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Legacy of Brett Favre-Jennifer Sterger story could be future of sports media ethics

Since I started in this game a few decades ago, one element has surfaced as an often-overlooked essential of the journalism craft.

Your word, especially to sources, must be gold.

So what are we to make of the recent media tsunami kicked off by the sports blog Deadspin, in which a story they first reported months ago about superstar Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre sexting an unwilling woman has exploded into a blockbuster news item even Fox News Channel was dissecting Monday?

The story is of a kind that traditional sports media still struggles to cover; a sordid tale of alleged skeezy behavior by a superstar.

Traditional media types still get squishy over these items – in part, because they seem beneath the mandate of serious sports journalism and in part because they upset too many established relationships. (Run first with an allegation that father and grandfather Favre was sending naked photos of himself to a cute young TV personality and watch all your locker room access melt away.)

But I was uncomfortable about this story for a different reason. It surfaced because Deadspin editor A.J. Daulerio first published news of the cellphone photos before he had seen them and before his source could completely confirm that she was willing to go on the record about the material.

Additionally, the part which made the allegations explode into an actual story for traditional media – copies of suggestive voice mails and explicit photos published on Deadspin last week, kicking off an NFL investigation – surfaced because the blog paid an unnamed third party for the material.

On August 4, Daulerio revealed former New York Jets in-house sideline reporter Jennifer Sterger told him she had received several photos on her cellphone of a naked man which seemed to come from Favre when they both worked for the team in 2008. The editor admitted he posted his story after Sterger indicated she was willing to go on the record but before they actually spoke, due to difficulties she was having with her BlackBerry.

So she wasn’t able to clarify what was on the record and what wasn’t before Daulerio published everything they had talked about in confidence.

“There's no turning back now. But who knows?” he wrote then. “Jenn and I never connected yesterday, either in person or on the phone. Maybe those photos will surface at this point since I assume many people would like to hear her side of this story, given it's a helluva lot more interesting than any retirement rope-a-dopes.”

But it wasn’t until Deadspin posted the actual material Thursday that a reporter at an official press conference asked Favre about the allegation — which he refused to address, making news. The next day, the NFL announced an investigation, allowing the most traditional media outlets to pile on.

When Deadspin first unveiled the story, I was struck by two things: how both Daulerio and Sterger seemed to accept that getting propositioned with flirty voice mails and texts from married stars was a routine job hazard, until the pictures arrived. And how easily Daulerio seemed to shrug off his obligations to his source, well aware of the benefit to come from such a blockbuster story.

In a media climate where the ends increasingly justify the means, the fact that Deadspin hasn’t been sued, has published the material and hasn’t even faced a denial from Favre seems to seal the deal. Network TV morning shows dissected the story today, with the site mentioned prominently and little attention paid to how the story surfaced.

“You wonder if this is a team playing a little fast and loose,” said USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan on Good Morning America today, referring to the Jets’ previous problem with how sexy TV reporter Ines Sainz was catcalled when attending a recent practice.

(I wonder how nervous other sports stars are now, seeing how an act allegedly committed in 2008 has surfaced to shatter Favre’s good guy image and possibly throw off his game while he’s setting records for consecutive starts?)

This story makes me nervous for sports journalism – not just for contributing to the annals of tabloid-driven sports reporting, but for lowering the bar once again for the tactics used by reporters chasing such stories.

There are also are a few unanswered questions. Who provided the material to Deadspin? Was it someone connected to Sterger? Is she somehow profiting from the story? Can we believe Sterger’s contention that there wasn’t a relationship between her and Favre (the voicemails and picture seems awfully intimate for communication with someone you don’t know, um, intimately)?

What does any of this have to do with sports? And how long before Favre turns to ESPN or another friendly source for a super-controlled interview where he reveals as little of his side on this as possible?

The scandal itself has prompted lots of commentary, from chiding of mainstream media outlets for their reticence to chase the story to calls for banning women from locker rooms. As always, the silver lining may be any influence scaring sports teams into policing the activity of their players, keeping the next Jennifer Sterger from enduring something similar.

Frankly, I think most mainstream outlets played this story about right, focusing on the issue when enough evidence surfaced to make pointed questions necessary. Given that it was about a long-ago event only unearthed after some serious ethical shortcuts, I’m not sure how a traditional news outlet could have chased this story while remaining fair to Favre and Sterger.

But the true legacy of this story will be found in what the next media outlet does to snare the next juicy tale about a sports star’s personal scandal.

And how long the rest of us can hold off, before we’re forced to use similar tactics to provide the kind of juicy scoops an increasingly receptive audience has come to reward, regardless of how they are obtained.

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  

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