Coexisting: Sports and Photographers

Last week, LeBron James was fouled while driving to the hoop in game 4 of the NBA Finals. After he absorbed contact from Andrew Bogut, James tried to sell the foul to the refs, only to land awkwardly, and fell (I would say propelled himself) headfirst into a row of photographers sitting courtside, with his head smashing into the lens of an NBA TV camera operator.

Here’s the video:

Suddenly, what was a painful yet isolated incident turned into a debate about whether photographers should even be allowed to sit along the baseline.

It started as soon as the incident occurred. Take a look at the video again. At the :21-second mark, the man in the dark suit (who was identified as Nike executive Lynn Merritt, who is in charge of James’ “brand”) appears to point and yell at the camera operator. “Fucking asshole,” he says. “It IS your fault.”

I’m not quite sure what he was angry about –the fact that the photog was sitting in the appropriately assigned spot? The photog’s lack of superhuman speed to avoid being crashed into by the strongest player in the NBA? It’s not fair (or sane) to think that the photog was responsible for James’ head wound.

(As an aside, Merritt is the same errand boy James used to confiscate video of him being dunked on by Xavier’s Jordan Crawford. GOTTA PROTECT THAT BRAND!)

So immediately, with Lebron on the ground with a gash on his head, the attention wasn’t James’ injury or about exaggerating a hard foul – it was a problem created by the presence of the media.

But the anti-camera sentiment continued moments later. Watch at the :49 second mark. As ABC TV cameras tried to get a shot of James – you know, for the live game they are covering, a security guard steps in the way of the shot. “They don’t want cameras,” she says, sticking her hand on the camera lens.

You can see more in this video:

James walked to the scorer’s table, escorted by security guards who created a human shield (!) between James and the cameras. At at the 1:10 mark, even ABC play-by-play man Mike Breen admits the ridiculousness of the efforts to … I dunno … keep photogs from stealing James soul or something.

“The security is trying to push away the cameras. Not going let them shoot it. Getting a little overzealous here,” he said.

I admit that the last thing you want when you’re hurt is a camera in your face, and I’ve been a part of broadcasts that knew better than to broadcast a gruesome injury or show a replay of someone in tremendous pain. But this isn’t a high school kid with a blown knee or Paul George snapping his leg in half. LeBron James knocking his head and being hurt in the NBA Finals is news, and crews showed appropriate restraint: the photogs moved out of the way for medical teams and the ABC photog who was shunned by the security guard was giving enough space to not be intrusive.

Following the game, James took his stance against the position of photographers, telling Northwest Ohio Media Group that he will tell concerns about how close photogs are to the court at the Players Association meetings in July. “Something has to be done,” he said. (In the same article, author Chris Haynes notes that the NBA has made changes over the last five years to “reduce the baseline photo area by nearly 50 percent).

The message was clear: photographers should move away from the sidelines.

But photographers are already near the limit of where they can sit on the baseline and still be able to do their jobs.

The NBA requires that four feet of space be given on each side of the stanchion (the post holding up the hoop), and the stanchion also sits four feet off the court. The idea is to provide a “safety lane” for out of control players so they don’t crash into people or equipment. Add to that the number of premium baseline seats that are packed into the space behind the basket, and there’s already not a lot of room to work with. Also keep in mind, the hoop hang out a couple feet over the court, so there’s even more space between the hoop itself and where photographers sit. Also, last year the NBA reduced the number of credentialed photographers allowed along the baseline.

Some “hot take artists” have made the argument that cameras have zoom lenses, so why should photographers sit so close? A seemingly valid point, but it falls apart when you realize that zoom lenses don’t have x-ray vision and can’t see through a basketball hoop support. I get angry when a referee walks in front of my shot, but at least he moves out of the way after a moment.

Photographers need to be able to do their jobs and document the games. Many of the amazing basketball photos features in news, magazines, and on posters come from photographers sitting along the baseline. Do you think this shot of Michael Jordan soaring through the air would be possible if the photographer was moved back several feet? I doubt it. Could photographers adjust? Possibly, but photographers have already made the adjustments, staying in their zones and giving space for players, referees and fans.

But it’s the photographers and camera operators jobs to document the game and share the story with their audience. It’s the same as a news photographer taking pictures at an event or on the street. They do what they can to not become a part of the proceedings, and give enough space to not interfere (there’s an unspoken rule among photographers that creates an invisible barrier at the scene of news, ensuring no one runs in front of each others’ shots). But it’s their job to get the photos. They can’t write on their web site the next day that “I couldn’t get the shot. They wanted me to stand farther away.” The audience doesn’t care. And if a photographer is following the rules and laws of a situation, they should do what they can to get the shot. Yes, there are times when a photographer and a subject collide, or find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, but those unfortunate moments are rare exceptions.

I think James and those who share his opinions on baseline photographers are reacting too quickly, and making the issue appear larger than it really is.

The James collision was a freak accident, but an isolated one. Let’s not blame photgraphers. Let’s blame the forces of gravity that caused it to happen and move on.

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