The first match of Iowa's high school wrestling championship isn't for six days, and already, the taxpayers and the media have lost.
Iowa High School Athletic Association, or IHSAA, is suddenly in the business of picking winners and losers thanks to an exclusivity deal that essentially blacks out most of the state. IHSAA opted in 2014 to sell exclusivity rights to Iowa High School Sports Network, a for-profit venture. In turn, the network, this year, signed a distribution deal with Comcast, which transmits only to the state's eastern third.
For fans in Des Moines and Sioux City, the frustration is obvious and real. But for media companies, the sudden crackdown on coverage reeks of crony capitalism, which taints the purity of high school athletics just like it did to big-time college sports.
Sure, IHSAA is, itself, a private, nonprofit organization. And on its face, IHSAA made a self-interested deal with a for-profit firm. But what about those wrestling programs from Bettendorf, Ames and Council Bluffs?
Make no mistake, in many cases, those are programs run in public schools and funded by public dollars. In that context, a sudden crackdown on media coverage — to the benefit of a single source — is analogous to police contracting with a single news outlet for crime scene access.
Starting this year, sports writers, including Quad-City Times' Matt Coss, will be sequestered in a room far from the action. Instead of being mat-side, they will watch from closed-circuit televisions. Photographers, who, over the years, have told the stories of victory and defeat, will be pushed back from the action.
The sudden changes are about limiting "congestion" near the mats, IHSAA says. But, in reality, it's about tilting coverage in Iowa High School Sports Network's favor.
The protests against limiting access isn't just sour grapes. The results of the draconian, lopsided coverage rules are bound to surface at the tournament later this month. Reporters won't have the immediate access to athletes and coaches following an important match. The joy of victory and despair of defeat — the true power of competitive sport — will take place far from those trying to capture the oh-so-human moments. It's in these fleeting nuances where sports writing has flourished for decades.
To be fair, IHSAA this week acknowledged the row among reporters and editors throughout the state. They're trying to react, the organization said in an email. Changes are being eyed, officials pledged. Yet, it's still unclear how the very real denial off access to programs, largely funded by the taxpayer, will be rectified.
There's a very real chance that such a lockdown will persist for at least another two years, the term of Iowa High School Sports Network's deal with Comcast. The network itself signed a 10-year agreement to essentially bias coverage in its favor.
There are a lot of losers in IHSAA's greed-fueled crackdown on Iowa's sporting reporters and photographers. A lot of relatives and taxpayers, unable to make the trip to Des Moines, won't have access to matches. Too many athletes won't get the local accolades they deserve, which only hometown media can offer. And the media itself — an easy punching bag — will again see its ability to cover the news eroded.
So much for fairness and sportsmanship.