essence, no blog entries are permitted between the first pitch and the final out of each game," the memo said.

U of L assistant sports information director Sean Moth spoke with Bennett before the Cardinals last game Sunday afternoon (Bennett had filed live reports during the Cardinals first two games Friday and Saturday) asking Bennett to stop filing the live blogs.

"It's a real question that we're being deprived of our right to report within the First Amendment from a public facility," said Jon L. Fleischaker, the newspaper's attorney.

"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. The blog wasn't a simulcast or a recreation of the game. It was an analysis."

How Bennett was removed from the press box is a scary example of an organization hosting a sports event exerting pressure on a media company covering that game. According to the Courier-Journal two members (unnamed by the paper) of the U of Louisville’s sports information department spoke with other members of the Courier-Journal staff and suggested in no uncertain terms if Bennett didn’t leave the stadium immediately, Bennett’s presence could jeopardize the Cardinals ability to host future NCAA sanctioned playoff events. Threats of any kind should be taken very seriously.

"If that's true, that's nothing short of extortion and thuggery," Ivory said. "We will be talking to our attorneys (today) to see where we go from here."

Said U of L athletic director Tom Jurich: "As an NCAA institution, we must abide by all NCAA rules, including those in hosting NCAA events. Our staff sought an amicable solution to this situation from many angles.

"It's unfortunate that it led to the actions that were taken. This is not an issue that should mar the most fantastic day for college baseball in this state."

In an editorial that appears in Wednesday’s Courier-Journal among the points raised by the paper’s editors: “Even more outrageous is the fact that this happened at a public university stadium, where two public university teams, the University of Louisville and Oklahoma State, were playing.

“What next — ejecting the fan in the stands who uses a cell phone to report the score to a friend or a relative who can’t get the game on TV?

“In a long history of NCAA fecklessness, this may be its most absurdly misplaced priority.”

The industry isn’t reacting well to the NCAA’s strong arm tactics.

"This is appalling, but in no way am I surprised," said Lucy Dagleish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in a Courier-Journal report. "The television networks pay a lot of money for the rights to live reporting, and the NCAA makes a whale of a lot of money. This is all about money and not about the First Amendment."

"There's no right to a press credential, so it's not a First Amendment issue." says Douglas Lee, an attorney in Dixon, Ill., who specializes in cases involving free speech in a USA Today report. "The NCAA isn't the government, although it probably wishes it were. It seems like this is somebody going too far, and you hope free speech would prevail."

Ronald Collins, who has taught constitutional law and is a scholar with the First Amendment Center, notes the Louisville reporter could have blogged off of ESPN's TV coverage. "So what's the difference?" he says. "Seems like the cat is out of the bag."

NCAA spokesman Erik Christianson told the USA Today’s Michael Hiestand live coverage online is a longstanding "protected right" that is bought and sold. Blogging reporters can report about things such as game "atmosphere," he says in an e-mail, but "any reference to game action" could cost them their credentials.

Christianson says those online "rights" were packaged into media deals with CBS and ESPN — which aired the game. Monday, ESPN spokesman Dave Nagle said "our rights are the live TV rights. We didn't ask them (to take the reporter's credential.) And they didn't ask us."

Hiestand for his part offered a look at how other sports entities handle live blogging from their events:

•NFL: According to spokesman Greg Aiello, blog items can be time-delayed, for example, recaps after a quarter ends.

"The policy is for reporting that would undercut our rightsholders.

"As far as I know, we've never escorted anyone out of a press box for it."

•Major League Baseball: Spokesman Pat Courtney said MLB has "specific rules for rights holders and non-rights holders. Non-rights holders may give updates and reports periodically, but no real time play-by-play, no pitch-by-pitch. The same rules, which are publicized at the events, apply to bloggers."

•NBA: Reporters are free to blog pretty much what they wish, including play by play, according to spokesman Mike Bass.

•U.S. Golf Association: Media relations spokesman Craig Smith says reporters at this week's U.S. Open are welcome to blog from the media center but no computers or handheld devices can be brought on the course. A reporter could, if he wished, blog Tiger Woods' hole-by-hole, as long as he wrote from the press room.

•University of Tennessee: Associate athletics director Bud Ford says the school's Internet policy will be printed on the back of media credentials this season. It basically prohibits any "account, description or excerpts" and "any form of photography."

"We own rights to play-by-play and its distribution," says Ford. "We've sold those rights to TV and to radio. And we are putting them on our website."

Tennessee will allow end-of-quarter updates much as it would allow a (non-rights-holding) radio station to do.

NCAA statement on its Internet policy: "The NCAA reserves the right to deny any entity from producing live statistics for NCAA championship play. In the event the NCAA takes on the responsibility of producing a live statistical representation from an NCAA championship event, no other entity will be permitted to do so. Live statistics are considered a protected right …

"For clarification purposes, a live statistical representation includes play-by-play, score updates, shot charts, updated box scores, photos with captions, etc."

"The law is clear that there is no First Amendment right of access to sporting events, and leagues have the right to impose these kinds of restrictions as conditions of access to the press box," said New York lawyer Jeffrey Mishkin, who successfully defended the PGA Tour's right to restrict media outlets from posting real-time golf scores in a Courier-Journal report.

In Canada live blogging at a sporting event isn’t the issue; its comments made by Ottawa based sports blogger Neate Sager who late last week learned Frank D'Angelo, the president of Hamilton-based Steelback Brewery, had filed a $2 million lawsuit against Sager. According to a Canadian Press report D'Angelo alleges that between August 2006 and January of this year Sager had referred to D’Angelo as a "huckster" and a "two-bit shyster" — are derogatory in that they paint a picture of him as a "peddler," a "con man" and an "irritant."

The claim also says Mr. Sager called Mr. D'Angelo a "professional nuisance" and described his interest in acquiring the National Hockey League's Pittsburgh Penguins franchise as a "charade."

D’Angelo first came to the attention of sports fans in the Ottawa area when he expressed interest in bringing a Canadian Football League team back to Canada’s capital. D’Angelo was one of three groups who expressed interest in the opportunity. All three groups have either withdrawn their bids or where told by the CFL their bid wouldn’t be considered.

A bid by Golden Gate Capital Corporation ended when a key member of the group became ill. According to various media reports the CFL informed D'Angelo the CFL was focusing on a bid being made by Bill Palmer (the father of former New York Giants quarterback Jesse Palmer). Since Palmer’s group ended their bid last month the CFL hasn’t made any moves towards Frank D’Angelo. D’Angelo had also expressed an “interest” in buying the Pittsburgh Penguins after Jim Balsillie withdrew his letter of intent to buy the Penguins. D’Angelo’s bid for the Penguins has never gotten off the ground.

"I am shocked this happened," said Mr. Sager, who several weeks ago revised some of the more contentious remarks on his blog, "Out of Left Field," at neatesager.blogspot.com.

"I'm still 100 per cent confident that reasonable people can find a reasonable solution to this and I just hope Mr. D'Angelo can sort of see that it's really kind of silly that it has come to this point."

The statement of claim argues the comments "severely damaged (Mr. D'Angelo's) credit, character and reputation" and that he was "brought into public scandal and contempt" as a result.

"The fact is that the conduct of the defendant in failing to remove the offending entries from his website, his failure to issue an apology and his public mockery of the notice letter has aggravated the damages suffered," the claim says.

"The defendant did not provide a balanced view and provided no opportunity to the plaintiff to respond to the aspersions made against him."

Regardless of whether or not the NCAA is right or wrong it’s clear the organization did make it clear to anyone covering the event in Louisville live blogging wasn’t going to be allowed. The same memo was distributed before each day(s) game(s) began. Bennett chose to ignore the rules and was caught. There is no excuse whatsoever if indeed a veiled threat was made regarding the U of Louisville’s ability to host future events.

As for Nate Sager and Frank D'Angelo, D'Angelo’s track record speaks for itself. Along with his efforts to purchase the Pittsburgh Penguins and return professional football to Ottawa, D'Angelo’s company has produced a series of ‘interesting’ commercials that focus on disgraced sprinter Ben Johnson. After winning the gold medal in the men’s 100 meter sprint at the 1988 Seoul Olympics Johnson tested positive for steroids. One product D’Angelo’s company has created -- Cheetah Power Surge. Johnson is the focus of a Canadian mass media marketing campaign has his reputation as a cheater reinforced by linking Johnson to the Cheetah brand. D'Angelo’s company recently did become the title sponsor for Toronto’s CART series race in July. If there is any good to come from D'Angelo’s decision to sue Sager – thanks to the coverage regarding the lawsuit the awareness surrounding Sager’s blog has increased dramatically in the last few days.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: The Louisville Courier Journal and the USA Today

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