Commentary

Athletes contending with paparazzi

Updated: April 13, 2010, 9:05 PM ET
By Ben Houser | E:60

New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez understands that people want to know what is going on with athletes. "They want to see what we look like coming off a plane," he says, "see if we look as bad as everybody else, and we do."

NFL prospect Colt McCoy already is keenly aware that "you got to be on your guard all the time, no matter where you are or what you're doing, just be smart."

NASCAR's four-time Sprint Cup champion, Jimmie Johnson, knows the tabloid world is training its eye on athletes and the "magnifying glass is intensifying in the sports world."

Among the many lessons on display during the Tiger Woods sex scandal these past few months is that the tabloids, and accompanying paparazzi, aren't just in the market for pictures of celebrities like Taylor Swift and Taylor Lautner. Those same tabloids and photographers have focused their attention on the likes of Kobe Bryant, Alex Rodriguez, Reggie Bush, Lamar Odom and others -- and athletes and sports leagues are taking notice about how to handle the attention.

"Sports stars now are really the big Hollywood actors and actresses," says Gary Morgan, CEO of Splash, a paparazzi agency that started in 1990 and employs upwards of 2,000 photographers worldwide. "They're the new celebrities."

Years ago, Morgan says, the public didn't care much if athletes committed adultery or strayed, but that has changed now with the Internet. He says Americans are thirsty for information on their heroes. Splash had 50 photographers and reporters and its entire Florida bureau looking for an image of Woods. That quest took his crew to South America, Europe and the Caribbean. Morgan's company has taken numerous photographs of Woods since his now-infamous car accident in November, including an image of Woods and a Getty photographer setting up a photo opportunity the day before Woods' nationally televised statement Feb. 19.

[+] EnlargePaparazzi
AP Photo/Kevork DjansezianReporters and photographers gather outside Los Angeles International Airport hoping to catch a glimpse of English soccer player David Beckham and his wife, Victoria. Sports stars are increasingly the focus of the paparazzi.

"We were actually in a helicopter shooting Getty shooting him, showing that it was a setup," Morgan said. He wanted the world to see how much of a "control freak Woods is," even in the midst of the uncontrollable controversy and tabloid feeding frenzy.

Howard Kurtz, a media critic for the Washington Post, says that sports stars had it good for a long time, earning big salaries without tabloid scrutiny from the paparazzi, but that isn't the case any longer.

"Athletes now have to duck the paparazzi, they now have to worry about their text messages becoming public," Kurtz says. "We all live in a TMZ world now, and some of these particularly high-profile athletes are getting burned by the 24-hour exposure."

TMZ (Thirty Mile Zone) is a celebrity Web site and TV show that covers the latest in Hollywood. TMZ recently made its mark on the sports world. The Web site ran the first photos of Woods' smashed-up car and updated the world as news trickled out. A quick search of "Tiger Woods accident" on the Web site produces more than 19,000 TMZ stories.

Harvey Levin, executive producer of TMZ, started the Web site in 2005. A syndicated TV show started in 2007. Today, sports stories are a major part of TMZ's content, Levin says, "because sports stars are big if not bigger than movie stars and TV stars, people have a fierce connection with them, they have intense feelings about them. Sports stars they watch day after day, week after week; they are more loyal and it just made sense, people care about them."

In December, following the Woods saga, word leaked out that TMZ is starting up a sports-only Web site, TMZ Sports. Levin he says it is likely to start this year.

Kurtz says that professional athletes should be "very, very worried about the launch of TMZ Sports."

"E:60" spoke with several athletes to see what they thought. Former NFL defensive star Michael Strahan says he watches TMZ -- it is a "guilty pleasure" -- but athletes might not be as nice as the actors TMZ covers.

Pro Football Hall of Famer Warren Moon says the NFL will brief players on the launch of TMZ Sports and that players "better be ready."

Phillies slugger Ryan Howard says, "You just always have to try and protect yourself, you know that is just the age that you live in. There is so much media all over the place, but you just have to watch what you are doing and be on your good behavior at all times."

NASCAR's Johnson says, "There is no telling what the hell TMZ is gonna do."

Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez says he thinks the whole thing is "a little creepy."

"But, ugh, I guess that is what the public wants," he says. "…If that is what people want to see, hopefully it still sheds a good light on the athletes, unless you deserve it. If you're out there doing dirt, then hey, you should get called out for it."

Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Dhani Jones says the media will cover and report as best they can.

"We have to know as athletes, people will be watching us, and every step or move that we make will be covered," he said. "It's evident the fact that what happened with Tiger, and it's an unfortunate situation; he'll make it through and stay strong, and we support him because we realize everybody messes up at times."

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello says the league is aware of the increased coverage by celebrity and tabloid Web sites.

"We recognize, as everyone does in the NFL, I believe, that media scrutiny is more intense today in the age of the Internet," he says. "That is the driving force -- the digital media revolution -- as opposed to the approach of any particular news organization. Social media is also part of the landscape.

"We embrace the coverage and the technology as opportunities to connect with fans in more ways now. We also recognize that we have to carefully manage this public interaction -- be responsive, be factual, be responsible -- and impress those points on our teams, coaches and players. … How you conduct yourself is more important than ever; that you are always 'on'; that there are very few secrets in the digital world. Media training by each team for its players and coaches is required under our media policies as of a few years ago."

Other major sports organizations in the U.S. seem prepared. MLB spokesman Patrick Courtney says baseball officials are "aware of TMZ Sports," and NBA spokesman Brian McIntyre says that "our conversations with our players have included the increasing tabloidization of the media for years."

Some celebrities who are used to the scrutiny have some advice for athletes. Nick Lachey says he thinks TMZ Sports is "sad."

"We are in a place of saturation where it gets to be too much," he says. "Where is the mystique? Where are the Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio days? What they do in their personal life shouldn't concern any of us."

Rapper Snoop Dogg says he loves the idea of TMZ Sports. "Why not? Maybe I will have to be a host on the show or something."

Olivia Munn, a TV personality, has simple advice: "The next athlete who cheats on his wife and it ends up in the tabloids, you deserve it. You should've been smarter."

Ben Houser is a senior producer for E:60.

Ben Houser is a Senior Producer for ESPN's E:60.

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