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In the wake of Favre-Deadspin, sports media audience will tolerate more and more

Reading G.Q. magazine’s interview with Deadspin editor A.J. Daulerio is like cracking open a potboiler crime novel, leading with the cash payout to a mysterious man who held the keys to the sports gossip website’s explosive future – voice mails and explicit photos showing legendary quarterback Brett Favre hitting on sideline TV personality Jenn Sterger.

Gabriel Sherman’s excellent profile sets up the situation magnificently, noting that Daulerio had published confidential conversations with Sterger indicating she had the material and had emailed it to friends, hoping one of them would come forward. One did, but he wanted cash.

The story notes: “Daulerio told his boss, Gawker Media founder-overlord Nick Denton, that he desperately wanted the scoop and was willing to pay for it. "I said, 'I'd mortgage the site for this. This is like Monica Lewinsky's dress for Drudge,' " Daulerio recalls.

“Denton agreed to fly the source to New York, and on the afternoon of October 7, Daulerio met him at his hotel. He didn't bring the twelve grand. ‘What if I get whacked on the head?’ he says. ‘It's always a possibility.’”

After perusing the photos and audio, he went to Gawker’s offices, grabbed an envelope filled with $12,000 and handed it to the source, who exchanged it for a USB drive holding the material.

In another media lifetime, that’s the kind of scene that would kick off a story about influence peddling in sports or corruption in officiating. But it’s instead the tale of how an editor landed the biggest sports story of the year by methods most journalists spend their entire careers exposing.

And it’s all happening before our eyes.

Less than an indictment of our modern sports media environment, Sherman’s Daulerio profile is a document of the new now; a chronicle of what it costs to build and maintain the most buzzed-about sports site on the web.

It’s also evidence of what we, the audience, now expect and will tolerate from our sports muckrakers. If the story seems true, nobody gets sued and it’s juicy enough, we don’t really care how the story came to light; we just want to be entertained.

In fact, Deadspin doubled down on its Favre work Tuesday, telling the story of Stephanie Dusenberry, a third masseuse who claims Favre and other Minnesota Vikings players propositioned her in her work as an independent contractor.

Once again, a source told her story to the site in detail and once again began to rethink the decision to go public before Deadspin published their conversations, anyway. Dusenberry also provided a nude photo of back-up Vikings running back Albert Young she said was sent to her by him.

Now that we’ve been down this road before, Deadspin’s methods barely bring a ripple of attention, the cost of doing business in a bruising media culture.

Joined by two other masseuses who have sued Favre, Dusenberry’s accusations describe a sordid team culture where young women working for the team expect to deal with athletes aggressively pursuing them and have little recourse if the advances are unwarranted (Dusenberry said even the police were of little help).

It’s a world the NFL’s investigation into Favre’s actions did little to penetrate, focusing with profit-protecting zeal on the rather narrow question of whether the record-setting QB actually broke a law or explicitly violated a team policy. Small wonder Dusenberry was irked enough by the wrist-slapping result to provide more fodder for Deadspin before securing her own attorneys and, presumably, her own legal fight for a piece of Favre’s financial scalp.

In a way, it seems Deadspin’s success is mainstream sports media’s failure.

Like so many of these celebrity-drenched media phenomenons, there is a real story at heart of all this – the bizarre sexual pressures young women working for sports teams must endure while doing their jobs (I’m kinda wondering why the team has pretty women giving testosterone-fueled guys massages without strict rules, anyway).

If the stories from Dusenberry and the other masseuses are true, it’s a scene straight from a bad Lifetime movie – star athletes hit on underpaid massage therapists who lose their jobs if they complain. That three accounts can surface without the NFL or Vikings taking official action is a continuing, troubling shortfall that serves as the best argument for Deadspin’s ends-justifies-the-means approach.

And the site’s painstakingly detailed and disclosed ethical line-crossing in this story only dramatizes the obvious.

If traditional news outlets had been working the traditional end of this story, maybe that cash-filled envelope would have stayed in Daulerio’s desk drawer and this Pandora’s Box of payoffs, elastic confidences and naked audience chasing would have stayed closed a little while longer.

Hey, an idealistic critic can dream, can’t he?

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed,  at  blogs.tampabay.com/media. 
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