By Stephen Rodrick
Sunday, October 17, 2010; B01
On a humid morning in May, I stood with Brett Favre outside a barn on his Mississippi farm. "Farm" is probably the wrong word -- it's more like a feudal kingdom. There are 465 acres, two homes, fishing ponds, deer stands and a bench memorializing a brother-in-law who was killed in an ATV accident on the property. "I don't know if I should play again," Favre said, wiping tears out of his eyes. "Every time I leave here, something bad happens."
I'd spent the day before with Favre and his agent-protector James "Bus" Cook for a magazine profile I was writing. Our time together revolved around Favre's annual Wrangler commercial shoot, as well as a media firestorm that seemed critically important at the time. The morning I arrived, Favre confessed to ESPN that he would need ankle surgery if he were going to play again. He communicated with the sports network via a handheld device, apparently his preferred instrument of professional suicide. Cook's office reverberated with phone calls from reporters and the Minnesota Vikings, the quarterback's current employer.
A frustrated Cook told me his client was a "drama queen," which seemed about right. By the time I left town, Favre had talked about vodka blackouts, a Vicodin addiction, his father's meanness and the fact he probably would need a cane before he turned 50. He ran down the Green Bay Packers, his longtime team. He ran himself down for his annual Hamlet act (this was the third or fourth season in which he vacillated between playing or retiring). He was the opposite of the Jordanesque inscrutable sports icon. Here was a guy confessing all in advance.
This makes the Text de Favre allegations seem as preordained as they are baffling. Favre is a coarse guy who has copped to every indiscretion imaginable short of bad tipping at Applebee's, and he is simply joining a long tradition of sports stars sinking into the moral primordial ooze. Only this time, the media-industrial complex is joining him.
Where to start? How about with a hazmat shower? On one side you have the married Favre, old enough to be a grandfather. Actually, he is a grandfather. He allegedly sent pictures of his penis to 26-year-old Jenn Sterger, a New York Jets on-air personality. Sterger's big break occurred in 2005 when she waved at the ABC cameras during a Florida State football game while wearing cut-offs and a bikini top. This led to Playboy modeling and, naturally, a job with the Jets as a pregame on-air hostess.
In February, Sterger had a conversation with A.J. Daulerio, the editor of Deadspin.com, a wildly popular sports site best known for posting candid photos of NFL quarterbacks Matt Leinart and Kyle Orton manning a beer bong and guzzling whiskey while sporting a neck beard, respectively. (Full disclosure: I wrote one article for Deadspin in 2006.) Daulerio recently wrote on the site that he had met with Sterger to discuss a possible online swimsuit issue but that the conversation turned, as conversations often do, to a discussion of athletes who text pictures of their genitals. According to Daulerio, Sterger confided that she had received the photos from Favre while he played for the Jets in 2008. She also bluntly told Daulerio that the information was not for publication.
This being 2010, Daulerio waited a few months and then told Sterger he was going to publish the story anyway. Sterger responded with a garbled e-mail message about a faulty BlackBerry. Daulerio took this as a go sign and posted the story on Deadspin, along with a lengthy explanation that reminded me of the argument by Jeff Goldbum's journalist in "The Big Chill" that rationalizations are more important than sex.
A Minneapolis reporter later asked Gawker Media founder Nick Denton, Daulerio's boss, about the ethics of burning a source. Denton, who has compared himself to William Randolph Hearst and convinced himself that's a compliment, did his role model proud with his tweeted response: "Our ethics policy? To publish the real story, the one that so-called sports journalists have spent their careers avoiding."
As someone who has reported on sports on and off for 15 years, I confess I was not aware of the grand conspiracy to cover up for jocks who send below-the-waist snapshots to the ladies. Deadspin's standard explanation for its creative integrity is that its writers are gossip merchants, not journalists, akin to an alcoholic proudly saying, "I'm a drunk, can't do nothin' about it," right before doing donuts in your front yard.
The story exploded last weekend after Deadspin purchased and published pictures of Favre's alleged member from a third party. The NFL has begun an investigation, one hindered by the fact that Sterger has shown no interest in cooperating or going public. Meanwhile, ESPN found itself in the uncomfortable situation of having "Monday Night Football" broadcaster Mike Tirico -- who was once suspended by the network for (wait for it!) sexual harassment -- recap Favre's telephonic exhibitionism before the Vikings-Jets game.
These are the same Jets, mind you, who employed Favre during his supposedly randy phase. Their reward for 40 years of Super Bowl-free futility was being featured on "Hard Knocks," an HBO reality show starring Rex Ryan as a likable, 300-plus-pound head coach who flipped off Miami fans at a pro mixed-martial-arts match during the off-season and is -- you guessed it -- writing his memoirs. The show's breakout moment was cornerback Antonio Cromartie having a hard time remembering the names of his seven children by six mothers in five states. Since the show aired, the team suspended a drunken-driving wide receiver (for one quarter) after he blew twice the legal alcohol limit, and it became embroiled in a different sexual harassment issue when players and coaches leered at a buxom Mexican broadcaster during a recent practice.
Let's pause a moment to lather on the Purell.
Bizarrely, the only person whose actions in this whole fiasco ring remotely true is the creep in the No. 4 jersey. While the specifics couldn't be predicted, Favre's alleged revolting behavior and subsequent tear-filled apology to his teammates for being a "distraction" were as predictable as the quarterback throwing into double coverage late in a game. He's been warning us for years. Favre's public fall doesn't resemble the descents of Tiger Woods or Lance Armstrong, holier-than-thou icons whose comeuppances had more to do with their self-righteousness and hypocrisy than their sins. Favre was never that guy. He's always been a redneck, an egomaniac, an addict and an eternal child. Those shocked by the allegations haven't been paying attention. To paraphrase the philosopher coach Dennis Green, Favre is who we thought he was.
The rest of us? We're living in a busted play. The media has come a long way from the days when reporters hushed up Mickey Mantle's chronic drunkenness, behavior that obviously affected the outcome of actual games. Fans spending 90 bucks a seat deserve to know if their cleanup hitter reeks of Boone's Farm. But now we've moved too far in the other direction. As much as we pretend otherwise, sports are an escape -- we're determining who is going to make the playoffs, not who controls the nuclear football. It's not clear whether betraying dubiously qualified broadcasters, paying sources and writing about Ryan's recent lap-band surgery is really a value-added experience like, say, DirectTV's Red Zone Channel. The games themselves should be the reality show.
At the end of the Wrangler shoot, Favre gave me a ride back to my car. He talked of growing up with three television channels and having the choice between enduring his mother's soap operas or going outside and playing ball in the hot Mississippi sun. He professed not to understand the modern media world.
"I don't let my daughter text or go on SpaceBook," Favre told me. It wasn't clear whether he was making a joke or conflating Web sites. "I don't think we really understand what's happening out there. I know I don't."
He's not the only one.
Stephen Rodrick is a contributing editor for New York magazine and Men's Journal.