DeWayne Peevy, Kentucky's senior athletics director for communications, refused to allow a reporter from the school's student newspaper to participate in an interview session today with the men's basketball team, touching off a debate about freedom of the press and access issues to a school's student-athletes.
Kentucky Kernel beat writer Aaron Smith was barred from participating in interviews with players because he was in violation of the school's policy that interviews with players must be arranged through media relations, Peevy said.
Smith reported on Monday that Brian Long and Sam Malone would be joining the team as walk-ons and confirmed the news over the phone with each player. According to The Kernel, Smith obtained their numbers through a school directory and reported the news before UK made an official announcement.
Peevy said he had an issue with the news-gathering process -- not because Smith had made calls, but that Smith requested further information after learning the two students had become members of the team.
"His next question out of his mouth was, 'Can I ask you a few questions?' Peevy said after speaking with Smith. "That's the problem I have with it. It totally violates our policy.
"He ended up conceding the fact that he interviewed the kid and knew it was wrong. It was calculated risk. To me, it’s a slap on the wrist. To everybody else, it's a major deal."
Peevy said the interview policy exists because UK players, some of whom have rock-star status on campus, would otherwise be bombarded with requests. "I can expect my coach to be able to deal with that because he’s an adult and has a job that he’s paid to do. My student-athletes because they are students too, we have to be respectful of their time."
In response, Peevy rescinded his offer to allow Smith to attend today's interview session after previously agreeing to include him in a small group of selected media members to interview players. Peevy said the session served as media training for UK players and that information from the session would be embargoed until Oct. 1. Peevy said Smith would have his usual access after his exclusion, which he termed as a way to "teach him a lesson without costing him anything."
Smith told The Kernel that he committed "a minor violation" and that being barred from the interviews is "excessive." As Taylor Moak, the paper's editor-in-chief said, "He was just trying to confirm the story on his own, which is a sign of strong journalistic work."
The incident has led First Amendment advocates and media members to criticize Peevy's decision.
"It seems incongruous that a public university of such renown as the University of Kentucky that embraces intellectual and academic freedom and aspires in fact to be a top-20 research university has what is contrary to a basic freedom of press issue," said Michael Anastasi, who is president of the Associated Press Sports Editors.
"Those reporters did the job getting the story, and that's their job and responsibility. It's disturbing that a representative of a public university like that feels that they're in a position to reward or penalize journalism as they see fit. With the caveat that we expect all journalists to respect all professional ethics and standards, I think the [reporters are] doing that, and they're doing their jobs. Their job is to report the news and answer to their readers, not a bureaucrat."
Anastasi, a managing editor at the Salt Lake Tribune who reviewed the situation through media reports, said the situation regarding Peevy was concerning because the media deserves access to do its job and one person shouldn't be deciding what kind of coverage is and isn't reward-worthy. Anastasi questioned if an unflattering story -- or one that wasn't to a coach's liking -- could then result in a situation The Kernel is facing.
In fact Peevy tweeted in July in response to a story by CBSSports.com's Gary Parrish on freshman Anthony Davis, "I guess we now know one media seat that will be available at Rupp this year."
"We're spiraling into media control by an individual," Anastasi said. "Bureaucrats for ages have been tempted by that, and that is why the founding fathers found it so important to guarantee the freedom of the press."
Tom DiCamillo, the president of the College Sports Information Directors of America's board of directors, did not immediately return a request for comment after being made aware of the Kentucky situation.
Peevy reiterated The Kernel would have the same access going forward and said he treated the paper as if it were a major daily.
"They're not losing anything," he said. "It's just what I would consider a favor to include them, I'm rescinding. I have no ill-will toward The Kernel. They have that choice. You can decide whether you want to call. You can't go to jail for it. But you might lose that relationship. That's all we're talking about."
"I've got to protect the system," he said.
For their part, the Associated Press Sports Editors and Associated Press Managing Editors feel they have a system to protect as well. Early Tuesday evening, the APSE sent a letter to Peevy and included Kernel editor-in-chief Taylor Moak, UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart and UK president Eli Capilouto. The APME letter was addressed to Barnhart and included all of the above, along with state attorney general Jack Conway, UK Board of Trustees chairman Edward Britt Brockman and Lexington Herald-Leader editor/vice president Peter Baniak.
(Editor's Note: It should be noted that the "unwritten rule" Anastasi refers to in the below letter is based on an earlier comment by Peevy and not the actual school policy. In the most recent media guide, it does indeed say: "All interviews with basketball players or staff members must be arranged through the Media Relations office. Media should never contact a player or coach directly.")
The letter from the APSE reads as follows:
Dear Mr. Peevy,
It was with great concern to learn that you have rescinded an invitation to the Kentucky school newspaper to attend a media event because they violated an unwritten access rule. This is disturbing on many levels.
You have referred to an “unwritten” rule and an “understanding” between the media and the university that all interview requests must go through the SID department. Clearly, something as vague as an understanding is not legally enforceable or should a violation lead to punishment. It would be like giving a speeding ticket to a car driving through an area with no speed limit and saying, “Well, everyone knows you should be going 65.”
There is also the abridgement of basic First Amendment rights to decide access issues based on what the publication writes. This is a form of censorship, something institutions of higher learning should find as repulsive as the media do.
Ultimately, the decision to talk to the media rests with the athlete and if you don’t want your players to talk to the media without the
SID office interceding then you have to get that message to the athletes. And, we believe you did as the athletes in question chose not to talk.
Finally, you have been quoted as saying that the purpose of the media event is "to test some of my guys out." This shows that you see the relationship between school athletes and the media and how exposure and dealing with the media is part of the learning and maturation process. That kind of insight is very welcome so maybe you can see how this type of punishment is out of line with what you are trying to accomplish.
It is because of these and other unstated reasons that the Associated Press Sports Editors, the organization that represents most of the country’s sports sections and websites, strongly urge you to reverse your decision to ban the school paper from the media event.
If you would like to discuss this matter further, please feel free to contact me.
Michael A. Anastasi
The letter from the APME reads as follows:
Dear Mr. Barnhart:
Associated Press Managing Editors, a nationwide organization of newspaper editors and broadcast news directors, objects to your department’s reprehensible conduct in response to news coverage by The Kentucky Kernel of the basketball team’s addition of two walk-on players. Your department’s revocation of reporter Aaron Smith’s media access to team interviews amounts to no less than an attempt to bully the newspaper into submission and to censor news concerning operations of the University of Kentucky athletic department.
This is a level of abuse of free speech not tolerated at universities in other states and is particularly abhorrent at a taxpayer-owned institution. We urge you to restore the access of The Kentucky Kernel and Mr. Smith and to ensure that your department henceforth honors its accountability to the public.