Giving the Internet a Sporting Chance

The Victoria Park Racing and Recreation Grounds was a popular racecourse in Sydney, Australia in the 1930s.  Built in an open fairground, the owners erected a fence around the track to ensure that only ticket buyers could watch the action or place bets on the races.  In response, a neighbour built a tower that was used by an Australian broadcaster to peer over the fence and broadcast descriptions of the races on its radio stations. Victoria Park Racing sued both the neighbour and the broadcaster on nuisance and property rights grounds. The Australian High Court dismissed the suit in 1937, but the case marked the arrival of an ongoing fight over the rights of sports leagues and teams to control coverage of their events that continues to this day.

Seventy years later, the battle has shifted to the Internet.  My weekly Law Bytes column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) focuses on how in recent months, a growing number of leagues and sports associations have sought to assert control over athlete blogging, posting photographs and video online, and even the use of player statistics.
The National Football League has led the way in the North America, recently announcing significant restrictions on the use of online video clips.  The league says that this season news organizations will be permitted to post no more than 45 seconds per day of video filmed at a team's facilities, including news conferences, interviews and practice-field reports.  The NFL is not alone in establishing new restrictions on Internet coverage of its events.  Earlier this year, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which governs U.S. college sports, ejected a reporter who was blogging from the press box during an NCAA baseball game in Louisville, Kentucky.  The NCAA argued that the move was designed to protect ESPN (which held the broadcast rights) and CBS (which held the Internet rights).

Internet restrictions are increasingly common at international sporting events as well.  Later this week, hundreds of Canadian athletes will arrive in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the 15th Pan-Am Games.  Until two weeks ago, all athletes, doctors, and coaches were advised that blogging, podcasting, or video-blogging from the Games was prohibited. Prior to dropping the ban in late June, Pan-Am organizers defended the policy by noting that they were simply following the approach adopted at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, where the International Olympic Committee warned athletes that they faced disqualification if they blogged during the Games.

Not all sports leagues or teams restrict Internet coverage.  For example, the National Hockey League has emerged as one of the most progressive sports leagues, posting highlights on YouTube and permitting unlimited Internet video from game footage. In fact, the New York Islanders recently announced the creation of a "Blog Box," a separate press area reserved for bloggers.

The limits imposed by the NFL, NCAA, and the Olympic organizers raise troubling questions about freedom of speech and freedom of the press.  Indeed, before racing to stifle Internet coverage, the leagues would do well to consider the words of Australian Chief Justice Latham, who in the 1937 Victoria Park Racing decision concluded that the broadcaster "does no wrong to the plaintiff by describing to other persons, to as wide an audience as he can obtain, what takes place on the plaintiff's ground."

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