Sports Streaming: An Ethical Dilemma for Cedarville Students

Sunday afternoons present a challenge for NFL fans on campus. How can students watch their favorite teams? In the dorm lounges, students are limited by regional coverage showing the Bengals, Browns or the “Game of the Week” chosen by CBS or Fox.

One easy solution that many students resort to for this problem is watching the game on the Internet. A simple Google search of “NFL live streaming” presents a multitude of websites showing any NFL game, or any other sporting event, seemingly for free. However, according to media and law professor Wes Baker, these third-party websites violate copyright law.

Dave Rotman, associate vice president for technology, said, “It’s easy to rationalize that it’s out there so it must be OK … but if it’s too good to be true then it probably is. If you’re watching a free sporting event that other people are paying to watch, then there’s probably something not quite right.”

Certain television networks broadcast sporting events, such as Watch ESPN, the Sunday Night Football game on NBC and NCAA March Madness on CBS, on the Internet for free. However, many websites that students access through third-party websites do not have a license to stream the content.

“The rights to the game are actually held by the league,” Baker said. “The league will enter into a contract with a broadcast network or a cable network to carry the programming, but they retain the copyright on the work. The broadcaster has paid lots and lots of money for the exclusive right to carry that game. So the broadcaster, as a result, has to get the revenue from the advertising in order to make up the cost that they paid the league to be able to have the rights to do that.”

The websites are illegally posting on the Internet because they are retransmitting the signal of the game without any license or permission to do so. Whether these websites are illegal for the viewer is another issue.

“The person viewing it is not someone who is legally liable,” Baker said. “It’s the person who is actually setting up the structure to be able to stream the material. That’s where the violations come. So your watching of it is not illegal.”

Because of this, authorities do not pursue the viewer, but pursue the host that is posting the illegal stream.

“They don’t go after the viewers because the viewers aren’t the ones that are actively engaged in the violation,” Baker said. “So with that you don’t have a legal issue, you have an ethical issue. And that is: are you going to partake of something that is the illegal fruit of an action that’s been done?”

The ethical dimension

“So even though I might not have any legal liability, do I have an ethical responsibility?” Baker said, “Where I make that choice to say: ‘No, I’m not going to be any part of this because what they’re doing is wrong, it’s illegal,’ and I choose, then, not to be a party to that kind of transaction.”

Baker put the issue in simpler terms.

“I could go to the grocery store and buy a banana, or I could go to some street vendor who’s stolen the banana and buy it from him,” Baker said. “Which do I choose to do? It’s cheaper from the street vendor because he hasn’t had to pay for distribution rights, transportation, and all that. So it’s cheaper, but he didn’t obtain that legally. And so that’s the issue that you become involved in as a consumer: will I participate in something that is an illegal activity?”

Jon Wood, vice president of student life, said that the first question regarding university policy is whether or not the action is legal based on federal law. If any action is against federal law, then it would clearly violate Cedarville’s community covenant.

University policy

The Cedarville student handbook states, “Internet movies and TV shows are only allowed if obtained legally in accordance with copyright laws.”

Although sports streaming is not specifically included in the student handbook, Wood said that students can come to a logical conclusion based on what is included.

However, since streaming isn’t illegal, and the legality of media use is the only statement in the student handbook, the university will not discipline students on this use of media.

“Assuming that it’s not technically illegal, then the university may wish to give some sort of caution,” Wood said. “Not in terms of personal caution, but in terms of a conversation about the wisdom and potential morality of participating in such a system, but you likely would not be subject to sanction, based on the fact that it’s not illegal for the consumer.”

Even though students would not be subject to university discipline, Wood did seriously advise students to consider the morality of their media use.

“I think the bottom line for me is that there are many things for Christians that don’t boil down to simple legality,” Wood said. “There are lots of things that we would acknowledge their legality in the current American justice system, but as believers we ought to be considering their morality based on Biblical principles. Sometimes that is when issues come into direct conflict … with Biblical truth, and sometimes that comes through supporting, perhaps, a system of injustice that runs contrary to legality.”

Because students are unable to watch certain NFL games and other sporting events without using what Baker and Wood have identified as ethically questionable websites, then the only possible options are to watch games off campus or upgrade the sports packages in the lounges across campus.

Jon Wood indicated that upgrades were a possibility.

“We could potentially look into what level of Direct TV packages we have for sporting events, in particular now that there’s NFL Redzone and NFL Ticket,” Wood said. “It’s something that could be considered if there’s a demand there.”

What should students do?

“There’s a difference between what’s legal and what’s ethical. There are some things that are legal and not ethical, and there are some things that are illegal that are ethical,” Baker said. “And with that, what I would say is: don’t engage in what you know to be an illegal activity. For me, that would be an unethical action to take because then you become a participant. If there weren’t people watching it then they wouldn’t be doing it. So if we say no, I’m not going to participate in that, then at least there are some people who are standing for what is right, and acting with some virtue.”

Paul McMichael is a senior preseminary Bible major and a sports reporter for Cedars.

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