Once upon a time, organizations like the Illinois High School Association would bend over backwards to get favorable coverage from the press. Treat the media right, and your activities will be covered well, was the thinking.
This past weekend, at the state individual wrestling championships in Champaign, the IHSA made it eminently clear that it dislikes the media and that it doesnt really care if the states elite athletes get any coverage in their hometown newspapers.
Whats important to the organization, it appears, is that an out-of-state photography company contracted by IHSA to shoot the championship tournament makes as much money as possible from the sale of its overpriced photos.
And what about the professional newspaper photographers who have been covering the wrestlers all season long? They were left with two options:
They could sign an IHSA waiver, in which they promised never to sell a single image they would shoot at the event. Signing such a waiver would get them a press pass and access to a mat-side shooting area where newspapers have been allowed for years.
Or they could fend for themselves basically buying a ticket and trying to cover the event from up in the stands.
In most gymnasiums, that is no big deal. Just stake out a front-row seat and slap on a medium telephoto lens and its almost like being on the mat except for the people walking in front of you, the inability to move to the best vantage point and the inadequate room to operate with a notebook, a camera bag, a tripod and a camera with a telephoto lens.
But the state championships are not held in such venues; the event was in the Assembly Hall on the University of Illinois campus. And shooting from the stands in that facility is quite another story.
We felt compelled to stand with the vast majority of the states newspapers in opposition to the IHSAs unfair and unjustified restrictions. Had we signed the waiver to get our press pass, we wouldve been counted by IHSA as being among the newspapers in agreement with the no-resale restrictions.
We think its patently wrong that the IHSA thinks it can tell us what we can do with photographs we take at a public event. Certainly the organization has a right to contract with the photography company to serve as a vendor. And we dont have a problem with that company having the exclusive rights to peddle their wares in Assembly Hall. But we draw the line when the IHSA starts telling us what we can do with our images back in our hometown. Thats when it becomes a First Amendment issue. And were not about to have our rights reinterpreted by a group of overreaching high school association bureaucrats.
Sports editor Seth Whitehead did a great job of making the best of the situation. Without a press pass, he had to move to several locations in the building to get the best vantage point to cover the Vandals. He had to deal with fans jostling him or standing up in front of him. Eventually, he was forced to shoot from an unoccupied first-level concourse wheelchair area, using a tripod and telephoto lens. Thats no way to come up with the types of pictures our readers have come to expect.
Nevertheless, he came back with some nice images (considering the conditions under which he shot them), and has done his usual outstanding job of covering the meet. But the level of his coverage was due to his extra efforts to overcome the IHSA restrictions.
The IHSA will erect the same barriers and attempt to coerce the states newspapers to sign the same waivers at this weeks team wrestling championships and the upcoming basketball tournament.
The Illinois Press Association and newspapers across the state are working hard to correct this power grab by the IHSA. Its high time the organization recognizes that its job is to oversee high school activities and events not to dictate how the states newspapers operate.