Reporting on rumors and the personal lives of athletes

March 12, 2015
Category: Uncategorized

Normally, it would have been a routine post-practice session on Sunday, March 1 for the Chicago Blackhawks. It wasn’t.

In the locker room, Patrick Sharp, one of the team’s top players, strongly denied salacious allegations that he had an affair with a teammate’s wife and other women.

Chicago Blackhawks center Patrick Sharp. (AP Photo/Bill Sikes)

Chicago Blackhawks center Patrick Sharp. (AP Photo/Bill Sikes)

“When people delve into your personal life and make up rumors and things that are completely false and untrue, it takes a toll on you,” Sharp said.

The rumors about Sharp had been floating around town for weeks. There had been rampant chatter on message boards and strong innuendo that something was up with Sharp on sports talk radio. Finally, a Chicago site called SportsMockery, reported it had “confirmed” the story on Feb. 28, and that it was a big reason why the team wanted to trade the popular player.

Yet Chicago’s largest newspapers and other major outlets didn’t report the story until Sharp put it out there with his comments after that Sunday practice. The incident underscores the challenges the “mainstream” media faces in the new landscape.

How should newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times react when the dirt starts flying? Rick Morrissey, a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, says the lines are blurred more than ever.

“Just because you can write something doesn’t mean you should,” Morrissey said. “We [The Sun-Times] hold ourselves to a higher standard. We look at it harder than some of these websites that aren’t held in the same journalistic standard.”

Morrissey said that sentiment ran strong among his colleagues in the press box. Morrissey reported they even “chided” him for even mentioning SportsMockery’s name in a column.

“They said, ‘Why are you giving them clicks [page views]?” Morrissey said. “My thought is if I write a column criticizing sites on the Internet, it’s only fair to call out the site.”

Sports Mockery bills itself as specializing “in creating a unique blend of sports content and making sports news fun.”Previously, the site offered money to get information about Sharp. In a tweet, it said:

“To anyone and everyone that has information regarding the Patrick Sharp situation, get in touch with us – info@sportsmockery.com – $$$$”

Then in its story under the label “Confirmed Rumors,” SportsMockery wrote that its information came from four independent sources that had direct ties to the Blackhawks. The story generated nearly 400,000 page views.

Yet even with the high volume of traffic, Joe Knowles, the Tribune’s associate managing editor for sports, elected not to run a follow-up story solely based on SportsMockery’s report. If Sharp hadn’t addressed the issue, it is highly unlikely the Tribune would have written anything about it. Even when its Blackhawks beat writer Chris Kuc wrote about Sharp’s comments, the Tribune still didn’t get specific about the allegations.

[Full disclosure: I write about sports media for the Tribune]

“We’ve been hearing the rumors like everyone else,” Knowles said. “We tried making some calls, but we didn’t have anything we felt comfortable going with. Just because a site like that posts a story is not enough for us to react. I don’t know their standards. We would expose ourselves to a lot of problems. It’s reckless. We don’t play that way.”

Knowles said he and his staff have debated about whether the Tribune should be reporting on the personal life of a player. He noted that the story could have some merit if the ramifications led to a player like Sharp falling out of favor with a Blackhawks management that is extremely image conscious. Even then, Knowles had his questions.

“Is it really any of our business?” Knowles said. “There’s all sorts of stuff going on in sports. We want to know these athletes as people, but there’s a line. We don’t want to cross it.”

Morrissey is firm in his stance.

“I don’t write about rumors [about the personal life of athletes],” Morrissey said. “On the flip side, I also don’t write about what great fathers and great family men they are.”

Morrissey is referring to the fallout from the Tiger Woods revelations about his personal life in 2009. Critics felt the public was duped by the marketing of Woods as a role model while he was engaged in numerous affairs.

Since then, there is a growing open-season mentality with sites like TMZ delving into the private lives of athletes. More traditional outlets like the Tribune and Sun-Times have to decide how to react to revelations that go beyond what an athlete does in a game.

Morrissey doesn’t like the trend. He wasn’t pleased he eventually had to write about the Sharp story in Chicago.

“We all get a little dirtier because of this,” Morrissey said.

*****

Recommended reading in sports journalism.

My column for the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana addresses the growing disconnect between athletes and the media.

Bob Ryan in the Boston Globe writes about the same issue, asking, “Does it have to be Us vs. Them?”

Christine Brennan and Michael Wilbon have joined Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism as “professors of practice.”

CUIndependent has an interview with Pulitzer Prize winner John Branch of the New York Times.

Ed Sherman writes about sports media at shermanreport.com. Follow him @Sherman_Report