- The Washington Times - Monday, December 28, 2009

It was the year of the gossip in sports, from the love interests of Alex Rodriguez to the same with Tiger Woods.

And Shaquille O’Neal, too.

Fueling the interest is the new media of the Internet.

Members of the new media can be anyone clutching a cell phone, as swimmer Michael Phelps learned to his embarrassment in February.

The shot of Phelps taking a hit from a bong surfaced on the Internet before it spilled into the mainstream press and became an international incident.

That should be a lesson to those high-profile athletes who booze it up in strip clubs, attend wild parties or engage in behavior that would disappoint their employers, family and fans.

Quarterback Matt Leinart, once the toast of college football, solidified his playboy reputation after photographs of him and four lovelies doing beer-bong hits in a hot tub were posted on the Internet last year.

It is an unruly, new media world, driven not by a public’s right to know but by the public’s desire to pry into the private lives of the rich and famous.

That interest used to be limited to Hollywood types.

But as the tsunamilike fallout of Woods has shown, that interest is overtaking America’s sports figures.

Athletes always have engaged in unenviable activities, secure in the knowledge that those around them would look the other way.

The ink-stained wretches of yesteryear certainly did not bother to report on the late-night carousing of athletes.

That alliance contributed to the stunning success of Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four,” which exposed the dirty linen of ballplayers in a way that never had been done. The peek into Bouton’s 1969 season with the Seattle Pilots and Houston Astros demythologized the so-called boys of summer.

These men had the same weaknesses as your neighbors, just better hand-eye coordination or stronger throwing arms.

Bouton, in a way, is the father of those who tap out the latest rumor, innuendo and celebrity coupling from the anonymity of their laptops.

It is not going away, this glut of the unseemly, not if the insatiable interest in the love conquests of Woods is an indication.

As news of Woods’ dalliances started to seep out, he became an instant search hit on Google.

And it was the Internet that packaged and shipped the story to the masses with a click.

A-Rod had a busy year as well, baseball being the least of it.

After being dumped by Madonna, the woman who contributed to the breakup of his marriage, A-Rod was linked to one of “The Real Housewives of New York City” before landing in and out of the arms of Kate Hudson.

His next love interest no doubt will be chronicled in rich detail, in a way that reduces his occupation to a footnote.

The unmanageable dimension of the new media prompted a public-relations misstep from Nike, usually ever-savvy in marketing its brand.

The dustup came about after a no-name college player was caught on video dunking on LeBron during a pickup game at a skills camp sponsored by Nike last summer.

A Nike representative confiscated the videos, claiming it was company policy, but not before news of the dunk spread on the Internet, making both James and Nike look small.

Predictably enough, a video showing the dunk eventually made it to the Internet, only to disappoint viewers because of its pedestrian nature.

As it turns out, the dunk was far more compelling as an urban legend than in actuality. And that was made so in part by Nike’s heavy-handedness, which lent an importance to the play that was clearly overstated and no threat to the reputation of the sacred one.

That is the power of the new media. It is barreling down on us all.

There is another Internet shot of Tom Brady and Gisele Bundchen holding hands.

They, of course, are being sued by two photographers who claim the couple’s bodyguards shot at them.

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