Is it re­ally a ques­tion of First Amend­ment rights?

Rome News-Tribune - - SPORTS -

I’ve got a ma­jor gripe to air out today, but bear with me for a mo­ment and al­low me to try and fill you in on some back­ground per­haps to clar­ify any ques­tions.

Dur­ing my 25-year ten­ure at the At­lanta Jour­nal-Con­sti­tu­tion, one of my as­sign­ments later in my ca­reer was to be the beat writer for Ge­or­gia Tech. That meant I cov­ered all sports and was the AJC’s eyes and ears on The Flats, just as they had a re­porter in Athens for the Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia. My ar­rival at Tech was al­most side-by-side to the ar­rival of Ge­orge O’Leary as foot­ball coach. O’Leary, for those who don’t know, was a fiery Ir­ish­man with a short fuse and, to be frank, wouldn’t win any great-per­son awards.

At any rate, as our re­la­tion­ship de­te­ri­o­rated over the next four or five years, more and more things be­came off-lim­its to the me­dia. It reached a point-of-no-re­turn af­ter I ex­posed O’Leary for mis­treat­ing a player named Dustin Vaiteku­nas. He was an of­fen­sive line­man who missed a block in prac­tice and was used as a teach­ing tool for the team.

This hap­pened by lin­ing up the start­ing de­fen­sive line, hav­ing Vaiteku­nas stand up straight and blow­ing a whis­tle to al­low the com­bined 1,000 or so pounds to hit him at full blast. Vaiteku­nas left prac­tice that day af­ter ly­ing un­con­scious for much of 15 min­utes and never re­turned to foot­ball.

He gave back his schol­ar­ship to Tech, paid his own way to Cleve­land State and has never played an­other down.

The “teach­ing drill” also brought about a threat­ened law­suit from Vaiteku­nas’ mother, but it was never filed.

Shortly af­ter that point, Tech closed its prac­tices to the me­dia. Others around the coun­try fol­lowed suit if they weren’t al­ready do­ing it.

Now there are strict me­dia re­stric­tions at al­most all big-time foot­ball fac­to­ries.

Thus, af­ter this ex­haus­tive story, we get to this week’s topic, which is Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia coach Kirby Smart’s not al­low­ing the me­dia to re­port any in­juries un­less he ap­proves it. Ge­or­gia’s prac­tices are closed to all me­dia any­way ex­cept on spe­cial oc­ca­sions.

Please note this isn’t an at­tack on Smart or Ge­or­gia — it’s sim­ply the lat­est re­stric­tion.

To me, this isn’t a ques­tion of First Amend­ment rights, but a ques­tion of who needs whom the most. Has any univer­sity ever sat down and cal­cu­lated how much the me­dia cov­er­age pro­vided by lo­cal TV, ra­dio and news­pa­pers would cost if they paid for it?

Has any one news or­ga­ni­za­tion de­cided to test it by re­fus­ing to cover any par­tic­u­lar team?

Can the team ac­tu­ally dic­tate, to the fifth es­tate, what they can and can’t re­port? Will the me­dia con­tinue tak­ing it or draw a line?

Has ei­ther side reached the “enough is enough” stage? If you can tell me what good is cov­er­ing Ge­or­gia or Ge­or­gia Tech or Alabama or any­body else if the news is se­lected and doled out like a priv­i­lege to the re­porters? That’s not news, that’s pro­pa­ganda and ad­ver­tis­ing.

Should we, as the me­dia, be mere ad­ver­tis­ing writ­ers for the var­i­ous teams and univer­si­ties? One re­sult of this con­stantly nar­row­ing field of what can and can’t be re­ported brings about an ad­ver­sar­ial re­la­tion­ship be­tween teams, coaches and re­porters. It may even lead to some of the pro­lif­er­a­tion of neg­a­tive sto­ries, i.e. ar­rests, DUIs, mar­i­juana stops, do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, etc. The neg­a­tive sto­ries are one of the things the me­dia can get to with­out in­ter­fer­ence.

The time is com­ing when there al­most has to be a reck­on­ing be­tween me­dia out­lets and am­a­teur sports.

That time is draw­ing close. With the huge sums of money now be­ing paid by na­tional TV, the whole point is that ev­ery­body has to start pay­ing the schools for ac­cess since money seems to drive most ath­letic de­part­ments.

Mis­cel­la­neous

The Fal­cons’ Mercedes-Benz Sta­dium open­ing has been put off again. It had al­ready moved from March 1 to June 1, and is now set for July or mid-Au­gust. Stay tuned. …

The new Ma­ri­etta Braves’ play­ground, SunTrust Park, is draw­ing well. For com­par­i­son’s sake, At­lanta-Ful­ton County Sta­dium at­tracted an av­er­age of 24,649 for its first four games, Turner Field had a four-day av­er­age of 40,781 and SunTrust has had an av­er­age of 35,990 for its first four games. …

A Bos­ton res­i­dent and New Eng­land Pa­triot fan held up a sign dur­ing the Bos­ton Marathon meant to en­cour­age the run­ners. It read “New Eng­land 3, At­lanta 28 (3rd quar­ter, 2:12 left).”

NOR­MAN AREY SPORTS COLUMNIST

Ge­orge O’Leary

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