Hide the Ball 

An unaromatic whiff of Big Brother comes from NFL owners who want to restrict local TV coverage of games

We’ve always known the NFL—what with its redistribution of wealth and relentless push toward parity—was the most successful socialist experiment since the early Jerusalem church.
We’ve always known the NFL—what with its redistribution of wealth and relentless push toward parity—was the most successful socialist experiment since the early Jerusalem church. Now, it appears, the league is moving from Leninism toward Stalinism. At least that’s one way to read the 32-0 vote by NFL owners to restrict what local TV stations can report about NFL games. Yup, the No Fun League approved the outlines of a plan to ban local TV cameras from sidelines during games. While the cameras could still roll before and after, local stations could show only highlights that come from the official NFL feed. It sounds relatively benign, even with the league’s unconvincing explanation that the rule is needed to reduce sideline congestion and protect broadcast rights holders (i.e., CBS, FOX and ESPN). After all, most local stations already use video highlights provided by the networks. Then you start contemplating the implications of the principle the NFL would establish. What if the league refused to credential photojournalists—who create far more congestion than two or three local TV cameras —from working on the sidelines or behind the end zones? What’s to prevent the NFL from employing its own small group of official photographers and requiring the print media to pay the league for access to the images? For that matter, the owners could prohibit flash cameras in the stands at the Super Bowl, where fans might snap contraband images of an event owned by the league. Instead, fans would have to purchase glossy, approved images of the halftime show or trophy presentation. Couldn’t the NFL also restrict reporters’ access to locker rooms, providing the media only with a set of player quotes gathered by the teams’ PR handlers? Or what if the league could choose which players would be available to the media—and prevent controversy-generators like Terrell Owens and Chad Johnson from blabbing? What’s to prevent the league, in the name of protecting its brand image, from demanding approval rights over which game highlights could be shown? That way, the commissioner’s office could avoid the embarrassment of seeing spectacles like Randy Moss’ post-TD mooning pantomime on umpteen different news reports and highlight shows. It would be easier to control the message. After Thanksgiving, the league is also planning to redirect its Thursday night games to the NFL Network. That move not only will give the fledgling channel some marketable programming, but it will also ensure that local cable operators include the NFL Network among their offerings (and pay the league handsomely for the privilege). That’s smart business, if a bit hard-nosed. Telling TV journalists they can’t film their own game highlights has an unaromatic whiff of Big Brother. Don’t look for this to become a big deal, though. Even if the media squawks, fans aren’t likely to turn off their TVs in solidarity on Sunday afternoons. We don’t mind when power is concentrated in one institution, as long we see no immediate threat. A nation that doesn’t get worked up about the legalities of search warrants won’t sweat over a mere pimple like this one. Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson wouldn’t be happy. Good thing those troublemakers are dead. Seasons of hope As a new baseball season opens at Greer Stadium, I’m thinking about my friend Kathie Hormby, the biggest baseball fan I know. As a child in L.A., she watched Dodger Stadium go up, went to games there with her dad after the team moved from Brooklyn, and bled Dodger Blue ever after. Kathie died last week after a long battle with ALS—Lou Gehrig’s disease. She lived with it for over 15 years. Gehrig lived only two or three. Few people last five. Virtually no one with this illness lives as long as Kathie did. She was stubborn. And she had faith. She was diagnosed when her son Tom was very small. She said she was determined to see him graduate from high school. There was a symmetry about Kathie’s illness and her love for baseball. As a true fan, she understood that hope endures against all odds. The Dodgers have made the playoffs just twice in the past 20 years. But every spring brought another chance. Hope does not die. Kathie had slight movement with her head and one toe. They outfitted her wheelchair with a laptop whose keyboard she could control with her movements. A fellow parishioner at her small Methodist church in West Nashville taught her Morse code. She could type messages that the computer’s voice processor turned into spoken word. She corresponded with friends by email. She would read up about the Dodgers on the Web. It might take a minute or more for Kathie to express just three or four words. But she always had something to say. Every February, during the time of the worship service when members offer their joys and concerns, Kathie’s computer would whir away. People learned to wait patiently for the machine to speak. We always knew what she would say in February: “Pitchers and catchers report this week.” For Kathie, it was a time of excitement and anticipation—another spring, another chance. Sunday before last, during joys and concerns, Kathie’s husband Dave raised his hand, signifying that Kathie wanted to offer something. After half a minute, we heard the computer’s robotic voice: “Opening Day is today.” From the congregation, there was the kind of laugh you hear when people expect a familiar punchline and are rewarded. “Now Kathie,” teased the pastor, holding up his Bible, “I missed where that’s covered in here.” “Hope,” said Dave. “That’s in there.” Opening Day is about hope, and few things are more biblical than that. In five weeks, Tom Hormby will graduate from Hume-Fogg High School. No one but Kathie herself imagined she might see it. After his diagnosis, Lou Gehrig told the crowd at Yankee Stadium not to feel sorry for him. He said he was the luckiest man on the face of the earth. They called him the Iron Horse, because he played in 2,130 consecutive games—a record people assumed would never be broken. I don’t know if Kathie considered herself lucky. But she was the real iron horse. And those who had the privilege to know her and be inspired by her were very lucky indeed.

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