The Rookies and the Nookie

Roethlisberger sex story latest example of TMZ’s expansion into sports coverage

Not long ago, Harvey Levin, founder of the gossip website TMZ, watched Barbara Walters on Fox News, explaining why she was giving up her Oscars special after 29 years. Hollywood had changed, Walters said. There were fewer big stars. Legendary actors had given way to reality-show phonies. Katharine Hepburn was out. Octomom was in. Bestowing celebrity on those who hadn’t really earned it, she suggested, was growing increasingly tiresome.

Levin could relate. Bestowing infamy on those who hadn’t really earned their fame in the first place was no picnic either. These days in Hollywood, nobodies were on the rise. In sports, meanwhile, guys earned their stardom. There was no faking it. And when they faltered, well, the drama was that much richer for having come after so much hard work.

Take Ben Roethlisberger, for instance. Before TMZ broke the news on March 5, that the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback had been accused of sexually assaulting a young woman in a nightclub bathroom in Georgia—and before news of the allegations ricocheted through every corner of the sports media—the 28-year-old kid had hustled his way out of Lima, Ohio, played himself into the first round of the NFL Draft, fought for Rookie of the Year honors and battled for a Super Bowl ring. Can you imagine jeopardizing all that for one night of club-hopping in some beer-funnel town?

By March 8, TMZ Sports had published 16 Roethlisberger items. “You can’t become famous in the world of sports the way you can in the world of celebrity by just hanging out in a club or dabbling in a reality show,” Levin told The Observer. “You have to achieve something. You have to be really good. That makes them more interesting to me.” Levin announced recently that TMZ Sports would be expanding its coverage. He’s in good company. These days, while traditional coverage of various aspects of American life continues to shrink, there’s no shortage of new-media outlets scrambling to grab a piece of the fallen American athlete. Arianna Huffington now has a sports vertical alongside those for politics and media. On March 9, the top three headlines read “Tiger Woods Spotted Kissing Wife”; “Georgia QB Arrested at Bar”; and “Tiger Mistress Beauty Pageant: See Who’s Favored to Win.”

Deadspin, one of the original no-access, no-bias sports blogs, is now so well established it provides a recurring news segment for MSNBC. In the coming weeks, NBC legal analyst Dan Abrams will launch his contribution to the field, a site called SportsGrid.

Levin, for one, thinks that the increased competition from digital media outlets will be good for everyone. “I don’t think it’s an issue of people having to choose us over whoever,” Levin said. “People who are into sports will go to 10 sites. It’s not a zero-sum game.”

Which will hardly stop some longtime sports journalists from wringing their hands. Recently, Dan Le Batard, a regular ESPN contributor, wrote a column for The Miami Herald on the growing generation gap between old and new sports media, noting that “because survival is the strongest instinct, in humans and in business, sports journalism is being forced to evolve into selling its principles and fairness (its soul, in other words) in exchange for clicks and cash.”

Levin brushed aside the criticism. TMZ Sports wasn’t out to destroy athletes or sports journalism. “The last thing I want to do is make this contentious and us against them,” Levin said. “Now if a Ben Roethlisberger case comes around, we’re a news operation, we’re going to cover it. But that doesn’t mean that we’re one-dimensional and that’s the only thing we’re looking for. It isn’t. TMZ Sports is not going to be all about Tiger Woods and Ben Roethlisberger, by any means.”

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