The University of Oregon concluded its investigation of potential free speech policy violations by the athletic department this week. The investigation found that the athletic department did nothing illegal, but could improve its media relations in some areas.
President Michael Schill ordered the investigation in December after a highly publicized incident in which Dave Williford, sports information director (SID) for Oregon football, suggested revoking one of the Emerald’s football press credentials. The threat came after Emerald sports editor Kenny Jacoby contacted a UO football player directly to follow up on a previous interview, instead of making another interview request through the athletic department.
Jacoby was following up with the player for a story on the repeated accusations of violence against former Oregon tight end Pharaoh Brown, which received national attention.
General Counsel Kevin Reed and UO law school student Hailey Czarnecki wrote the report, which found it “undisputed that Williford suggested to the Emerald that their credentials could be at risk if they continued to violate protocols,” and that Jacoby “credibly perceived Williford’s statement as a threat to the Emerald’s valuable access to Duck athletics.”
The protocol violation in question is UO’s policy that reporters must request all interviews through the athletic department communications office, rather than reaching out to athletes directly. This is a common policy for Division I sports schools, according to the report.
The report called Williford’s suggestion that a credential would be pulled “ill-advised,” but found that the athletic department did not violate law or policy because the threat did not have to do with the content of Jacoby’s story.
The report also makes recommendations for future media relations protocol for the athletic department. These include counseling reporters who violate access policies in ways that do not imply that the reporter’s access will be restricted, and reaching out to the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper when a potential conflict arises.
Protecting athletes, or suppressing free speech?
A major question going into the investigation was if athletes are allowed to freely express their thoughts to the media. According to football SID Williford, the rule requiring reporters to contact athletes through the athletic department is meant to protect athletes — there is not a rule about athletes contacting the media directly.
UO’s report affirmed this, saying, “It is clear from our interviews that student athletes are not restricted from contacting the media directly.”
Senate faculty president Bill Harbaugh doesn’t think that finding is accurate. He said he’s learned from talking to reporters that coaches “discourage players from talking about controversial things.”
“That is a clear infringement on their free speech rights,” Harbaugh said.
Harbaugh pointed to a December 2014 Oregonian article about Oregon basketball players Dwayne Benjamin and Jordan Bell. The two players held their hands up above their waists during the national anthem at a home basketball game, in an apparent protest of recent police shootings of unarmed black men.
The article notes that Benjamin and Bell “have not been made available to comment” on the incident.
A similar issue occurred in 2012, when Lena Macomson, a student-athlete at the time, attended a public hearing on a new university policy to require random drug tests for student athletes.
When the Register Guard asked for her thoughts at the end of the hearing, Macomson said she “could not speak to a reporter without first getting the permission of Andy McNamara, assistant athletic director for media relations.”
Macomson’s impression that she needed permission from an athletic director appears to contrast the following finding from the investigation report:
“We find no evidence to support the allegation that the Athletic Department restricts student athletes’ ability to address the media.”
Harbaugh was critical that the investigation relied on sports information director Williford’s claim that student athletes are not restricted from speaking to the media, without investigating high profile incidents like Benjamin and Bell’s Black Lives Matter protest.
The report also found that “the SIDs do not tell the student athletes whom they can or cannot talk to. Each interview request is just a request and the athlete has the option to turn it down….The SID then relays that information back to the reporter.”
Emerald sports editor Kenny Jacoby said that this hasn’t necessarily been the case in his experience.
“The report reads as if SIDs make it easy for reporters to talk to athletes, when in fact SIDs invoke all sorts of unwritten rules to deny interview requests with athletes all the time,” Jacoby said.
According to Jacoby, these restrictions include not talking to athletes who are injured, and denying all interviews in the off-season.
“When they deny interview requests, you never get to hear the denial from the athlete,” Jacoby said. “You never know whether the SIDs are really asking the athlete or denying the interview on their own volition.”
Despite its criticisms, President Schill was happy with the investigation.
“Kevin [Reed] did a very thorough analysis of this,” Schill told the Emerald. “I support the report entirely.”
Athletic department spokesman Craig Pintens echoed that sentiment.
“We look forward to reviewing the results of the report prepared by Mr. Reed and Ms. Czarnecki. They conducted a very thorough examination into athletic communications.”
The full investigation report can be read here.
Follow Jack Pitcher on Twitter @jackpitcher20