Sports journalists play catch-up on Tiger Woods story

If superstar golfer Tiger Woods hoped time and lying low would stay the onslaught of tabloid coverage, he appears to have badly misread the green that's associated with a big-time scandal.

A growing list of women purporting to have had relationships with Woods has kept media outlets such as the New York Post, TMZ.com and the National Enquirer chasing the story for nearly two weeks. It's a frenzied battle for more readers, and the ad dollars that come with them.

And as the possible tally grows to nine women associated with the man once known as the most disciplined athlete in sports, even mainstream sports journalists find themselves pulled into covering a personal scandal they may not want to touch at all.

Kansas City Star sports columnist Jason Whitlock was among the most vocal, complaining last week that the media were dismantling Woods for daring not to comment in person after running over a fire hydrant at 2:55 a.m. on Nov. 27 in front of his home. After gossip outlets ranging from Us Weekly to TMZ.com unearthed a damning voice mail message to one woman and new allegations of infidelity, Whitlock announced in a Saturday column that "the high road no longer pays our bills."

In the same way high profile affairs by politicians such as Bill Clinton have made infidelity stories more routine for political reporters, now mainstream sports journalists may have to spend more time dissecting rumors of catting around by the athletes on their beat. That, or risk losing audience and bragging rights to the TMZs of the media world.

"It certainly feels like something's shifted, hasn't it?" said Will Leitch, a contributing editor at New York magazine who founded the in-your-face sports blog Deadspin back in 2005. "The idea that a new mistress made the (headline) crawl on SportsCenter is amazing. Everybody kind of senses something's a little different now."

As the managing editor and founder of online gossip site TMZ.com, longtime celebrity journalist Harvey Levin proudly recounted how he and his staff worked round the clock to break new developments in the hours after Woods' car crash, first noting the possibility that a fight between the golfer and his wife may have preceded the accident and describing the scene in detail.

And while Levin admits the site might pay for a photo or a video clip — "It's no different than hiring a freelance cameraman," he said — the scoopmeister also insisted that TMZ doesn't pay for interviews.

Levin also shrugged off the notion that TMZ is forcing sports journalism to change, but did say it's only a matter of time before sports departments hire people to troll for news in nightclubs, like other mainstream media outlets have reportedly done. "In (the Woods story), I think sports journalists were more reticent than the general media. If you look at the Today show and Good Morning America, they were all over this."

ESPN columnist and commentator Jemele Hill acknowledged that some sports writers might shy away from investigating the infidelity of athletes, unless their cheating was part of a more conventional news story. But when stars such as Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant build multimillion-dollar empires on the force of their image, can any story affecting their public perception really be off the table?

Hill said ESPN's audience drew them into featuring the story more, as it became clear fans were getting details of the controversy surrounding Woods' accident from other news sources.

"I think we were slow to realize why it was news," she said. "It's not (the possible cheating). I think people are flabbergasted. How could a guy who is worth a billion dollars do this? How in the world could Tiger Woods be so stupid?"

One possible reason: Because sports media didn't cover him the way celebrity news outlets cover stars such as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

Hill, who lives in Orlando about 20 minutes from Woods' neighborhood, said the golfer often had dinner in restaurants and attended Orlando Magic basketball games without any paparazzi or reporters trailing him. Now that's all over.

"It will be interesting to see how this affects him," she said. "If he can't get any peace at home, how does that impact him on the golf course?"

Tampa sports agent and attorney Kendall Almerico noted successful athletes live in a world where women are constantly propositioning them. "Tiger Woods was one of those untouchables in the media," Almerico said. "(Perhaps) any journalist who knew what was going on would feel bad to tear down an icon of society."

But that was a notion resisted strenuously by Michael Anastasi, second vice president of the Associated Press Sports Editors Association. His said his own newspaper, the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, simply had a different news judgment.

"I don't see us featuring every turn of the screw on this thing," said Anastasi, noting the newspaper has mostly run wire stories on the Woods scandal inside the sports section. "And I think there are more news organizations like ours than not."

Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521.

Sports journalists play catch-up on Tiger Woods story 12/07/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 8, 2009 9:08am]

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