Anti-Vest? Then Boycott NFL Games!

By: Joe Strupp

As the NFL season approaches, photographers who cover the games from the sidelines appear more angered about the latest restriction requiring them to wear advertiser-connected vests than about anything in the recent past.

League officials, as part of a string of new rules imposed this year regarding outside media coverage, are making sideline still photographers wear red vests in an effort to distinguish them from others who are not permitted to be there. Simple enough, right?

Well, it probably would be if it were not for the two small logos placed on the vests promoting Reebok and Canon cameras. NFL officials contend the Reebok logo is there because the shoe company paid for the vests, while the Canon logo, in front, is there as part of a ?partnership with the NFL.? Partnership is always marketing code for advertisement.

To many photogs, and their editors, that partnership is one in which they?d rather not be a partner. They contend the logos amount to advertising, which amounts to conflict of interest. Editors from Philadelphia to Seattle have registered their opposition, while organizations from the American Society of Newspaper Editors to the National Press Photographers Association have told the NFL in no uncertain terms that this is not something that they are accepting lightly.

This past weekend it got worse, with dozens of papers weighing in against the new rules in editorials and columns. Among them was Sacramento Bee Editor Rick Rodriguez, who in a column on Saturday addressed the issue, saying ?There always has been an invisible wall between newsrooms and the folks who sell advertising or do marketing. While newsrooms understand that advertising pays the bills, the departments are run independently to ensure that paid advertising doesn’t influence the way news is covered. Maintaining that separation is key to journalists’ credibility.?

The Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., joined in on Sunday with an editorial that stated, “We strongly urge the league to rescind this ill-conceived policy, before the start of the season. Photojournalists aren’t on the NFL payroll, and they shouldn’t be forced to promote the league’s sponsors.”

Fine ethical stances all. However, will any of the opposition really mean anything unless these same journalists take the true stance of an on-field protest? If they are against wearing these vests, then don?t wear them. Better yet, don?t show up at all.

Since this controversy began within the past two weeks, some murmurs have arisen about taping over the small logos during games, but no organized plan has arisen. And only a few newspapers — the Chicago Tribune, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, and the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press — have publicly threatened to decline coverage if the vests and their ads are still required to be worn.

In a recent editorial, the Tribune stated it ?won’t allow its photographers to cover games in vests with logos,? adding ?If the rule doesn’t change, the paper will cover the NFL without visuals.?

That would be a strong rebuke, given that the paper covers the defending NFC champion Chicago Bears and faces strong competition from its crosstown rival, the Chicago Sun-Times — not to mention numerous broadcast and online rivals.

On Friday, the Star Tribune reported that its managing editor, Scott Gillespie, and Pioneer Press Editor Thomas Fladung co-wrote a letter to the NFL essentially saying they would not follow the rule and might gladly stay home from games if given the choice. The letter stated, in part, “we have no intention of having our journalists wear sponsor logos while doing their jobs.”

But for this opposition to truly gain traction, it needs more than just the brave souls at the Tribune and Twin Cities papers. If those slamming the logo-laden vests want to make their point, then join in with a true boycott. Put your money where your telephoto lenses are and refuse to show up.

As one editor in a major NFL market told me last week, the NFL may not care if some newspaper shooters decline to show up. As this editor put it, ?we may need them more than they need us.? With four networks broadcasting games, as well as their own, hundreds of local TV stations and ESPN offering video highlights and untold Web sites posting images, some newspaper shots left out may not mean much.

On the other hand, the NFL is not in the best public relations position these days and may not want more bad publicity. Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, indicted on charges related to alleged involvement in illegal dog-fighting, is already drawing negative press to the league. This is also the league?s annual pre-season PR blitz, when training camps open, exhibition games start, and the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies loom next week.

If newspapers can use their power at promotion to bring this vest issue to light on editorial pages, in columns, and with the physical act of avoiding the very games the NFL needs to promote, they can have some impact. In 1999, those running the Indianapolis 500 saw the value of a boycott when the decision to deny credentials to a Sports Illustrated writer who had criticized the race drew boycott threats from others, and prompted a change in the decision.

This may not be as strong of an anti-press action. After all, making photographers wear vests with logos is not the same as denying a writer the ability to cover an event based on his opinion. Still, for those taking the photos, and editing them, the principle appears to be as important. Editors know that in recent years their credibility as independent journalists needs to be untouched. That is why so many media outlets have gone to great lengths in recent times to curb conflicts involving business, bias, and even the smallest hint of plagiarism.

One editor told me that at the recent Associated Press gatherings last week, the vest issue was the biggest, most anger-inciting topic.

NFL officials have said the new policy is nothing new, noting that such logo-covered vests have been used at Super Bowls, Kentucky Derbys, and college bowl games. But editors and their photographers say this is different, as it concerns the regular games of a league and extends these advertising elements beyond just special events.

OK, if that is the case, then make it count. If you truly want to make your voices heard, and your cameras relevant, refuse to be involved in coverage until the requirement is removed. Will this set newspapers up for a possible backlash, with fans crying foul? Or worse, find out the NFL doesn’t care if they are uninvolved, thus making them even less relevant than they are now? Perhaps. That may be the chance they have to take in the name of journalistic ethics — and according to them, credibility and responsibility.

So if those crying foul over these vests want to make their case real, then make it count and stay home. Or at least off the field.

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