“Media who attend a USC practice are asked not to report on strategy or injuries that are observed during the course of watching that practice or result from that practice. … USC allows media access into all of its practices, and those practices are closed to the general public, and therefore USC asks that the media not disclose information that is observed or learned that could put USC at a competitive disadvantage to opponents.”
— Official media policy on football practices, University of Southern California, as of 8/26/2012
“As a condition of entry to UW football practices, all visitors and members of the media are hereforth prohibited from reporting on strategy or injury-related news observed during practices.”
— Official media policy on football practices, University of Washington, as of 9/12/2012
Prohibiting a reporter from writing what they see is always problematic, and requires a high degree of scrutiny — journalism is constitutionally protected, after all, and universities are tax-protected nonprofit institutions that often receive hundreds of millions of dollars in public funding.
In the last month, two different universities, the University of Washington (public) and the University of Southern California (private), announced that reporters were prohibited from reporting on injuries that they witnessed during football practice. First, on September 11, USC’s Lane Kiffin revoked the media credential of a reporter who reported on an injury he witnessed, and then UW’s Steve Sarkisian issued the new media policy a day later, which I quoted above. Kiffin reinstated the reporter soon thereafter, but the policy stands.
Universities keep their media credentialing policies relatively strict. The usual reason given is that they’re trying to protect their “student-athletes”; another reason is that sports are big business and so controlling access to information is good policy. Now, because I put scare quotes around the phrase “student-athletes,” I should probably come clean at this point. I am persuaded by Taylor Branch’s argument a year ago:
[T]wo of the noble principles on which the NCAA justifies its existence—“amateurism” and the “student-athlete”—are cynical hoaxes, legalistic confections propagated by the universities so they can exploit the skills and fame of young athletes.
As you might imagine, these schools don’t make nearly as much of a fuss about baseball practice, because baseball practice isn’t where the eyeballs are. Carter Henderson, an assistant athletic director at the University of Washington, told me by email that the school’s policy regarding reporters was online, “With exception of our recently added Football policy amendment.” Interestingly, you can’t find that football policy amendment on UW’s website; I found it in the Seattle Times. The only thing that is notably prohibited in the UW policy as posted online is “real-time description” of a sports event. (I reached out to USC’s athletics department for comment, but they did not respond.)
A week ago, Larry Scott, the commissioner of the Pac-12, said that he would discuss a uniform media policy with universities conference regarding injury reporting. The recent changes in media policy appear to have their origins in decisions by several schools to stop acknowledging or reporting injuries. Many of the schools who did so cited privacy or health concerns as the reason, like Washington State coach Mike Leach and Stanford coach David Shaw. Shaw said, “These are amateur athletes, and their health is not anybody else’s concern.”
Frankly, I don’t buy it. I think that athletes’ health is very much other people’s concern: it’s the concern of their family and friends, among others. (I might be concerned if my child were being coached by Mike Leach, for example. I’m not saying that he’s guilty, just that I would want to know what was going on.) University football programs are not well known for protecting the young men in their care — and I’m talking about concussions, not Penn State. Division I athletes on athletic scholarships have an incredibly strong incentive to stay on the team, because the majority of them will not be able to afford their degree if they get cut and lose their scholarship.
Much akin to the situation in the NFL, where non-guaranteed contracts incentivize players to play through pain and injury for fear of getting cut and losing their salary, there are few economic incentives for college athletes to fully heal from inevitable football injuries. Injury reporting forces schools to acknowledge that hurt players are hurt, rather than simply continue to play them on Saturday.
I have written before on the tough squeeze that sports reporters often face. Scoops are often based on anonymous sourcing — unless you’re lucky enough to cover Ozzie Guillen — when one side has a bone to pick with the other side. The leagues are basically monopolies, whether it’s the MLB or NCAA, with complete prerogative to control the flow of information. Fans are eager to learn more about their favorite teams, and those teams are equally eager to control the message that fans receive.
The only way for fans — or families — to hear anything other than team-produced propaganda is for reporters to ferret it out. I’m troubled by the poor state of football player health, even more than the legal issue of a public land-grant university having a policy that states that a reporter covering a taxpayer-funded organization may not write what she sees.
I’m not a complete truth hawk. I believe that there is such a thing as justifiably protected information, I believe that state secrets should be kept, and I believe that classification can have a purpose. However, I also believe that classification is often abused by those in power, and injured college football players are not nuclear weapons, they are not spies, and they are not state secrets. I do not believe that they should be classified or censored.
I believe that football players have a right to privacy. But I believe that the fact of their injury is not primarily a matter of privacy, but rather one of strategy, and a relatively unimportant one at that. Its strategic importance would utterly vanish if all schools were required to report injuries. Like all people in a position of power, football coaches want to hold onto secrets, even when they aren’t secret any more. Reporters are professionally obliged not to let them.