By Mark Viera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
A college house-party snapshot of Michael Phelps inhaling from a marijuana pipe is the latest evidence of how a single cellphone or video image can suddenly compromise -- or destroy -- a celebrity's carefully crafted public image.
Since the British tabloid News of the World published a photograph of Phelps on its cover Sunday in which the Olympic swimming star is shown smoking from a bong during a visit to the University of South Carolina, the story has dominated sports and celebrity blogs, attracted global newspaper and TV coverage, and provided rich material for late-night comics.
The latest fallout came yesterday, when a spokesman for Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said police in South Carolina were reviewing the incident to determine whether to file criminal charges against Phelps.
Phelps, who apologized for what he called his "regrettable" behavior and "bad judgment" shortly after the photo appeared, has received the support of several of his corporate sponsors, including Speedo, Omega and Visa. But the publicity surrounding the picture underscored the fact that athletes are now being subjected to the same technology-fueled scrutiny that has been cast on celebrities for years -- and how sports stars with squeaky-clean images are the most vulnerable and have the most to lose.
"It's a new sense of the paparazzi for athletes," said Eddie Rhodman Jr., a publicist for athletes, adding, "Everywhere you go, everything you do, someone's watching."
Other prominent athletes have been cast in a similarly unflattering light. The Web site DrunkAthlete.com has undated photos of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who led the Pittsburgh Steelers to a Super Bowl victory on Sunday, appearing to pour tequila into a woman's mouth. Last summer, video leaked of NBA center Shaquille O'Neal mockingly rapping about his former teammate, Kobe Bryant, at a New York club. The most popular story about Matt Leinart on the sports blog Deadspin.com -- the page, dated March 31, 2008, has been viewed almost 174,000 times -- shows the backup quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals holding a funnel for a young woman appearing to chug beer.
The South Carolina photograph was not the first brush with bad publicity for Phelps, who pleaded guilty to a drunken driving charge in Maryland after the Athens Games in 2004. In September, shortly after he won a record eight Olympic gold medals in Beijing, photos circulated showing Phelps with his hand on the thigh of a scantily clad woman at the Playboy Club in Las Vegas.
In the past, most legally public information from a house party or nightclub was not disseminated. Now, virtually everyone carries cellphones that can take photos or video, and nothing stands in the way of them snapping drunken pictures or otherwise embarrassing footage and distributing them on YouTube or blogs that specialize in images and stories of athletes behaving badly.
"There's going to be an actual recording and the publishing of the recording doesn't require the established media to decide whether to publish it," said Jeff Liebenson, a digital media and entertainment attorney with the New York-based firm Herrick, Feinstein. "The established media has its own conduct and own set of standards, but now every individual is now a publisher."
This has changed the way some sports figures behave. In an effort to protect himself, Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, a married man with two children, said he will not put his arm around women in photographs. Washington Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said he limits himself to a few beers when he goes out.
"You can't be yourself anymore," Nationals Manager Manny Acta said. "People want you to be yourself, but you have to be careful with that kind of stuff. We, as public figures, want to get closer to people and when we don't, people don't understand. Athletes nowadays don't know who to trust."
The spread of blogs has spurred conversation about what defines the boundaries of sports coverage.
"For me, what's off-limits are uplifting stories," said Matt Ufford, who founded the blog With Leather. "If there's a really heartwarming triumph of an underprivileged athlete, I'm not going to cover that because I make fun of athletes, and I usually pick those that are in the tabloids. I usually try to find athletes to make fun of a lifestyle or poor decision-making."
Last summer, one of Rhodman's clients, San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, threw a party at Love, the D.C. nightclub, and tried his best to avoid publicity. Davis, a Washington native, invited a number of high-profile athletes, including Denver Nuggets guard Allen Iverson. When a group of them gathered on a stage, cellphone cameras popped up from the packed crowd, but Davis stayed back.
Iverson uncorked champagne, poured drinks and then swigged from the bottle in front of the large crowd. Photos from Davis's party showed up on eVIPlist.com, a site for celebrity photos and videos founded by Eric Taylor. Taylor said he has known Davis for years, so he did not intend to embarrass Davis. Although Taylor did not post photos of anyone drinking, information from the party spread from Taylor's site to different sites.
On BallerAlert.com, there was a photo of Davis and a woman sitting in the back seat of a Rolls Royce outside the club. In comments on a message board, readers gossiped about Davis's personal life. There was also a video of a performance by rapper Too Short uploaded onto YouTube, showing Davis and others on stage.
Love, a place frequented by athletes and entertainers, takes precautions for famous partygoers. Taz Wube, a co-owner of the club, prohibits non-credentialed guests from bringing in video cameras, and he said he reviews the footage before credentialed videographers leave. But he said he cannot account for personal cameras or cellphones.
"What can you do?" Wube said. "You can't police everything."
Davis sometimes chooses to party with an invite-only crowd. For his birthday party at Love, Davis arranged for exclusive third-floor occupancy for himself and his guests, among them former heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe and Oklahoma City Thunder guard Kevin Durant. By 2 a.m., as partyers tried to get past velvet ropes, Davis left the second floor and headed away from the crowd.
"I've come from all the way down here, and I've rised up to this level," Davis said, moving his hand from the ground to the sky in a gesture illustrating his journey, "and I don't have time, and I can't afford to lose anything."
Ray King, a former relief pitcher with the Nationals, went to a sushi bar one weeknight with teammates and two women, one of whom was a college friend King said he has known for nearly a decade. As they waited for dinner, people ordered drinks. King had a beer.
A blogger, who was at the same restaurant, posted a story about it the next morning. King said the story "made it look like I was out getting drunk and girls were out all over us. . . . I've got a wife and kids; I'm not going to go running around town with chicks all over me."
King, not even a star on the team, confronted the blogger, who issued an apology and had his credentials revoked by the Nationals. But for more high-profile athletes, squelching negative publicity from images or videos can be difficult because of the Internet's anonymous and viral quality.
To protect and educate its players, the NFL budgeted into this year's rookie symposium two 90-minute sessions about branding and public image. The NBA had planned a similar class to address the issue with rookies.
"If the speed with which the story gains momentum and the change in the story -- the slant in the story -- is something a PR person can't control as easily, then I think the damage can increase," said Elizabeth L. Toth, the chair of the department of communications at the University of Maryland.