Sports journalists seem to have decided that the NFL has gone too far. The league has been flexing its media muscles of late — creating its own products online, on TV and in the movie industry in ways that compete with the media companies that cover NFL games as news.
But the final straw for a lot of sports journalists seems to have been a red cotton vest.
The NFL now requires all news photographers working on the sidelines of games to wear vests — to help security guards figure out who has permission to be there and who doesn't.
The vests also bear small logos for the camera company Canon, and for Reebok, which makes the league's uniforms. As the NFL's Greg Aiello points out, they're about a half inch high and an inch wide. He says they're not advertising, just modest emblems.
But journalists worry they'll be seen as shilling for NFL sponsors.
John Cherwa coordinates the sports coverage for the Tribune Company's 11 daily newspapers, including The Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. He says size isn't the issue.
"It puts many of us in violation of our ethics policy," Cherwa says. "Because technically, to wear that, you are endorsing Canon, you are endorsing Reebok. And we can't do that."
But vests with logos are nothing new, says the NFL's Aiello.
"It's ... something that's becoming more and more common in the industry," Aiello says. "At the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl the photographers wore vests that had a big giant 'Tostidos' on the back ... which was very visible on television."
Cherwa acknowledges this has been going on for awhile — and not just in the NFL.
"But none of us really kind of realized that," he says. "And I know that's kind of embarrassing, but we never really saw that until just recently — or until the policy came out."
And Cherwa says it's caused a lot of soul-searching in his papers' newsrooms.
"The truth is there really isn't a difference — it's just now we're paying attention," he says. "I've been to five or six Olympics, and it never really occurred to me that our guys were wearing vests that said 'Kodak' on them."
Now it's occurring to journalists — big time. The National Press Photographers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists have lodged protests against the NFL vests. The Associated Press says the logos are OK — but bigger ones aren't, because it doesn't want employees to become, as it says, "billboards" for league sponsors.
Veteran sports photographer Michael Zagaris says the idea of human billboards may not be so far fetched.
"For all I know, in five to 10 years they'll be wearing those racing jumpsuits, like they have in Indy or NASCAR — replete with many logos," Zagaris says.
Zagaris has been the staff photographer for the San Francisco 49ers since 1973. He says the league wants to discourage the presence of photographers who don't work for the NFL.
With fewer photographers, Zagaris says, "then they control the images — 'they' being the league on the one hand and the networks on the other."
And the question of control is at the root of a lot of the struggle between the NFL and the news media. The league, which is working to drive fans to its own cable TV station and Web sites, now says newspapers can only post 45 seconds of NFL footage per day on their Web sites.
The NFL's Aiello says newspapers shouldn't feel threatened.
But by the same token, he adds, " we have to carefully manage our own media assets that generate the revenue that makes the league run and pays the players."
Aiello says that has nothing to do with the vests. Those logos are not meant to be ads, he says. And he promises no one will check if photographers cover them up.