USA Wrestling’s decision earlier this week to mandate journalists go through background checks and online training aimed at preventing sexual abuse saw plenty of pushback from the media, with large media organizations like the Associated Press Sports Editors in particular taking a stand against these restrictions being imposed on journalists.
In a statement to The Washington Post, APSE president Jeff Rosen called those new requirements “problematic on multiple levels,” and said “The lack of specificity on background checks, including the extent and areas of the checks, and the disposal of information and indemnification of the media is both alarming and dangerous.” That’s understandable opposition, as there are plenty of reasons for journalists to be concerned about who gets information on them and what information they get.
APSE has recommended its members refrain from covering USA Wrestling events under this policy, while USA Wrestling has responded with a spokesman saying “we feel a boycott of USA Wrestling by a media organization at this time is a bit harsh, especially before we have had any dialogue on this” (well, if you’d had some dialogue first instead of unilaterally trying to impose a policy, you might not have received an urged boycott), but also “we stand resolute in pursuing this and will continue to advocate for others to adopt such a policy.”
That advocacy is particularly worrying to many outside the wrestling world; USA Wrestling wants these organization-conducted background checks and mandatory training to become standards for other sports federations, so it’s not just journalists who cover USA Wrestling events that may be impacted by this.
However, some wrestling media members not only aren’t objecting, they’re speaking in favor of the move. In particular, an organization that represents both wrestling media members and those on the wrestling communications side is taking the side of the governing body rather than the larger journalistic body that has issues with this.
The National Wrestling Media Association describes itself as “the national professional organizations for journalists who cover the sport of amateur wrestling. This includes reporters, editors, publishers, webmasters, photographers, broadcasters, sports information directors and other media professionals who share an interest and involvement in the sport,” and says it “represents the interests of journalists within the sport of wrestling.” As per a breakdown from NWMA president Jason Bryant, they have 64 current members, including 17 photographers, 13 website editors, 10 SIDs, seven broadcasters and six newspaper beat writers. And they based their bylaws and constitution (with permission) on the College Sports Information Directors of America.
Bryant, who’s in his seventh year as NWMA president and currently runs MatTalkOnline, used to work for USA Wrestling from 2009-2012. Bryant was previously the director of media relations for the National Wrestling Coaches Association, and was a sportswriter and copy editor for the Newport News Daily Press in Virginia before that. Bryant spoke to Awful Announcing this week, and said he thinks this is a step in the right direction.
“There’s a group of us wrestling people who actually kind of are endorsing it,” Bryant said. “Wrestling, we don’t get the mainstream attention. [The national championships in] Vegas, nobody’s covering that. The Vegas paper covers it, but most people who cover it are wrestling people to start with.”
Bryant said the amounts of non-traditional media involved in wrestling coverage means many haven’t gone through background checks.
“Most of those outlets, they don’t have the hiring process. I went through a background check when I worked at a newspaper, that’s standard operating procedure, but who’s to say…I run an independent company now, so I break off on my own, I’m media, who’s vetting me as an independent media professional, or am I just a guy who shows up with a camera wanting to take pictures of teenagers in singlets? From that respect, we’re dealing with a lot of media that call themselves media that don’t have the oversight of an editor, a chain of command. It’s just some people and their computers.”
He feels those checks can provide peace of mind to parents.
“If it’s another piece of mind thing with you know, who’s talking to your 17-year-old daughter after she wins the match. It’s less about the Washington Post or the L.A. Times getting credentials, it’s more about saying ‘Okay, let’s make sure that everyone that’s here has a legit reason to be here.’ We’ve got a lot of volunteer photographers. It’s a niche sport, so it has niche media. “
Bryant said the check and training wasn’t a problem for him to go through, so he doesn’t get why people are pushing back against it.
“If this is another step for our parents and for our coaches, you know, ‘Who’s talking to our kids, who’s around our kids?’ There’s no problem with it. It took an hour out of my day, it’s a free background check. I don’t see where the pushback is.”
He also said that background checks and mandatory training won’t be an issue for those who currently cover the sport.
“This shouldn’t disrupt anyone who normally covers wrestling from covering wrestling.”
Bryant is not the only NWMA figure to support this move. Vice-President Richard Immel, who worked in USA Wrestling’s communications department from 2013 until recently (including as communications manager beginning in September 2016) has been discussing this policy on Twitter, and has been very critical of the blowback this has received from media:
How does this make the environment safer? If we’re interested in protecting athletes from threats that don’t exist but might maybe some day, shouldn’t everyone who attends an event – parents, siblings, fans – have to pass a background check?
— Cholley Vandine (@CholleyVandine) April 18, 2018
1) reduces the chances of a predator being present
2) raises the education level of people in attendance about abuse
3) people are now cognizant of the possibility of abuse, not oblivious
4) anyone with access to an athlete is a potential threat, including media
Be proactive! https://t.co/lozPFZBxqC
— Richard Immel (@Richard_Immel) April 18, 2018
In Senate hearing, athletes criticize USOC, sports federations in failing to prevent, stop sexual abuse https://t.co/Ou0VkKJrDb
— Rachel Axon (@RachelAxon) April 18, 2018
Seems relevant to major wrestling discussion right now…
But, I sincerely apologize to the journalists who have to spend a couple extra minutes learning about sexual abuse before being handed a credential to a wrestling event. https://t.co/rgnrEU6bMq
— Richard Immel (@Richard_Immel) April 18, 2018
Some might argue that a standard credentialing process would alleviate some of those concerns without the need for a background check or mandatory training, but Bryant said that’s not the case with wrestling.
“You come into a sport, you go to a youth tournament in California, a national tournament in Fargo, you’ve got one person in the office that handles the media credentials at USA Wrestling, they can’t possibly know everyone who comes through.”
He said he thinks this could be a good move to prevent potential predators from gaining media access to wrestling tournaments.
“I think that if it disqualifies one person from attending a kids’ tournament that really shouldn’t be at a kids’ tournament, I see that as a positive. …It’s not about the newspaper reporter. What if what happened in gymnastics happened in wrestling? Our sport would be dead. It’s a protective effort. Does your parent want to get your kid into wrestling? It’s already a sport that has kids in tight-fitting uniforms wrestling. There is a legitimate concern that could attract the wrong type of person for the wrong type of reasons. If it keeps one person from being affected by it, I think it’s worth it.”
Bryant said he doesn’t think the online training is a big deal.
“I worked at a newspaper for eight years, I’ve been covering wrestling for over 20. …It’s an hour. If an hour of your time is going to be preventing anybody from covering an event, how much work are they going to be putting into that anyway? I don’t see where the pushback really comes from.”
He said he thought it was actually useful.
“I went through the process. Yeah, there’s the bullying part of it, but part of it too is the harassment situation, with social media, as a parent, some of that stuff was informative to me that I wouldn’t have gotten if I didn’t go through it, not just from a sports coverage standpoint. There’s info in that SafeSport stuff that I think benefits every person if they’re involved in sports, as a parent, a coach or as an athlete. So I think just going ‘Oh, I have to go through training, I have to do a background check’ without knowing what’s actually in it? I found it beneficial, and not just because I used to work for the company, as a parent, as somebody who’s around wrestling, as somebody who talks to a lot of teenagers. There’s a cycle of kids that come through and parents don’t know who the hell I am. Why am I there? Why do I get to talk to this kid?”
Bryant said this isn’t about the biggest wrestling events, but the smaller ones, and he’s talked to other writers who cover those who did the training without objecting.
“Most of the events that get the majority of coverage are high school ages and below. The Olympic trials isn’t even a USA Wrestling owned and operated thing, that’s USOC, so this doesn’t govern the Olympic trials or the world championships, which is through United World Wrestling. We’re talking about basically the U.S. Open in Vegas and the World Team Trials, just two events on the calendar that would get anything beyond a local market. Usually people that are covering this from newspapers, like the Des Moines Register, Waterloo, Cedar Falls, the Iowa papers, the Oklahoma papers, a couple of their writers went through this and said it was no problem.”
He said this could potentially be modified so that journalists who already undergo background checks wouldn’t have to do another one, but he doesn’t see why people object to them.
“I can see that some people look at it and go ‘Well, newspapers,” but it’s not about the professionals. The bigger problem is that if we could get some uniform groups, “Okay, your background check is certified through your company, you’re good.’ If we could get that figured out, this wouldn’t be an issue, but who’s got a problem with a free background check? It takes five minutes to fill out.”
Many journalists elsewhere have raised privacy concerns about what information USA Wrestling is obtaining with these background checks and how that information will be handled, especially as this isn’t an employer-employee relationship and thus has less regulation. Bryant said he doesn’t think this is a problem for those who actually cover USA Wrestling events, though.
“I understand the slippery slope, but I don’t think this is a huge deal. It’s the most press we’ve seen out of wrestling…we just won the World Cup last weekend, and we didn’t get any coverage of that, yet we do something to protect the kids and that’s getting headlines everywhere. You say ‘Well, nobody’s going to cover your event,’ well, you don’t cover it to start with, so why are you bitching about it if you don’t cover it anyway?”
So, to sum this up; many journalists beyond wrestling are concerned about this policy, including how it was imposed unilaterally, how little information has been provided on what USA Wrestling is checking for and who they’re sharing that information with, and how USA Wrestling executive director Rich Bender has himself said he hopes this approach is followed by other sports.
That opposition includes the head of APSE, the national body of sports editors, and they’re urging members not to cover USA Wrestling events over this policy. But the leadership of a wrestling media and communications organization sides with this. That’s an interesting divide, and it suggests that if there is going to be continued opposition to this policy and to its potential expansion to other sports, it’s more likely to come from the broader sports media world than from the members or executives of the NWMA.