clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Internet A Ravenous Beast For Ingesting Athletes' Private Lives

The immediacy of the Internet and the speed with which things can be transmitted today have helped make bigger scandals for sports stars.

If Brett Favre had done what he purported to do to Jenn Sterger two decades ago, there likely wouldn't have been recordings of his attempted assignation with the Jets sideline reporter. And he certainly had no way of electronically transmitting photos of his penis -- if indeed that was Favre's and not that of an impostor, set-up artist or local porno star.

Times have changed. The Internet and all its sites have a limitless appetite for salacious gossip, and absolute truth and standards of libel and slander be damned. Cyberspace may have democratized public opinion, but it goes too far when it pokes into private lives for the sake of titilation. Letting anyone post information, whether they have training in reporting and the standards of libel and slander, is the dark side of the unlimited access to the internet.

I was taught in Professor Tony Scantlen's Law of the Press class at Northern Illinois University nearly 35 years ago that reckless disregard of the truth is grounds for a successful libel suit. Reports of misbehavior, drug abuse or criminal activity by public figures better have the absolute truth backing them. That's why we were slow to throw darts at steroid abusers -- what proof did we have besides bloated heads and inflated power totals? You better have it buttoned down even better than that to accuse a superstar of illegal drug use.

Here's one example, and I'll leave the name out because if it didn't happen, that's reckless disregard of the truth. Some years ago, a poster claimed that a Cubs player won a bet with an equally prominent teammate. The payoff: he'd get to have sex with the teammate's wife. The poster claimed to have spotted the couple consummating the settling of the bet, sans clothes, in one of the broadcast booths at Wrigley Field on an off-day.

Now, a publication or even on-line site employing professionals -- paid for their work, adhering to libel and slander standards, and with a couple of layers of editors to put the brakes on material that should not see the light of day -- would have "spiked" that story. The poster had no level of authority to whom to answer. The Cubs figures of whom I speak have not sued to the best of my knowledge. Maybe they didn't even notice the story. The poster can't take that chance. He used a "shoot first, ask questions later" standard. He's lucky the players.

Reporters themselves used to be their own censors, until perhaps the pressure to post immediately, and Tweet, and feed the monster prompted them to throw off their caution flags. My color is still yellow (and not for fear), though. I personally don't care what an athlete does in his private life, so long as he doesn't abuse his spouse, abuse or neglect his children or be unprepared to play for his team at his accustomed level.

Also at work back in the day was the implied threat that writing about an athlete's pecadillos would cut off access to him. I recall more than 20 years ago Jim O'Donnell taking fellow Bulls media to task for not reporting on Michael Jordan fathering his first child before he married Juanita. Later, it was likely an open secret Jordan had affairs in the area, but they were not reported on. Anyone covering the Bulls needed daily access to the most prominent athlete on the planet. And, besides, Jordan showed up for work daily, practiced harder than anyone and was the NBA's top killer on the court. If he could burn the candle at both ends, let him be.

Oddly enough, it was Jordan's other love, gambling, not his secondary love life, that caused him to finally clam up in 1993. Chuck Goudie of WLS-TV, a news-side muckraker, blew into playoff coverage and shouted at Jordan to come clean about visits to riverboat casinos. Then Goudie went back to his non-sports scoops, leaving the people who covered Jordan every day to deal with a zipped-lipped superstar.

News that an athlete is messing around or wants to? Well, I've got a story about the Lindbergh baby's kidnapping for you. Jocks dipping their sticks almost at will is as old as sports itself. They're macho, and a lot of women who follow them are star-struck (we won't use a rhyming word for "struck" here because, well, we have standards). So what's news here? Perhaps the athlete who is pure and loyal and "aw shucks." They're the ones who stand out.

Mike Ditka was ripped by many for suggesting, "So what?" over the Favre-Sterger affair. It's two-year-old news, said Da Coach. He's right. Other than throwing Favre off his game and affecting the point spread, to what purpose does the revelation serve? Maybe moving the point spread was the purpose.

If jocks learned anything from this, it's don't leave an electronic and cyberspace trail. Everything is saved and traceable these days. And if I've learned anything, it's to maintain your standards even if the rest of the business is going to hell.