When an NBA team owner issues a mea culpa at the same time he’s hanging a “For Sale” sign on his share of the franchise, we know we have entered a new era in sports.
With TMZ trolling for sensational content and Twitter empowering the public as judge and jury, sports organizations are on high alert that their dirty laundry can be aired more easily and widely than ever.
Better to get out ahead of it—as Bruce Levenson and the Atlanta Hawks did Sunday, releasing a Levenson-authored email about Hawks fans that contained incendiary comments such as “the kiss cam is too black”—than to be buried in a wave of social media activism triggered by shock-value video or audio.
At the time of Levenson’s announcement, Donald Sterling was the central cautionary character in the TMZ tale of the tape. The NBA banned Sterling for life, and he was forced to sell the Los Angeles Clippers after TMZ posted audio in April of Sterling making racist comments. But as the background details of Levenson’s decision were breaking Monday, revealing racially-tinged remarks by Hawks general manager Danny Ferry that were even more troubling than Levenson’s email, the Hawks story was pushed to also-ran status on the national sports stage.
TMZ released a video Monday morning of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice beating his then-fiancee in an elevator. By the end of the day, the Ravens had cut Rice and the NFL had suspended him indefinitely. That both the NFL and the Ravens had to backpedal on their earlier reactions to the Rice incident made the Hawks’ seek-higher-ground strategy suddenly look like the high road.
On many levels, this new sense of accountability is a good thing. Sports organizations are among the least-investigated institutions of public trust. Witness the Atlanta Braves’ ability to fully control the timing and message of their initial announcement about moving to Cobb County–a move which, it’s relevant especially this week to note, shifts the team toward its white-fan base.
TMZ is filling a void created by myriad factors, including deep cutbacks at traditional media outlets, sports journalists wary to compromise access with aggressive reporting, and a lack of demand from fans who would rather not know the seamier side of their beloved team or sports hero.
Right now, TMZ is like an experimental drug, helping to bring some of the ills in sports (and celebrity culture in general) to the surface.
But it’s a dangerous experiment, with reckless disregard for privacy and journalistic ethics.
As director of the new Sports Media program at the University of Georgia’s Grady College, I work with a generation of journalists (and media consumers) who are coming of age with TMZ, YouTube, and Twitter. I tell them to use their power for good, to balance their ability to access and globally publish potentially explosive material with careful consideration. Because while it is a new era, the old rules can still apply.
Vicki Michaelis is the Carmical Distinguished Professor in Sports Journalism and Society at the University of Georgia. She worked for more than two decades as a sportswriter, including 12 years as USA Today’s lead Olympics reporter. She has covered high school, college, and professional sports, with stints on NBA and major college football beats. She tweets at @VickiMichaelis