Consider it the story that got away.
The National Football League made front-page news for the past two weeks, but not for its spectacular feats of athleticism.
Instead, it was for ugly revelations of domestic violence, inconsistent handling of players involved, and an Associated Press report that NFL officials had seen the video of Baltimore Raven Ray Rice hitting his fiancée, even though they denied it.
The NFL devotes a lot of money and energy into controlling its own story. This one, the league could not control.
The NFL has always been a public relations juggernaut, but technology in recent years has allowed the league to become a publisher as well. It has hired “reporters” — many of them former journalists — and posts their league-approved stories at its own NFL.com.
The website is glitzy, packed with game stories and exclusive video. The video is exclusive because the NFL won’t let news outlets shoot it. That way, only the NFL can make money selling sponsorships on the videos.
It’s a shrewd business move.
The league has long kept the news media at bay by limiting access for sports reporters and photographers.
TNT Seahawks beat writer Gregg Bell gets no more than 30 minutes a day, three days a week, to talk to players.
Monday access consists of a 20-minute press conference with coach Pete Carroll, but no contact with players. Tuesdays are mandated “dark days” for the media. On Wednesday and Thursday, Bell gets about 30 minutes with players in the locker room before practice (while they’re also busy with training room treatments, meals and position meetings). On Fridays of a home-game week, reporters get a bonus 30 minutes in the locker room.
Even then, some players are off-limits. Quarterback Russell Wilson speaks only on Thursdays in an auditorium. Cornerback Richard Sherman speaks only on Wednesdays. That gets the stars on a proper made-for-TV stage.
TNT photographers also are limited. We can shoot photos and video only for a few minutes before practices. We are allowed to post only a minute or two of video a day on our website.
“Our access has been curtailed in the past several years as the organizations have become more interested in controlling every aspect of their image,” TNT photo editor Joe Barrentine said.
On Saturdays, the only access goes to the television crew broadcasting that week’s game.
“This is a television-driven league,” Bell said, “and no wonder. CBS, Fox, NBC and ESPN pay the NFL between $5 billion and $6 billion annually on national TV contracts.”
The NFL is not alone in trying to control its story. More and more, for instance, government agencies at all levels are limiting press access and hiring their own storytellers.
Major League Baseball grants a bit more media access than the NFL, but also hires the writers for its website, MLB.com.
TNT sports editor Darrin Beene worked alongside those writers when he was our national baseball reporter.
MLB staffers write the standard game stories and player profiles, Beene said. They write about drafts and trades, made easier by having direct access to team officials. But they are told to stop short of asking the hard questions, they told Beene.
They didn’t write the story a few years ago that left the Seattle Mariners fuming at the TNT.
We wrote that Ken Griffey Jr. was unavailable to pinch-hit during a game in 2010 because he was napping in the clubhouse. It was part of a story about how Griffey’s performance was slipping after his return to the team.
The anecdote was relevant. We wrote it. MLB.com did not.
As the leagues have bought up writers, our industry has done itself no favors. The number of sports journalists has dwindled. In our state, aside from TV and cable networks, only the TNT and The Seattle Times have beat writers who travel with the teams.
It’s clear journalists bring something more to the coverage.
Part of the reason our Seahawks Insider blog is so popular is that Bell tells readers everything he sees and hears, whether the NFL likes it or not. He doesn’t polish his stories to make the team look good.
These teams are big businesses. We spend a lot of money buying their tickets and jerseys. They are part of the fabric of our culture. Our children look up to their players.
We should hold them to account.
It was journalists, not NFL PR writers, who broke the story about how the league was handling — or not handling —players who hit their wives and children.
Granted, most sports stories are about about games and players and strategy — the fun stuff.
“But things come up, bigger issues, and that’s part of it, too,” Beene said. “We give you not just the games, but everything, flattering or not.
“It’s about not being beholden to anyone.
“I don’t have to ask the team or the coach, ‘Is this positive enough?’ I only have to answer, ‘Did I get it right?’ ”