Praising Critics

The OBR webmaster argues that even sports teams benefit from freedom of speech, even if they try as hard as they can to avoid it...

Independence Day.

Those of us living in the United States have had over 230 years of freedom to say largely whatever we want, in whatever forum we want, without concern about jack-booted thugs kicking down your front door.

Unless, of course, you like jack-booted thugs. In which case you're probably surfing Craigslist rather than the OBR

As cynical as many of us can be about politics, you don't need some dork with a website to tell you that Freedom of Speech has been central to the success of our country. The free exchange of ideas and debate of what's right for the country has helped this nation make better decisions and survive.

Professional sports, of course, are trivial subjects next to those which inspired the Bill of Rights.

But that doesn't mean they're unimportant.

Sports teams and competition are a thread which runs through American life, providing (positive or negative) role models for our youth, generating billions of dollars for the economy, and often providing a critical source of civic pride. Even if your football team hasn't won it all in forty-three years.

I believe that sport teams, leagues, players, and fans they are immeasurably better off when people can say what they feel, offer their opinions, and create a cycle of feedback.

Much like I would be (more) idiotic as OBR publisher if I didn't listen to criticism, objective and sometimes-critical journalism can help keep powerful sports leagues and unions accountable, saving them, sometimes, from themselves.

It's with this in mind that I want to share some random thoughts about how well fans are being served by the entities they turn to read and hear about their favorite teams. Tragically, this is going to be intermixed with the opinions of the author along the way. You can ignore the latter if you want.

Bloggers for Sale or Rent

While sports journalists don't have to worry about a knock on the door at 3AM, or a sudden inexplicable desire to vacation in Siberia, a more realistic threat comes in the friendly form of a dollar bill.

The tech industry has been ahead of the sports industry in its focus on blogging and new media , and in some ways provides the pre-show "coming attractions" for the sports media.

The buzz in recent weeks has been concern in tech blogs about whether or not corporations like Microsoft are skewing coverage for cash. Denials and accusations have flowed on that one, but no one can deny that more overt services have popped up offering money for bloggers to write about products.

In professional sports, there are a lot of dollars, and there is a lot of temptation.

I think the problem is going to be worse with the sports bloggers and fansites than it is with the tech nerds. Much, much worse.

Sports blogs and fansites are ripe for the plucking since many of them eschew any semblance of objectivity in the first place. "Homerism" is almost a badge of pride. Sneering at criticism of teams is fairly common.

I think it's one thing to want and hope for a team you follow to win, for both yourself and community of fans, but yet another entirely to mindlessly parrot team's public relation stances or avoid asking pertinent questions about the product placed on the field.

Healthy skepticism is essential, not only to provide relevant and accurate content for readers, but it's ultimately healthier for sports leagues and teams to exist in an environment where feedback doesn't consist of hundreds of heads bobbing approval in unison. It's better for everyone in professional sports, much like it is in the political arena.

But the buy-off has already started, quietly, in the new sports media.

An NFL team actually purchased a fan site outright last year, branding it the team's "official" fan site. I'm aware of two other "fan" sites that are taking money from teams they cover, directly or indirectly. I know of others who would gladly take money if offered.

Sure, these sites will at times not even pretend to be objective with their content. Still, how can a someone run a "fan" site if they're beholden to the team financially? Once you're suckling off that teat, the fans take second place. Or third. If they even rate.

I have no desire to be a whistleblower, but eventually this will get out.

If they actually care about the fans and the subjects they cover, the "new media" needs to get real about church and state. Now.  Independence is worth having a few less dollars in your wallet.

The NFL Drops the Bomb on Online Media

Inexperience and the lure of quick money may be causing some fansites and blogs to stumble down a trail of dollars towards irrelevancy.

At the same time, the NFL is trying to slap down newspaper dot.coms and independent sites like the OBR who are big enough to create competition with their offerings.

Namely, such sites have been essentially banned from hosting audio and video taken at team facilities.

The National Football League changed rules this off-season in a way which basically nukes practice and post-game audio and video. Because of the restrictions, the OBR has not been able to add significantly to our multimedia archives since May.

Here are the restrictions. No, this is not a joke.

1. Only 45 seconds of audio and video, together, total, are allowed per day on independent web sites.

2. That massive 45 seconds of content must be ripped down off of sites in 24 hours or less.

3. Sites must put links on the audio and video mini-sodes which link official sites and

The OBR can't even technically comply with the second and third mandates. The Scout network wasn't exactly planning for such bizarrely restrictive policies. So, no audio or video from us anymore.

In this case, the NFL isn't trying to stamp out critical viewpoints or stifle dissent. I believe that the problem is that they've made "exclusive" deals with advertisers for things like press conference video, only to find that independent sites slam up the audio and video faster than some of the league's official sites. At that point it's hardly exclusive.

So, instead of competing, they want to shut the independents down.

I'm not pointing my fingers at Berea for this policy. I'm not sure the Browns organization likes it much more than we do. It's a mandate coming from NFL central HQ. Teams like Washington and Miami are reportedly the most aggressive about enforcement.

Fans may rightfully ask "Who cares?".

After all, if official sites put up the media content, they can still get at it. It doesn't matter where they get it, right?

That's the rub, though. Official sites don't put up all the audio and video from camp or press conferences. Some audio and video which doesn't fit the image the team is trying to protect simply doesn't get seen.

An example from Cleveland is Trent Dilfer's post-game remarks after being lifted for Charlie Frye.

Again, I wouldn't be upset at Berea about that. Teams shouldn't have to put things on their websites which don't present them in a positive light. If I ran the team's official site, I don't think I'd be any more enthused about putting up that video than I would be to put up a video of me running off to Steak and Shake for a burger when I'm supposed to be on a diet*.

But it's a problem. Under the new regulations, there is some newsworthy audio and video which simply won't been seen online anymore.

Sorry, fans. Like it or lump it. At least the big-money* corporate sponsors will be happy.

Some folks are fighting back, however. The American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Associated Press Sports Editors realize that the policy will hurt their attempts to move the decaying print newspaper businesses online, and are trying to get changes made.

Here are some links if you care about such things:

Leagues Want Your Bookmark - Orlando Sentinel
NFL's Totalitarian Policies About Online Video Coverage -
APSE, ASNE Lobby NFL - On squared

You want to know where this is going, sooner or later?

You sure? Click here.

Speech is only free if you're willing to fight for it.

Even when it's just football.



* Note to my wife: This is purely a hypothetical example. Really. Burp.

* Disclosure: The OBR has a contractual relationship with the Scout Network, which is part of Fox Interactive, which is part of News Corp, which owns Fox Television, which broadcasts NFL games where they don't advertise our website or let us throw things at Terry Bradshaw's empty bald head. Apply grains of salt if you wanna.



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