For those of you are are not inclined to like or follow the rest of the world's version of football, the big story this afternoon is that Wayne Rooney - the best player in England - has apparently demanded a transfer from Manchester United. Rooney suffered an ankle injury last spring and never fully recovered in time for the World Cup. As a result, he was one of the scapegoats for England's disappointing performance. (Note: the performance was only disappointing to those who are unaware that the English cannot pass and mover properly.) Rooney took a barracking from the English media for his performance in South Africa. The criticism went to new heights this fall when the tabloids reported that Rooney cheated on his pregnant wife with a prostitute. (Most amusing part of the story: the prostitute in question saying something to the effect of "he's not as ugly in person.") Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson kept Rooney on the bench for the matches following the revelations, presumably to protect Rooney from abuse from the fans. (The fact that Rooney's first match after the infidelity story broke was at Everton, the club that Rooney left to join United, was also a factor.)
Now, it appears that Rooney's relationship with Ferguson is damaged, almost certainly because of the media firestorm. Ferguson famously decided that David Beckham was surplus to requirements after he appeared more interested in his wife and celebrity than football. Additionally, Rooney is not the first England star to suffer as a result of the Fleet Street tabloids' obsessions with the private lives of England stars. John Terry lost the England captaincy last year because of revelations that he cheated on his wife with a teammate's ex. England left back Ashley Cole has also dealt with intense attention after his cheating on his wife became a major story. England manager Fabio Capello has also been distracted by a row with the media after this back cover of The Sun:
In short, English football has a real problem with its tabloid culture. This isn't the only reason why England haven't made a major tournament final since 1966. It probably isn't even in the top five. However, it is an unappealing aspect of English football culture.
I mention England because the excessive focus on the sex lives of their star players has migrated across the Atlantic. I'm not going to be a Pollyanna and claim that Deadspin's "expose" on Brett Favre allegedly sending pictures of his package to Jenn Sterger is something new. Deadspin, TMZ, and the like have been engaged in this game for some time. What is new about the Favre situation is that the NFL appears to be giving serious consideration to punishing Favre, either by suspending him or by some other means. The buzzword that gets thrown around is that they are "protecting the Shield." If a player embarrasses the league through his personal conduct, then the NFL must punish that player to preserve its brand.
Leaving aside the ugly, authoritarian quality of punishing a player for behavior that is completely legal (and doesn't even involve cheating on his wife, although it implies that result as a possibility), the worst aspect of the NFL's stance is that it empowers gossipmongers. We're not talking about losing sponsors like Tiger Woods. We're not talking about an instance in which there is a good chance that a crime was committed even though no charges were brought like Ben Roethlisberger. We're talking about quasi-legal discipline by a sports league for completely private behavior. Assuming that the NFL punishes Favre in some manner, Deadspin will have a new power. When it uncovers evidence of famous athletes behaving badly, the Deadspin editors will know that their decision to run with the story could cause the athlete to be suspended. None of us should be happy about the notion that entities like Deadspin are going to have the power to cause a palace coup.