This summer, the Air Force Academy issued an updated media policy to its beat reporters and it is fair to say it was not met with much enthusiasm. One particular aspect of the new guidelines includes restrictions on what can be reported during or following practices. Specifically, the policy states:
Those watching practice are not allowed to text message, blog or report (including injuries) on anything that happens during any weekday practices.
Jesse Kurtz of CBS affiliate KKTV in Southern Colorado had this to say about that new rule:
“Any information you obtain and store in your brain by watching the practice is apparently owned by the Air Force Academy. Don't text message a buddy of yours who is a fellow Air Force fan, that a starter suffered a major injury and may be out for the season, or everybody gets kicked out. Your thoughts and your knowledge no longer belongs to you.”
The Gazette’s Jake Schaller even joked in his blog, “After reading the new “media guidelines” released by the academy this morning, I had to jump on the web and see if I’d been scooped on a big story: “Bill Belichick Hired to Run Air Force Football.”
Regarding the new limitations on practice, the Annapolis Capital’s Bill Wagner offered his take, saying in an interview with GoMids.com, “Well that is absurd. You might as well not go to practice. I guess it is helpful for the beat reporter for filing (the information) away in their heads, but what is the point?”
In response to the criticism, Air Force Sports Information Director Troy Garnhart said that the new policy “came out of a decision NOT to close practice.”
“Many programs have closed practices to stop folks from reporting what happens in practices which can create a competitive disadvantage for them. We decided it was important for people to feel like they can attend practice, so our decision was to allow it, but keep our advantage of not having it reported,” continued Garnhart.
Of course policing that policy presents its own set of challenges. Even though Garnhart says that his office “will check the papers/fan blogs daily,” there is no way to really prevent someone from breaking the rules. And if the restrictions are not followed, it will result in future practices being closed in Colorado Springs.
The dilemma of how to enforce such rules, according to West Point Sports Information Director Bob Berreta, has led, in part, to Army’s decision to continue with its own open policy that resembles Navy’s in many ways.
“It’s very difficult to police (what fans will write) unless you just close down practices all together. (But) we want to be fan-friendly. We want people to get excited about the product.”
However, even Army has a history of closing practices to the public. Just last season, then head coach Stan Brock did not allow the media or fans to attend spring practices. The decision at the time was blamed on security issues inside Army’s practice facility, but it probably had more to do with the Cadets’ attempts to keep their new offense under wraps. In an interview last May with GoMids.com, Brock said the decision to close practices “probably got blown a bit out of proportion” because “not a lot of people were coming anyway.”
Meanwhile at Navy, its practice fields are open to anyone who can make their way onto the Annapolis campus. According to Navy beat reporter Bill Wagner that policy was put into place by former Navy coach Paul Johnson in 2002.
“The big change was that Johnson said he wasn’t going to do a weekly press luncheon anymore and (reporters) were disappointed at first. However, we were told (instead of the luncheon) that we were going to have access to him everyday after practice.”
Ironically, Johnson has decided to go away from that his completely open practice policy at Georgia Tech.
According to Georgia Tech Sports Information Director Dean Buchan, spring practices and the first two or three weeks of fall practices are open the public and media; however once game weeks arrive, they will be closed to everyone for the second year in a row.
“I don’t want this to sound like Paul Johnson has come and slammed the door. In fact it has been just the opposite,” said Buchan. “This is significantly more availability then (we) have ever had before Paul Johnson got here. A lot of our fans were amazed that our spring practices last season, in his first year here, were open.”
When asked in a recent interview with Scout.com about opening practices, Johnson was quoted as saying, “I’ve always had open practices pretty much everywhere I’ve been. There’s just too much information that gets out. I asked people not to do it, but they do it anyway. You don’t want to be paranoid but you also don’t want to do anything that’s not going to help your team.”
Although Buchan says there was not any one single incident that led to closing practices in the fall, he did say that there were a “number of times” when Johnson would get home at night and his daughter would tell him that she saw his offense on YouTube today.
“She would pull up highlights where fans were taking video from wide angles where you could see the entire offense and the blocking schemes,” said Buchan. “It’s hard to police because people can take video with their phones now…and when it starts to become a possible, potential detriment to your team, you almost have to close practice.”
Those same issues have not come up in Annapolis before with Johnson and even now with current head coach Ken Niumatalolo. Navy’s Sports Information Director Scott Strasemeier credits this fact to the intellect of Navy’s followers.
“I think our fans just enjoy the chance to come out and see our guys. I think they have always respected the fact that they can always walk out to the (practice) field. They are not looking to be Walter Cronkite and break some story,” said Strasemeier.
“I don’t know why, but I think our fans just get it. I think it is a privilege to be able to open practice to our fans. I’m glad we are able to do it,” he continued.
Of course if fans are able to view every practice at Navy that means that the media is welcome as well.
According to Bill Wagner, the access he has to the Midshipmen football program makes his job a lot easier.
“From a reporter’s perspective what I think is important is the interviews with both players and coaches after practices. It dramatically increases my ability to write stories.”
Navy’s media policy allows for all coaches and players to be accessible after practices Monday through Wednesday.
And unlike other institutions that require as much as two or three days notice regarding which players or coaches will be interviewed, Wagner and his colleagues in Annapolis have no such stipulation
“I can show up to Navy practices on a daily basis and I might not decide what to write about until I’m on the way to practice. I can get anybody (for an interview). I may be brainstorming on the way to practice and might decide to write a story about the fullbacks that day…and then I show up to practice and tell Scott Strasemeier that I want to talk to (fullback’s coach) Mike Judge, and (fullbacks) Alexander Teich and Vince Murray,” said Wagner. “That’s wonderful from a reporter’s standpoint because it gives you the ability to do far more stories during the week.”
“I can’t imagine what it must be like at Notre Dame where you get to talk to the coach twice during the week.”
Speaking of Notre Dame, according to their director of football media relations, Brian Hardin, the Fighting Irish have a policy in place that only allows freshmen to talk to the media once “during the preseason during a set date” and then again during their bye week.
The new aforementioned updated Air Force media policy also includes a restriction on the access to freshmen football players. According to the new rules, Air Force freshmen are only available “following game days if they played in that particular game.”
At Navy, freshmen are always free game, and for good reason notes Strasemeier.
“Talking to the press helps these guys because when they are officers, they are going to be talking in front of people all the time. I think it is a good learning tool for them in their military career.”
And although Strasemeier admits it is somewhat of a rare occasion for a freshman (or plebe as they are called at Navy) to get a lot of media attention, it did happen last season with standout defensive linemen Jabari Tuani.
“Jabaree Tuani is as engaging a person as anyone on the football team, so it would have been silly to not let him talk to the press. He is as impressive as they come.”
----------------END OF PART ONE----------------
In part two of this story, I will give you a complete list of which schools have an open media policy; an update on Air Force’s media policy from the Gazette’s Jake Schaller (they have relaxed it a bit); the role social media is playing in this whole debate; and more insight into some restrictions that you will not believe…and of course a lot more on Navy’s very open media policy.
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