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UK mishandling sports reporters

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By Allan Wolper

George Orwell’s 1949 tome on political repression, “1984,” told of Oceania, a fictional society ruled by Big Brother that bugged the phones of its citizens and practiced strict mind control.
Orwell would have loved the University of Kentucky, the publicly funded institution that recently banned the Kentucky Kernel, its independent campus newspaper, from covering its annual invitation-only media day.
The paper’s sin? Aaron Smith, managing editor and sports writer, telephoned a couple of basketball players to ask if they had made the team, without first getting the athletic department’s permission to make those calls.
“1984” should be a must-read on the Lexington campus as well as in newsrooms across the state. That’s because reporters from media organizations — be they students or professionals — are in constant danger of having their access to players and athletic officials cut off if they publish something the athletic department disagrees with or finds offensive.
It’s an institution of higher learning where athletic university staffers station themselves next to journalists interviewing basketball players to make sure the hoopsters don’t commit a thought crime. It’s an academic outpost where Thalethia Routt, an associate legal counsel to the university, criticized Smith in an online post for being a “pretend journalist,” because he dared to telephone two players — a violation of the athletic department’s media guidelines.
For that Oceania-like crime of behavior, DeWayne Peevy, UK associate athletics director for media relations, or chief thought speaker, kept Smith from attending the media basketball event Sept. 13.
On that day, Peevy allowed Kentucky’s sports journalists to actually speak to the basketball players and their coach, John Calipari. Hardly a First Amendment celebration in the Bluegrass State.
The crackdown on the Kentucky Kernel and the reaction by the university athletic department would be YouTube-comical if the university didn’t have an obvious ulterior motive. “The real issue isn’t about them being concerned about interview requests,” Billy Reed, a former sports writer for the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Lexington Herald-Leader, told a Kentucky journalism school seminar. “They want to control their product … because this is a big business.”
It’s also a scary business that affects the school newspaper’s coverage of all Kentucky sports. Last year, the university stopped Kernel staffers from distributing about 2,000 copies of the paper inside UK’s Commonwealth Stadium and to tailgaters around the football stadium — something the students had been doing for 10 years. Why? Because the university has an $80 million contract with IMG, a sports marketing firm, granting exclusive media and advertising rights to every UK sport. In non-sports speak, that makes IMG the university’s chief propagandist.
First Amendment lawyers, editors,and assorted media publications all have raised their voices to support the Kernel in its latest confrontation with the university. But I could not find any real flashes of outrage from UK faculty — an academic condition that has become an epidemic on college campuses with big-time sports programs.
“Most faculty don’t understand the role of the school paper,” said Sally Renaud, who just finished up a year as president of College Media Advisers, an organization that fights for the First Amendment rights of campus newspapers. “The faculty don’t seem to know the campus paper is often the only permanent record of university affairs.”
The Kentucky student journalists seem mostly amused by the attention they’re getting and vow to keep monitoring the athletic department. “If we need to talk to a player for an important story, we’re going to call him,” Taylor Moak, editor-in-chief, told me. “They’re not going to stop us from doing any investigative stories.”
I certainly hope so, but there is a problem the Kernel keeps to itself: The newspaper’s offices are located in a university building. That means the school can shut them down any time it feels like doing so, even though the university says it respects the paper’s right to hold it accountable.
“The Kernel has a long tradition of asking tough questions in its role as an independent newspaper, and this administration has a long tradition of defending student journalists’ right to do so,” said Jay Blanton, university executive director of public relations, in a statement to the media. But as the saying goes, watch what they do, not what they say.
The university, meanwhile, seems poised to pounce on any mistake by the professional Kentucky media. Peevy recently told the Herald-Leader he was not allowing one of its reporters to cover one of the university’s players because of a mistake made in a question and answer interview.
It was the third time in the last two years that UK has tried to dictate which Herald-Leader reporter can cover its basketball team. The last time it happened, Peter Baniak, editor of the Herald-Leader, boycotted the university’s media days. He told me his editors were discussing how to handle this most recent incident.
UK’s love and especially hate relationship with its hometown paper dates back to 1985 when the Herald-Leader published a devastating series, called “Playing Above the Rules,” by Jeffrey A. Marx and Michael M. York, that exposed illegal cash payoffs to Kentucky basketball players. The series won a Pulitzer Prize the following year.
I have a suggestion on how to handle the Kentucky censors. The next time the university bans the campus paper, or any other media organization, from covering one of its events, all the journalists should pack up their computers and walk out. When any institution — especially a university— violates the First Amendment rights of one news organization, it violates the rights of them all, as well as their readers and viewers.

Allan Wolper is a professor of journalism at Rutgers University. This column, which appeared in Editor & Publisher, is printed here with his permission.