Who belongs on the sidelines?

Someone recently asked me what type of credentials are required for covering high school sports. Can anybody walk down to the sidelines at a high school football game and take photos? Are there privacy issues for student-athletes? Should those pictures appear on social media without permission of the subjects? What’s to protect high school athletes – say a swim team – from being exploited by a pervert with a telephoto lens?

To begin with, I’m not an attorney. My expertise is solely from my experience as a photojournalist for newspapers, magazines, and a Philly based yearbook company dating back to 1983. I have covered every level sport from U6 soccer to every Jet and Giant home game over a three year span – as well as hundreds of Yankee and Met home games. I shot from the field at the 1986 World Series, and sat out rain delays in the Yankee dugout for countless hours. For Baltimore Oriole games at the old Memorial Stadium, there were no photographer seats. We used to kneel on the field in front of the box seats and hope Rick Dempsey didn’t bowl us over.

High school sidelines are meant for photographers who have a legitimate reason for close access, and who do not create issues with officials. It’s not a place for parents to get better pictures “because I pay an arm and a leg in school taxes”. Parents are also biased to one team, and the last thing a sideline judge wants in his ear is an angry parent swinging a Nikon. He has enough on his plate with irate coaches.

Priority is split between press photographers and home and away yearbook photographers. Both photographers’ pictures reach a large number of people and the work is memorialized for all. Think of it this way: recall the last pre-K event that was held on stage, and the 40 parents crowded close to get their snapshots. Wouldn’t it have been better if everyone sat back and enjoyed the show while one professional photographer took all the pictures?

Another category of photographer is the pro who shoots to sell directly to parents. They provide a service, the same as any vendor. It’s generally the AD’s discretion if pros are required to pay admission, by the way. In most cases, a pro will offer a few free pics for publicity, or be sure to buy a hotdog or two. Keep in mind that schools are publicly funded, but remain private property. While a school is private property, the games being played are public events. There are no model releases required to publish high school sports pictures. If a photographer presents him or herself in a professional manner and is a legitimate vendor, they are generally granted sideline access.

Safety is also an issue. If a photog began unfolding a tripod on the sidelines of The Meadowlands, he or she would be ejected. And a photog who doesn’t pay attention and clear out of the way of end-arounds is a danger to himself and to athletes. Accidents happen. That last out of bounds shove in the back can cause an unavoidable collision. But with reasonable care, there’s no real peril with sideline photographers.

The perverts? Well, diligence and communication weed them out. If you see something that doesn’t seem right, go to the AD with your concerns. Ask the photographer, if you have the chance. I was on a shoot when some creep with a cell phone tried taking video of my kid. It happens. Don’t be shy. Tell someone in charge what you saw. Tell the campus cop. Perverts seem to work in the shadows. Do your part to make sure there aren’t any shadows.

To circle back to the original topic, you have to look at what the goals are in how sideline spots are allotted. ADs and school administration want publicity, and for parents and students to have access to photos. Most of the time it works fine with minimal oversight. League championships sometimes have their own rules for sideline management, but that’s still a case by case basis. We live in a new age of social media. It used to be the newspapers that people turned to for sports pictures. Now there are blogs, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. Who’s to say that a newspaper with 20,000 circulation is a more legitimate source than an Instagram photographer with 30,000 followers?

About colealpaugh

Cole Alpaugh's newspaper career began in the early 80s, starting with small daily papers in Maryland and Massachusetts, where his stories won national awards. His most recent job was at a large daily in Central New Jersey, where his "true life" essays included award-winning pieces on a traveling rodeo and an in-depth story on an emergency room doctor that was nominated by Gannett News Service for a 1991 Pulitzer Prize. Cole also contracted with two Manhattan-based news agencies, covering conflicts in Haiti, Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Thailand and Cambodia. His work has appeared in dozens of magazines, as well as most newspapers in America. Cole is currently a freelance photographer and novelist living in Northeast Pennsylvania, where he spends afternoons in a virtual running race around the equator, and evenings watching his daughter's magical stage performances. You can find him online at ColeAlpaugh.com.
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