It's first down and ten when it comes to college and pro football leagues tackling Twitter, Facebook, and user-generated video content from the sidelines. It's only pre-season and the Miami Dolphins have already tried putting the kibosh on tweets from players, the media, and even fans. But concerns vary among college teams and professional clubs about how to handle these new forms of media. The NFL told me that it's not overly concerned with Twitter and actually encourages players and fans who use the microblogging service to talk football, but that doesn't necessarily mean you can turn your Twitter account into an NFL broadcast channel and there are limits to what is permissible.
Right now, for example, the NFL has a policy banning players from tweeting from the bench, and the league is currently developing a comprehensive Twitter policy to regulate how players use the service. The Miami Dolphins went even further than the NFL's current sidelines ban. During this season's training camp the team is restricting the use of social media by the press and fans inside the Dolphins' practice stadium. The Dolphins allow the media to tweet as much as they like for the first 20 minutes or so of practice, but once team drills begin all electronic equipment including computers, cameras, and cell phones has to be turned off, according to a report by the Associated Press.
Dolphins fans, on the other hand, are forbidden to blog, tweet or even send SMS messages while watching their team practice. The Dolphins aren't the only NFL team wary of new forms of communication either. Teams like the New England Patriots, Buffalo Bills, Indianapolis Colts, New Orleans Saints, Denver Broncos, and Detroit Lions all have similar restrictions, while the Dallas Cowboys and Carolina Panthers are running tweet-friendly training camps.
As the NFL and its teams grapple with Twitter, other sports associations are also trying to deal with the proliferation of social media. The NCAA's Southeastern Conference reportedly wanted to stop fans from using Twitter while in the stands, and the SEC went so far as to prohibit fans from posting photographs or video footage of games online, according to The St. Petersburg Times. A few days later, the SEC revised its thinking, and now the college sports conference has approved tweets, Facebook updates and taking photographs for non-commercial use by fans attending SEC games.
Social media bans and guidelines may seem like paranoia on the part of the SEC and professional sports teams, but it's not hard to see why these bans are in place. NFL teams depend on keeping their game day strategies out of the hands of opposing teams, so the Dolphins are understandably queasy about allowing too much information to flow out of training camp.
Besides, it's not like information leaks and technology abuses aren't unprecedented. Last season, the NFL disciplined the New England Patriots after the team was caught recording the New York Jets' defensive signals. In September 2008, Washington Redskins tight end Chris Cooley posted a photo of the team's playbook on his blog, as well as revealing a little too much of his personal anatomy in the process.
The Trouble with Video
The SEC's ban, on the other hand, wasn't about information leaks but an attempt to protect the conference's television contracts, worth about $3 billion, from competing with user-generated content online.
The NFL has similar concerns and forbids fans from posting online video taken at an NFL game. The NFL told me that while it encourages the use of all kinds of social media, it draws the line at online video because the league has to protect its content rights and those of its partners.
The NFL Loves Twitter
But a fan tweeting about the game from the sidelines is just fine.
"Twitter is tailor made for the NFL," said NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy in a phone interview earlier this week. McCarthy said he sees Twitter like an online sports bar where you are able to follow what others are saying about your favorite player, team, or the league in general. So posting messages like, "Great kick by Vinatieri from the 50-yard line, go Colts!" won't get you in trouble with the NFL, and taking photographs or video from a cell phone or digital camera is just fine, too -- camcorders are forbidden at NFL stadiums.
But while the NFL is media-friendly, that doesn't mean there's no limit to what you can do. In addition to forbidding the posting of videos online, the NFL says posting a detailed description of every single play during league games -- whether it's through Twitter messages or a series of photographs uploaded to Flickr -- is out.
The league doesn't mess around when it comes to protecting its content, either. In 2000, the league teamed up with other content producers to go after the Canadian-based Web site iCrave TV, which was illegally streaming content online. In 2007, law professor Wendy Seltzer reportedly posted a snippet on YouTube from the beginning of an NFL telecast where an announcer reads off the league's copyright statement. A typical NFL copyright statement reads, "This telecast is copyrighted by the NFL for the private use of our audience. Any other use of this telecast or of any pictures, descriptions, or accounts of the game without the NFL's consent, is prohibited." Seltzer wanted to use the NFL's notice as an "example of a copyright holder exaggerating its rights," according to TechDirt. A few days later YouTube notified Seltzer it had removed her video from its site at the request of the NFL. (YouTube's policy is to remove commercial video on request of the producer, without judging whether it's posted as fair use under the law.)
Fan Video Revolution?
But for how long can the NFL and others sports leagues maintain control over online video content? You can already watch pirated streams of sports telecasts on Websites like Justin.tv, and highlight reels from football and other sports can easily be found on YouTube and other video sites.
Unauthorized online video could be an even bigger headache for the NFL this year, with the increasing popularity of video-enabled handsets and 3G data plans that make it cheap and easy to upload large amounts of data onto the Web. Forget about YouTube; fan video can now reach an audience instantly through sites like Qik and UStream where live video goes directly from a cell phone to the Web. Sure, the video may not be high quality, and you might be thinking it is no big deal to post a grainy video of that killer toss from Kurt Warner. But don't be surprised if the copyright owner wants you to remove it from your blog regardless of the quality.
It's hard to know for sure how problematic video will become as it gets easier and easier to post content online, and predicting the future of tech is always a tricky business. But it is not unreasonable to argue that professional and college sports may have to revisit how online video is dealt with if fan-made reels start becoming too widespread.