What Happens When Sports Fans Know As Much Gossip As Sportswriters?

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Last week, celebrity gossip website Fameolous posted a video that it said showed Los Angeles Laker Nick Young admitting to cheating on his fiancée, pop star Iggy Azalea. It further claimed that the video was recorded by Young’s teammate, D’Angelo Russell.

Normally, something posted on Fameolous wouldn’t merit a second glance. After all, here’s Fameolous’s “Disclaimer” section:

Data and information provided on this site is for informational purposes only. Fameolous.com makes no representations as to accuracy, completeness, currentness, suitability, or validity of any information on this site and will not be liable for any errors, omissions, or delays in this information or any losses, injuries, or damages arising from its display or use. All information is provided on an as-is basis. Fameolous.com will be happy to remove any post that false.


But this video looked accurate, complete, and current. Russell and Young appear to be sitting in a hotel room, and the 20-year-old Russell peppers his 30-year-old teammate with questions about women. Some of the dialogue is obscured by a TV blaring E!, but you can hear Young talk about hooking up with a 19-year-old “after the club.”

From Fameolous—a relatively small player in the dizzyingly convoluted celebrity gossip world—the story spread to much larger outlets, like popular gossip website Media Take Out, hip-hop site the Source, gossip/sports site Black Sports Online, and forums such as Reddit. But no mainstream sports sites, including ESPN and Yahoo Sports, and certainly no mainstream news sites covered the video.

News organizations don’t know how to cover stories like the one broken by Fameolous. While the celebrity gossip and celebrity gossip-adjacent media thrive upon public discussion of the most mundane private details of celebrities’ lives, the rest of the news industry generally treats something like alleged cheating as non-reportable. The provenance of a video that was likely hacked or leaked—Fameolous gave no indication of how it was obtained—also gave traditional media pause.

Newspapers and network broadcasters used to control the means of production: If it wasn’t on the front page or on the 11 o’clock newscast, it wasn’t news. But the democratization of the media—everybody is a reporter! All you need is an Internet connection!—means entire news cycles can pass by without the participation of anything you might call a mainstream news source. In this case, there was a story that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of basketball fans knew about, without ESPN or Yahoo or the Los Angeles Times writing a single word.


The democratization of the news media also inspired anxiety that as the traditional gatekeepers fell, so would traditional media ethics. It was a funny worry—“traditional” journalists are just people who are paid to be rude, and “traditional” newspapers began as and sometimes still are propaganda organs for their owners—but also one that turns out to have been misplaced. The D’Angelo Russell–Nick Young story shows how much consensus there still is on media ethics. Everyone broadly agrees that nobody should care about whom Nick Young has sex with if there are no ramifications beyond the sex. In this respect, at least, there is still plenty of gatekeeping of the news.

The dam broke late Tuesday night, when ESPN reported on the video’s existence, five days after it first came to attention. But its report was less about the video itself than about the havoc it wreaked. It was about how the Lakers don’t trust Russell anymore, how they’re isolating him, how locker room tension contributed to a 48-point loss to the Utah Jazz. It’s a very strange construction: Something that was not in itself news had become news, therefore granting the video itself retroactive news status.


By laundering the story into the mainstream press, ESPN gave permission to other sports news organizations—no matter how virtuous—to write about the incident. Some covered it almost purely on basketball terms—will the Lakers trade Russell?—while others clearly saw the traffic-driving potential (most Deadspin stories don’t get 1.1 million page views) of a teammate filming another teammate seemingly admitting to cheating on his mega-famous pop star fiancée.

This is how the news business works now. Something explosive “surfaces”—sometimes the verb surfaces is used to purposefully obscure the origin while other times it’s the best you can do after diving down a bottomless sourcing rabbit hole—and makes its way to forums and social media. It gets picked up by newslike entities, or news entities that specialize in tabloid coverage, but it gets stuck there, in a kind of pre-news purgatory. Whether it makes it to mainstream news organizations and therefore popular consciousness depends upon whether there is an angle—or somebody can manufacture an angle—that makes it “news.”


That’s what happened here, as the story filtered from a fringe celebrity gossip site to more legitimate ones, and then almost a week later to the mainstream, non-celebrity media once there was an acceptable angle—locker room strife!—to report on. To ESPN’s credit, the story of the bad Lakers veterans shunning their No. 2 draft pick, their future, is absolutely interesting and worthwhile. It wasn’t some lame attempt to horn in on the traffic of a scandal, but something within their mission.

Recently, I broke the news that the University of Wisconsin had conducted a formal investigation into claims that former basketball coach Bo Ryan had spent school funds on a longtime mistress. Rumors of something were swirling in Madison as far back as last summer, but none made it further than college basketball message boards. Reporters covering the team knew about the rumors but didn’t report on them. Even if they’d had proof Ryan was cheating on his wife—and I don’t think they did—the story still wouldn’t have been deemed news. I filed a public records request and obtained an email that Ryan’s mistress had sent Wisconsin officials detailing claims that state funds had been misused. All of a sudden the story was news—there were allegations from an in-the-know party that the highest-paid state official had abused his office, and university lawyers conducted a thorough investigation. They concluded no university resources had been misused, and Ryan and Wisconsin’s athletic director swear the ordeal was not the cause of his abrupt midseason resignation in December.


This general cycle is happening everywhere. Hundreds of political reporters heard rumors that Ted Cruz had cheated on his wife—and dozens looked into those rumors—but nobody wrote about it until the National Enquirer alleged he had five mistresses. Rumors that Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley was sleeping with a staffer percolated to hyperlocal Alabama blogs and social media last year, and AL.com made the somewhat unusual decision that the rumors were loud enough to warrant reporting on their existence. Finally, last week it was reported that there was audio, and AL.com eventually obtained and published some of it.

Almost as interesting as which outlets reported on the Russell-Young video and when they did so were the reactions by media critics afterward. There was general agreement that the video wasn’t “news” but that its fallout was, but disagreement over how that coverage was and should be framed. Within the NBA, Russell—the one who violated his teammate’s trust by recording him—was labeled a pariah, and that’s what most stories focused on. But wait a minute, some people asked: Isn’t Nick Young the one in the wrong here? After all, there would’ve been nothing scandalous if he hadn’t seemingly admitted to cheating on his fiancée!


That is one of the points being argued in this awful Twitter canoe started by Sports Illustrated media reporter Richard Deitsch and featuring a number of well-known sports reporters. There is conflation of criticism of Russell’s actions with acceptance of Young’s, a bizarre plea for sports reporters to do more gossip reporting under a misguided notion of equality for women, and completely off-base comparisons between the video and leaked audio of Donald Sterling—a documented racist slumlord—uttering racist musings.

It’s a slippery road to go down. In the past, sportswriters knew more about the private lives of the athletes and coaches than the general public; for reasons of propriety (or for reasons of source preservation masquerading as reasons of propriety), they mostly didn’t report on these things. Today, the general public knows a lot about the private lives of the athletes and coaches—just as much as the sportswriters, if not more. Now, instead of being in a position of preventing sensitive information from getting out, journalists need to prevent certain kinds of information from getting in. Sports media outlets are still policing the old wall. It’s just they’re on a different side of the door.


The bigger question is whether this is a healthy state of affairs. How many consequential stories were held for months—or never published at all—in an effort to hew to journalistic standards? When hundreds of thousands of people are talking about something, shouldn’t the people whose job it is to inform the public lend their expertise, rather than pretend it isn’t happening?

It was pretty easy to answer how the D’Angelo Russell–Nick Young video should be reported; there’s no guarantee the next gossip-based scandal will be so easy.


This story was originally published on Slate.