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Focus on off-field goings on places more pressure on star athletes — and on those who cover them

Years ago, former Meet the Press host Marvin Kalb started one of his many books confessing about the biggest story he never covered.

While working as a CBS News correspondent in 1963, Kalb had the misfortune to walk into a private elevator at the same time as a shapely young lady under escort by Secret Service agents, presumably for a – ahem – private meeting with then-President of the United States, John F. Kennedy.

One hammerlocked takedown and fifty years later, Kalb never discovered who the woman was – surprised only by his immediate and almost reflexive decision not to do any more reporting on the matter.

Flash forward half a generation, and a man who was once the Democratic nominee for vice president has seen his life undone by a love child exposed in the press. Both John Edwards’ former aide and his soon-to-be ex-wife have written books and the gossip sheet that exposed his lies has submitted its work for a Pulitzer Prize.

I think of this or something like it every time I see a sports fan or sportswriter grousing about the increasingly gossipy nature of modern sports journalism. Because I don’t think media or the audience deserves all of the blame for this particular turn in our craft.

There must be, it seems, a middle ground between pursuing famous athletes with intrusive attitudes and long-distance camera lenses and accepting any hogwash they want to feed journalists about their off-the-field lives.

Let’s be honest. Anyone who has clocked a few dances in this rodeo knows that the most successful athletes, the ones with the million-dollar endorsement deals and regular spots in the sports media firmament, do more than dominate their game.

They sell success with a story.

It’s a story eventually told and retold by blow-dried sports anchors and long-winded columnists with tight deadlines. The story becomes a legend, artfully managed by careful handlers and fertilized by regular applications of media attention.

And all too often, part of this legend involves non-sports issues — a strong family foundation with a beautiful wife and smiling kids; a respect for the rules that precludes any use of performance-enhancing substances; a reputation for success as a focused leader who can be an example for others.

Tiger Woods and his billion-dollar endorsement network may have been the most successful at converting his winning image into cold cash, but there are many more working the same hustle for smaller paydays. Those endorsement contracts don’t come with morals clauses for nothing.

But, as the Bill Clintons and John Edwards and yes, Tiger Woods, have shown us all, some of our most-admired leaders fail to meet their own often-articulated standards of morality and discipline.

So when that happens, are journalists supposed to make like the clubby good old boys of years past and turn their heads? Do athletes get to keep on selling high-end watches and luxury cars and sports drinks on the backs of a public image that may bear no resemblance to their actual, off-field life?

Do we wait until they wrap a car around a fire hydrant or get investigated for an assault before we demand the charade ends?

The hitch trapping us all is that the American public has developed a taste for – and expectation of – the fall-from-grace story.

In a media universe where the consumer’s needs drive content more than ever, the audience’s willingness to wallow in assorted scandals means new outlets will rise to feed their appetites – hence the upcoming TMZSports.com – while established platforms struggle to keep up.

Hence, ESPN’s attempt to cover the latest controversy surrounding Ben Roethlisberger with some effort.

It’s a new media environment, with less tolerance than ever for journalists who write less than they know or celebrities who do more than they’ll admit. This new landscape will get ugly – think back to pictures of thickheaded Olympic star Michael Phelps stupidly puffing on a bong in public to remember how a youthful mistake can become a career-damaging worldwide headline in a heartbeat.

But this new world also means more pressure for reporters to write what they know and star athletes to avoid creating the story in the first place.

And that can’t be entirely bad for sports or journalism.

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 www.blogs.tampabay.com/media.

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