One of the growing trends in sports is a desire for leagues, teams and institutions to control the message, often by restricting access, and this may be particularly true at the collegiate level. In the NCAA, we’ve seen schools from Michigan to Louisville ban student newspapers and schools from South Carolina to Florida International (this week!) try to stop specific media members from writing about them. The trend’s now made it to Canada, with Queen’s University’s athletics department attempting to clamp down on the editorially-independent student newspaper, The Queen’s Journal. (Disclosure: I went to Queen’s and worked at The Journal.) From The Globe and Mail:
Editors of the Journal, which is autonomous from the university, were told by the athletics department last month they were being approved for only one pass for a reporter to sporting events for the 2014-15 school year, and none for photographers. The paper had requested and received eight media passes – four for reporters, four for photographers – in the two years prior.
Nick Faris, the paper’s editor-in-chief, said he was told in a meeting with the athletics department that the key reason for the denied passes was a story he wrote in March that detailed how the university redid a vote for “team of the year,” with a new voting panel, resulting in the women’s rugby team winning instead of men’s rugby.
“They have a misconception or misunderstanding or ignorance of the Journal’s mandate and what we’re here to do,” Mr. Faris said.
Shortly after the story was published, Jeff Downie, the associate director of athletics at Queen’s, expressed the department’s “profound disappointment” in the paper’s story in a letter to Mr. Faris, saying the decision “to sensationalize an administrative procedural error over consideration of the impact of doing so on the individuals involved, does not reflect well on the spirit and mutual respect of a positive working relationship” and that the department would be “re-evaluating [their] relationship, and the privileged access [they] provide the Journal moving forward.”
Restricting the paper to one reporting pass across all sports and only photos taken from the bleachers would have caused significant problems for them, but the university didn’t realize the minefield of criticism this would set off. A flood of Queen’s alums in prominent journalistic positions spoke out against the ban on Twitter Thursday. The criticism soon spread to other prominent Canadian journalists and even a few American ones, and that eventually led to the athletics department tweeting that they would recant:
— Anna Mehler Paperny (@amp6) September 4, 2014
The Queen’s athletic department decision hurts the reputation of the university, and, most of all, its student-athletes. Nice work, y’all.
— Arash Madani (@ArashMadani) September 4, 2014
— Eric Koreen (@ekoreen) September 4, 2014
— Scott Radley (@radleyatthespec) September 4, 2014
— Chris Cuthbert (@CCtsn) September 4, 2014
@AndrewBucholtz All I know about this story, Andrew, is that the associate athletic director at Queen’s is too stupid to work at Queen’s
— Matthew Sekeres (@mattsekeres) September 4, 2014
— J.R. Lind (@jrlind) September 4, 2014
— APSE (@APSE_sportmedia) September 5, 2014
— Chris Cuthbert (@CCtsn) September 5, 2014
The Queen’s situation illustrates a couple of things. On one hand, it demonstrates how the focus with many sports teams (and perhaps college ones in particular) has gone from getting press coverage to getting “good” press. Reducing the amount of coverage the Journal could provide would have hurt the paper, but it also would have meant that there were significantly less stories about the school’s athletic program (and most of those stories would be game reports, not critical pieces) getting out to students, alumni and more.
It used to be unusual to see an environment where that’s considered an acceptable tradeoff, but that’s becoming more and more prevalent across sports, especially with teams and leagues creating their own websites and viewing those as a way to put the news out in a way that favours them. Attempting to punish a paper for an accurate story that happened to paint the school in a bad light (exactly what happened at Michigan and FIU) also appears to feed a belief that schools can control their coverage, whether or not they actually can. That’s depressing news for journalists.
The Queen’s athletic department’s reversal in the wake of public pressure, like the FIU athletic department’s reversal earlier this week, illustrates the effect public criticism can have, though, and the importance of journalists working together to overcome attempted barriers to access. If all that came out of the Queen’s ban was a critical editorial from the Journal and perhaps further critical articles in that paper, that probably would have been acceptable for the athletic department.
Instead, they (and the school) found themselves becoming a target for national and international criticism, and that probably created enough of a black eye to make them reverse their decision. The FIU case was similar; criticism in the Miami Herald is one thing, but national criticism is much tougher to stomach. That’s especially true considering that one of the appeals of having a college athletics program is to gain good publicity for your institution, not bad.
Not every barrier to access can be overcome this easily, of course. There are undoubtedly teams and schools that will dig themselves in and weather the tide of criticism. Journalists also should be careful when jumping on a criticism train; while cases like what happened at Queen’s and FIU appear to spring from legitimate instances of schools restricting or eliminating access in response to critical pieces, a newspaper saying “They told us the good press box seats are full! Censorship!” wouldn’t be as worth complaining about. However, when those who care about journalism and access can get mobilized together for the right cause, they can be a powerful force, and one not to be trifled with. Queen’s and FIU both found that out this week.