During the feast of violence that ends The Godfather, Tom Hagen, the family consiglière for Don Michael Corleone, delivers traitorous capo Sal Tessio to an execution squad. Before his death, Tessio looks to Hagen and says, "Tell Mike it was just business. I always liked him."
The skirmish between the sports media and the University of Oregon last week brings this scene to mind. Not because anyone's getting whacked, but because the university cops a distinctly Tessio-esque alibi in the affair.
The fracas started last week when UO proposed limits on the time television stations may devote to highlights of 2001-2002 Ducks games. Under these would-be rules, stations could air 20 seconds of highlights per game up to 48 hours after game time, a total of 30 seconds during the week after the game, and zilch after that.
The university also suggested limits on video interviews with coaches and players, as well as some control over who quizzes whom. If adopted, the guidelines would apply to all sports, but it's a safe bet they would hit hardest during gridiron season.
The nation's journalistic guilds responded to the Eugene proposal with roughly the same empathy Don Corleone showed Tessio.
"The university resides in the United States, not in Iran or Iraq," says Ray Marcano, assistant managing editor at Ohio's Dayton Daily News and president of the Society of Professional Journalists. "In America, at least, you can't tell the media how to do its job."
Meanwhile, the university, downplays the unpleasantness as una cosa di biz-a-neez.
Here's a plot summary: Earlier this year, Eugene television station KVAL lost its bid for Ducks broadcast rights, which went to rival KEZI. KVAL plans its own weekly PAC-10 roundup to compete with the university's official "coach's show" on KEZI. When they heard about this, KEZI and ESPN, the Ducks' national broadcast partner, got their respective noses out of joint. The university responded with its infamous proposal, aimed at putting a leash on KVAL's competitive ambitions.
Nothing personal, understand. Just business.
"The last thing we want to do is limit access in a year that has the potential to be our best ever," said UO Athletics Director Bill Moos in a telephone conference with about a half-dozen reporters last Thursday. "At the same time, we seem to have sort of a sour-grapes situation with a failed bidder."
The Moos conference was interesting, though not because of anything Moos said. Like all good ADs, he chose his story--nothing written in stone here, just a proposal--and stuck to it.
More interesting were some questions touched on several times by reporters but never really answered. Is a sporting event a piece of news, to which the public (through its supposed surrogate, the media) has a First Amendment right to access? Or are sports and games purely entertainment products, to which their creators enjoy proprietary rights?
UO and the rest of the athletic-industrial complex might ultimately prefer that such questions go unasked.
Despite the hostility that often prevails between reporters and athletes or their teams, the two groups really have a hell of a deal going: We get copy that provokes the public, and the sports institutions bask in a degree of attention not lavished on any other ticketed entertainment product.
Pick up a newspaper and try to find out exactly what your favorite local stage actor did yesterday--or, hell, your congressman. Good luck. Try to imagine a box score for musicians:
JAGGER (s) : missed start 2nd chrs "Jumpin' Jack Flash"; RICHARDS (g) : DNP (high on junk). Yet your favorite baseball player's every move is scrupulously chronicled in agate type every day, likewise every personnel decision made by his employer.
And that's fine with me. The problem comes when sports organizations want to have it both ways. The Ducks' proposed rules (which may well never take effect) are just the latest example of a team's efforts to orchestrate coverage.
Is it too much to imagine that someday the media (and its supposed surrogate, the public) might get wise? That they might tune out the faux-newsy white noise surrounding sports, trimming the spotlight to focus on the field and nothing else? After all, who wants to do business with a partner who's just unreasonable?
"We want to enjoy a good, wholesome relationship with the media," Moos said in his press conference.
Good. If the AD really feels that way about the often adversarial dealings between sports and media, he should remember another particularly useful Corleone maxim: Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.
UO also absorbed brickbats last week from the Radio-Television News Directors Association and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Moos says the university hopes to have a media policy in place before the start of football and volleyball camps later this month.
For more commentary on the proposed Oregon media guidelines, see www.poynter.org/offthenews/072701.htm .