By Howard Kurtz
Thursday, January 7, 2010; C02
It was perhaps the worst possible photo for Gilbert Arenas -- and it disappeared for much of Wednesday, courtesy of the National Basketball Association.
The picture showed the Washington Wizards star on the sidelines, on his knees, fingers on both hands cocked as he pretended to shoot a group of laughing teammates. The image conveyed an air of hilarity just as Arenas is under investigation for displaying a gun in a locker-room dispute with a teammate -- an inquiry that led to his indefinite suspension without pay by the league Wednesday. Arenas has drawn criticism for repeatedly making light of the much-publicized incident.
The photo -- published on the front of The Washington Post's sports section Wednesday and prominently displayed on ESPN's home page -- was transmitted by Getty Images under a contract with the NBA. But it was mysteriously excised from the Getty archive later in the day.
"The image was pulled from our site because of the NBA," Getty official Cynthia Edorh said. "Legally, the NBA has the right to pull any of their images as part of the contract with Getty."
The incident points to a glaring weakness in the arrangement between one of the world's top photo agencies and the basketball league: In exchange for the NBA's business, Getty exercises no editorial control over the pictures it transmits to the media. That allows league officials to shape, and sometimes protect, the sport's image, given Getty's global reach and the media's considerable appetite for photos. NBA officials, who apparently found the image embarrassing as the Arenas case has drawn growing national attention, were able to spike it.
Bridget Russel, Getty's director of corporate communications, said the company asked the NBA to revisit its decision, and the Arenas photo eventually was restored to the archive. She said there is a clear distinction between photos shot by Getty and those it distributes on behalf of other organizations -- from the NBA to The Washington Post -- in which the captions make clear that Getty does not own the copyright.
The picture "was shot by one of the NBA's photographers," Russel said. "Getty Images does not own the rights to this image, we are merely the distributor. We did honor the NBA's request to take down the image. They reconsidered, and the photo was restored live to our site at approximately 3:30 p.m."
Apparently, Getty officials weren't the only ones who pushed back. NBA spokesman Tim Frank said the league made the photo available after Tuesday night's Wizards game, but "it was taken down because we thought the actions depicted in the photo were insensitive given the circumstances. Upon the request of news organizations, we made the photo available for their editorial use and it will remain available."