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The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

Sports Teams, Leagues Create Private Networks

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More and more sports teams and leagues see newspapers as a nuisance, not a conduit to fans. Teams, and even whole leagues like the NFL and the NBA, control their own TV stations and networks.


Another change in the NBA and other professional sports leagues has to do with how sports are covered. Commentator Frank Deford says it's becoming harder for sports supporters to do their jobs.

FRANK DEFORD: All newspapers are of course struggling these days as the power and popularity of the Internet grows. But the sports pages are also battered on their other flank because virtually everything that sports print reporters cover is paid for by television. More and more sports teams and leagues see newspapers as more of a nuisance than as a conduit to the fans.

Of course, being what's called a team beat reporter for a newspaper has always been a tricky job in as much as the beat man is so close to the subject he's covering. He, and a few shes too, can quickly become a pariah.

Consider: If a reporter, say, is covering city hall and breaks a negative story about the mayor, some of the journalist's friends and neighbors will be upset, but many others will be delighted that the rascal has gotten what he deserves. But just about everybody loves the home team. The poor, honest sports reporter is the skunk at the garden party. How could you be so mean to our beloved team?

Now, though, as more and more teams, even whole leagues like the NFL and the NBA, control their own TV stations or networks, the print reporters find themselves not only snoops but also as virtual competitors to the teams' owned and operated house media.

The battle has been joined most prominently in Washington with the Redskins, who have long had an adversarial relationship with The Washington Post, have taken to breaking stories on their own Web site. Even some players, most famously Barry Bonds, now largely communicate with the outside world through their Web sites. Who needs an independent press? Everybody in sport now wants to be their own personal Pravda.

This control of information is only increasing, perhaps especially in the NFL which has always been more about public relations than public disclosure. At least three teams - Green Bay, Minnesota and Philadelphia - have instituted a policy that if any player is injured in practice, no film, tape or still photography is allowed.

The Tennessee Titans have co-opted the press in another way. Reporters may watch practice, but then, guess what? They cannot reveal anything of substance that they see. Loose lips sink quarterbacks.

It is true that sports reporters have long been criticized for being too cozy with the heroes they cover. There's no question that the whole profession was chloroformed or something when steroids came into sports, particularly into baseball.

And that leads to the final irony. The two spectacular investigative reporters for The San Francisco Chronicle, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, who restored so much dignity to the whole profession by blowing open the Balco drug scandal, now find themselves facing 18 months in jail unless they reveal their sources.

The way things are headed, we might just as well eliminate sports writers altogether and let the leagues, the teams and the players tell us who wins and loses on their own Web sites.

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WERTHEIMER: Frank Deford is senior contributing writer at Sports Illustrated. He joins us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.

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WERTHEIMER: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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Sweetness And Light

Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light

The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

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