Vol. 48, No. 2 February 2011 .pdf version
Bryan Burwell: Scrimmages shouldn't be a secret
Joe Mitch: USBWA breakfast to include Phi Slama Jama
John Akers: Looking for next Rising Star
Lenox Rawlings: Good sportswriting remains the same
Brian Noubert: Va. Tech closing doors to new media
Four multiple winners writing contest claim firsts
Complete Best Writing Contest results, stories

Bryan Burwell

NCAA shouldn't be dictating that scrimmages be a secret

By BRYAN BURWELL / St. Louis Post-Dispatch
USBWA President

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The primary business of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association is insuring that its membership finds a workplace free of unnecessary roadblocks to getting our jobs done. That task includes dealing with issues of access in a constantly changing media world.

Lately, we've spent a ton of time debating how that access should or shouldn't include the ever-expanding field of new media.

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It's a worthy and complicated conversation with few easy solutions or set-in-stone guidelines, and I suspect that the important task of sifting through all the good, bad and ugly in the new media world will continue to be a relevant and constantly changing debate. But in the meantime, we've allowed a less complex issue of media access slip by without so much as an organized whisper of discontent.

It's an old-fashioned problem called simple access to a basketball scrimmage in the preseason.

The NCAA calls them "informal practice scrimmages" and a few years ago passed legislation that mandated that college basketball programs were allowed to conduct these secret scrimmages between all Division I programs to go on behind closed doors. According to the NCAA bylaws, these secret workouts are to be held without any public viewing by any non-basketball personnel. No tickets sold. No spectators allowed in the gym, but most important to the concerns of this organization, access and all information about these scrimmages denied to members of the media who cover these teams on a daily basis.

I have attempted twice in the past few months to reach out to Jim Haney, the executive director of the NABC, to see if there was a compelling coaching-related reason why the coaches feel this media ban is necessary.

I was hoping as the head of the largest organization representing college coaches, Haney would be able to give our organization a little insight into the situation that perhaps we as journalists had blinders to. But I have yet to hear anything from him. Not a peep. Not a whisper. Not so much as a reply to emails directly to him and through his intermediaries.

I have discussed this issue with several members of the organization who say they have had conversations with head coaches of every sort in Division I hoops, and for the most part, none of them felt like having reporters in the room would be much of a problem. At the very least, it seems odd that the NCAA would be in the business of determining individual media policies for its entire Division I basketball membership.

It is our organization's stance that the NCAA rulebook should not be in the business of telling coaches, sports information directors and athletic directors whether or not media can watch their teams practice.

In those circumstances where coaches choose to close regular-season practices, the NCAA is not mandating they be opened to the media. So the NCAA certainly should not be in the business of closing off these preseason scrimmages by rule, either. There is no solid reason why media should not be permitted to attend these events and report on what they see. If the NCAA doesn't want tickets to be sold or fans to be permitted to watch, that's fine. But the media should not be denied the opportunity to do their jobs.

The single most troubling aspect of how restrictive this rule is the part of the bylaw that determines that all details of these scrimmages are off limits to the media. No facts, no figures, no details of any sort can be told. Yet imagine for a moment what sort of idiotic nonsense could have ensued if for example a nationally-ranked team's top player suffered a season-ending injury in a private scrimmage.

What if Robbie Hummel's injury had occurred during one of Purdue's "informal" scrimmages to which our members were denied admittance? By NCAA law, how would the school be able to dispense information about such an injury if no details are allowed to be discussed publicly?

As president of the USBWA, I recently received an explanation of the rule from a top NCAA official. It was a lot of talk about how these private scrimmages allow teams to compete and practice against other teams in a strictly practice and teaching environment and how the presence of the media would somehow alter that environment.

It makes little sense at all. When I reached out to Haney a while back, it was with the intention of seeking his organization's help in helping us gauge the NABC's interest in supporting new NCAA legislation to amend this needless restriction on our rights as journalists to do our jobs.

If Haney has no interest in this, we'll continue to search high and low for some college administrator or conference commissioner who understands that the media is not the enemy and will stand up for our rights.

The "new" NCAA proclaims it is an organization that is trying mightily to shed its old image as a stogy organization with a convoluted rule book. In many instances, the "new" organization has already begun making steps in the right direction by carefully re-examining many of those bylaws that clearly are behind the times or irrelevant to its goal as a so-called "transparent" institution.

Expunging this needless media blackout would be an important step in the right direction.

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