Once upon a time, we looked away. That's how it used to be in the sports writing business. If Babe Ruth was drunk at night but hit a home run during the day, only the home run was reported.
That attitude has changed. Over the years, the wink and nod agreement between sports heroes and the men who lionized them withered away. The behavior got worse (gambling, drugs, steroids) and the journalism got more pointed.
Now comes news that TMZ, the powerful gossip Internet and TV organization, is sharpening its fangs for a bite into the sports business and this could take the ugliness, as athletes like to say, to whole new level.
According to several reports, TMZ has registered the name "TMZSports.com" with plans to build a parallel model to its entertainment operation, which consists of rumors, tips, paparazzi photos or cell phone video slapped into so-called news that is mostly about bad behavior.
There's plenty of that in the sports world.
DIGGING UP DIRT PART OF BRAVE NEW WORLD
Consider this. The Tigers Woods scandal hasn't got a thing to do with actual sports, yet it's one of this year's biggest sports stories. The Web hits were through the roof. No doubt TMZ and other outfits smell blood in the water and money in the wind.
So we rush into a new era of sports reporting the "gotcha" approach previously reserved for the Brad Pitts and Angelina Jolies of the world. And I'll tell you this. Catching married athletes with other women will not be hard. Snapping photos of drunken athletes will not be hard. Getting tips about ballplayers in strip clubs, hot tubs or crowded limos will not be hard.
The fact is, many famous athletes are young men with a lot of money and little life experience beyond the playing field. They are often in the wrong place with the wrong people. Ask Chris Henry's friends. Or Sean Taylor's. Ask any coach.
If you are willing to pay bartenders or security guards for info and photos (something TMZ admits it does) the pile of sports gossip will be a mile high. After all, how many truly big-name actors or singers are there? Fifty? Sixty? But you've got hundreds if not thousands of baseball, football, basketball, hockey, tennis or golf stars to pick from. And many are on the road, easily found in hotels or traveling in groups.
DRAMA ON FIELD, NOT OFF IT, WAS IMPORTANT
I'm not saying ignoring the cavorting of athletes is some high and mighty principle. When substance abuse or criminal acts intersect with a player's performance it is sadly yet surely news.
But over the years in this business, when the game was over, when the quotes had been gathered, when the story had been written, I felt the job had been done for the day. It wasn't my obligation to then follow the athlete into a bar or sneak around outside his hotel room.
But I fear soon that's where "sports news" may begin. Look no further than the coverage of Alex Rodriguez's love life in the New York tabloids, or the fact that Tiger's marital woes made the cover of the New York Post for 20 straight days, eclipsing the previous record held by the terror of 9/11.
Sex sells. Gossip sells. Bad behavior sells. The TMZ approach of capturing your worst moments and splashing them around the world will be a hard thing for more conservative news outlets to ignore. It's a giant sucking force, a steamy, melting pot of celebrity where being the major league home run leader is the same as being a "real housewife" of Atlanta.
As sports writers, we weren't covering stars because of their cheekbones, physiques or fame. We covered them because they achieved amazing things on the playing field and created drama that was exhilarating and captivating.
Once upon a time, we looked away from the other stuff. Now we never stop staring, following, snapping and gossiping. Maybe the old method wasn't telling the whole story. But at least we weren't manufacturing it.