Should the National Collegiate Athletic Association be able to demand that someone leave an athletic event at a public university for blogging during a game?
The NCAA thinks it can -- and that it can use universities as its enforcers. On Friday, the association did just that when the University of Louisville, acting on NCAA orders, evicted a credentialed reporter for The Louisville Courier-Journal from a baseball playoff game for doing his job. According to the NCAA, it would be fine for the reporter to write online about the atmosphere of a game, the mood of the fans, even the quality of the hot dogs in the stands. But mention that someone just hit a home run -- information the NCAA wants to preserve for those that pay to broadcast games -- and the reporter is outta there.
The newspaper and its lawyer are furious. The Louisville blogger may not be up there with John Peter Zenger. But the paper says the ejection raises questions of whether the NCAA and universities are violating First Amendment rights and whether the association is trying to rewrite the law to maximize its television profits.
"Once someone hits a home run, that is a public fact and you can't copyright a public fact," said Jon L. Fleischaker, the newspaper's lawyer. By saying that the newspaper could blog during a game that the fans are going wild, but not why they are going wild, the NCAA and the university are "in the situation of making a decision about content" that a newspaper may or may not print, and that "raises First Amendment issues," he said.
The newspaper is "looking at all of our options" right now, he said, declining to elaborate on whether it would go to court.
Asked if public universities should be in the business of stopping newspapers from reporting events and disseminating information, Fleischaker said that "universities are becoming more and more like purely private economic institutions, especially when it comes to sports." While Louisville enforced the NCAA's orders, he said, the problem here is the association, not the university. "It's the NCAA. It's an effort to try to get as much money as the NCAA can."
That's because the NCAA promises exclusive broadcast rights to networks for various events. The baseball playoff in question was on ESPN. Fleischaker noted, however, the the newspaper wasn't trying to do play by play, just to provide updates including such relevant information as the score and key events like home runs. Further, he noted that the NCAA is trying to set a standard that would have it policing all kinds of citizens exercising their rights. He asked if the NCAA would try to block someone watching a game on television from blogging about it (and perhaps mentioning the score), or whether the NCAA would try to block a fan from sending a message during a game. "What about the fan with the Blackberry?" he asked.
The University of Louisville indicated that the NCAA had informed it that it needed to enforce the rule against blogging that included information on what was happening during the game. While university officials declined to answer specific questions about why a public university would evict a reporter from an event on campus for reporting on that event, Louisville issued a statement saying: "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."
An NCAA spokesman said the following via e-mail: "Reporters covering our championships may blog about the atmosphere, crowd and other details during a game but may not mention anything about game action. Any reference to game action in a blog or other type of coverage could result in revocation of credentials. This pertains to all NCAA championships. Live coverage is considered a protected right that has been granted to CBS as part of a bundled rights agreement. As part of that agreement, ESPN has shared exclusivity on Internet rights for the 22 championships it broadcasts."
The NCAA press office did not return numerous phone calls and e-mail seeking elaboration on the statement, or responses to the questions raised by the newspaper whose reporter was booted.
The material that resulted in the ejection of Brian Bennett, the reporter, is online at the Louisville paper's Web site, along with his description of what happened.
"It will be interesting to see if the NCAA can enforce such a policy," Bennett writes. "What strikes me as really strange is that someone watching ESPN across the street could have blogged every single pitch without a problem. Also, I seriously doubt anyone was reading my blog instead of watching ESPN. I believe my blog served those readers who for some reason or another couldn't be at the game or get access to a TV (I know this because quite a few emailed me to say just that, and to thank me for my efforts). We got more than 10,000 hits on my blog from the Columbia Regional final last Monday. And college baseball, especially in this area, could use all the publicity it can get."
Bennett, whose game reports leave no doubt about his enthusiasm for the game, adds: "I hate that this in some small way detracted from what was an otherwise truly remarkable day for U of L baseball."
His title for his blog post: "Ejected and Dejected."