Kyle Orton looks drunk. More to the point, the Chicago Bears quarterback looks 'faced. Head dipping. Eyelids drooping. Cheeks puffed and sagging like overstuffed saddlebags. A translucent oil slick of booze and drool dribbles down his stubble-spackled chin, pooling in wet spots across his shirt. The shirt itself reads "Whiskey Go Go"; judging from the Jack Daniels bottle in Orton's hand, the whiskey in question will soon be gone gone.
But don't take my word for it.
No, really: Don't take my word for it. No need. Got fingers? And a keyboard? Good. Google KYLE ORTON DRUNK. Click a link. Here's Orton at a bar, middle finger fully extended. Click. Here he is again, resembling an extra from the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" video. Click. Here's Orton one more time, shirtless, guzzling liquor like a heralder trumpeting the return of King Aragon.
Of course, Orton isn't the only sports star to be photographed in less-than-flattering circumstances.
Change the search terms. With minimal effort, you'll find pictures of Ben Roethlisberger, making his best Orton face while cutting loose in what appears to be a fallout shelter. A tongue-wagging Carl Everett, nearly salt-licking the face of the woman sitting next to him. Matt Leinart, strolling around an outdoor mall with -- drumroll, please -- Paris Hilton.
We know what you're thinking: Matt Leinart goes shopping?
If the above is any indication, George Orwell had it backward, which means '80s one-hit wonder Rockwell was ahead of the curve. Somebody really is watching our athletic celebrities, only it isn't Big Brother through a one-way telescreen. Uh-uh. It's anyone and everyone with a camera phone. (Not to mention the multitudes equipped with Photoshop and the skills to doctor said images.) From Larry Eustachy gone wild to the recent college sports Haze-a-palooza, dubious digital snapshots have become an Internet staple; on message boards and major sites alike, embarrassment lurks behind every mouse click.
Welcome to Sports Voyeur Nation. Smile for the camera.
"With digital cameras, people can take your picture anywhere, put it up anywhere," Washington Nationals closer Chad Cordero says. "They can do it without you even knowing, just standing in the background. It's like stalking, almost."
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Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Reggie Love passes out in the wrong North Carolina frat house. Look if you want. A half-naked John Daly gropes a half-dressed amateur porn actress. Download if you must. In Sports Voyeur Nation, private follies become public fodder. Everything is fair game, good for a laugh if not a scandal. The JPEGs tell the stories: Inebriation! Infidelity! Jocks behaving badly! Steve Nash flashing waaaay too much chest hair!
Fact: The most shocking thing about the Minnesota Vikings love boat story isn't professional football players engaging in nautical sex-toy shenanigans. It's that pictures of the adventure haven't surfaced online.
Not yet, at least.
"They've got to be somewhere," says Will Leitch, editor of the sports blog Deadspin.com. "My guess is that they were confiscated by the police, before anybody on the boat had the Abu Ghraib idea of sending them back home. But eventually, stuff gets out."
Stuff gets out. A fitting motto for Sports Voyeur Nation, and the seeming raison d'Ítre of Leitch's site. A daily compendium of sports gossip and oddities, Deadspin hosts what might be the Web's largest collection of goofy athlete photos: the aforementioned Orton and Daly; Roger Clemens in a shimmering, snakeskin-themed dress shirt; high school basketball star Greg Oden dancing with a young woman who might or might not be wearing underpants.
When Leitch posted pics of Roethlisberger partying in a "DRINK LIKE A CHAMPION TODAY" T-shirt -- passed along by an anonymous e-mailer during Super Bowl week -- the response was telling. Site traffic shot up. Pittsburgh sports talk radio blew up. "Cold Pizza" and the Florida Times-Union mentioned the photos, which spread like the Anna Kournikova virus across the 'net.
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The coup de grace? Less than 48 hours after a Steelers spokesman refused to acknowledge the pics, an online retailer started peddling "DRINK LIKE A ROETHLISBERGER TODAY" T-shirts.
Hey, stuff gets out.
"If I made a decision tomorrow that no more are we going to run photos of drunk athletes, it wouldn't matter," Leitch says. "It will just multiply. They are not going away."
Here in Sports Voyeur Nation, we like to watch. This is an ancient instinct -- probably as old as the eyeball, definitely as old as Lady Godiva. We also expect to watch. This is new. Time was, rumors regarding off-field exploits were just that. Rumors. The tawdry stuff of gossip columns. Mickey Mantle's drinking? Michael Jordan's, um, hanging out with alliteratively named lounge singers? Maybe you heard about it. You certainly didn't see it.
No longer. Bronson Arroyo plays Santa Claus with a fetching coed. Chris Chelios crashes an Ann Arbor house party. Pics are available at multiple Web sites. And why not? The digital age makes shooting easy, publishing a breeze. Point, click, post. Done.
If hard-living Babe Ruth was around today, he'd be the Sultan of Download, his gluttony recorded five megapixels at a time.
"The interest in celebrity goes back a long way," says Robert Thompson, a professor of television and pop culture at Syracuse University. "There was a celebrity cult around George Washington when he was alive. When Benjamin Franklin went to Europe, there were collector plates made around that. The only difference now is that there is more to see and more venues for it. And the more that is out there, the more of an appetite it creates."
Grab a copy of US Weekly. Inside, you'll find a section entitled "STARS: JUST LIKE US," which mostly contains photographs of Reese Witherspoon wearing sweatpants and Brad Pitt exiting Starbucks, java in hand. Silly stuff, to be sure. But also strangely compelling.
Sports voyeurism works the same way. Actors and athletes alike come to us as highly mediated commodities -- glorified and celebrated, the perfectly lit subjects of magazine puff pieces. Something more than human, and also something less. Candid pics cut through the gauze, provide tiny slices of undoctored authenticity.
No way! Al Leiter plays beer pong!
Better yet, the photos massage our egos in the manner of the best (and trashiest) reality shows: just as we watch the nutjobs on "Wife Swap" to feel superior, we check out pictures of a visibly sloshed Dirk Nowitzki to feel well, less inferior.
OK, so the guy is 7-foot. And a multimillionaire. And shoots a basketball better than I'll do anything, ever. But look: Is that slobber on his shirt? And who dressed Mr. Hasselhoff Fan, Fred Durst?
"We've always liked to tear down the rich and famous," says Clay Calvert, a professor of communications and law at Penn State University and author of the book "Voyeur Nation: Media, Privacy and Peering in Modern Culture." "These pictures take people off their pedestals. And to some extent, they give us power over them.
"Technology gives you the power to capture people when they least expect it, and in the future they know they can be watched. So they may even change their behavior."
Shifting standards demand nothing less. In politics, Gary Hart's monkey business redefined the line between public and private; for the residents of Sports Voyeur Nation, digital photos are accomplishing the same trick. Legally speaking, athletes in a public place have no right to privacy -- and as a practical matter, they shouldn't count on any, either. For anyone with an image to protect, this is a problem. Which in turn makes it a problem for just about everyone.
Think Hart, responsible potential leader of the Free World, becoming Hart, feckless connoisseur of deckside floozies. (And really, what is it with boats, anyway?) Think of the upstanding members of the Northwestern women's soccer team, recent issuers of a public apology when not-so-upstanding hazing photos appeared online.
Or take Leinart. Heading into the NFL draft, the most successful college quarterback in recent memory was saddled with a couple of knocks: he wasn't Reggie Bush, wasn't Vince Young and didn't have the strongest arm. More than that, there was a nagging notion that Leinart had -- and this is gasp-worthy in pro football circles -- "gone Hollywood."
Wherever did the league's talent evaluators get such a notion? Maybe from Deadspin's pictures of Leinart partying at a New York nightspot following the Heisman trophy celebration. Or maybe from rumors that Leinart was dating Hilton, rumors subsequently kinda sorta confirmed by a pic of the quarterback leaving the heiress' house with his jeans and shirt rolled up in a ball.
Did Joe Namath ever have to worry about Walk of Shame photos popping up online? Or deny his rumored dalliances on national TV to some nosy clown from "Extra"?
"Everywhere I go and everybody I talk to gets out in the media," Leinart lamented in an ESPN.com diary entry. "It makes me look a certain way when in reality I'm just a normal guy it just sucks. I'm not going to sit in my house every night, play with my thumbs and not go out."
Tell that to Cordero. Pictures of him can be found at On The DL, a site devoted to salacious, anonymous rumors about major league players. The snaps themselves are harmless: Cordero, who is single, is shown holding a beer, hanging at a bar with teammate Gary Majewski, posing with a pair of smiling young women. Nevertheless, they leave the Nats closer shaking his head, just a little freaked out.
"I've heard about those," he says. "It sucks. You can be out with a couple of your friends from home, just hanging out, and someone can take a picture of you that people might take the wrong way. Worst case, people can try to use pictures to blackmail, try to get money out of you. You have to watch yourself."
If the rules of engagement have changed for the likes of Cordero and Leinart, they've also changed for the press. Reporters cover news. Photos can dictate newsworthiness. On a Friday afternoon in January 2003, Tom Witosky of the Des Moines Register came across a digitized picture, posted on a fan message board, of Iowa State basketball coach Eustachy posing with students at a college party. Witosky knew the local scuttlebutt -- Larry likes to drink -- but didn't think much of it. Having a few pops wasn't a crime.
Still, one detail piqued Witosky's interest: a clock in the photo showed a time of nearly 2 a.m. Eustachy's contract required he represent Iowa State in a positive manner. When a source came forward with far more embarrassing pictures -- in which the visibly intoxicated coach cavorts with coeds -- Witosky went to work.
His subsequent front-page article became a national story, and Eustachy eventually resigned as coach.
"The argument we ran into was, 'What rules did he break, and was this an intrusion into his private life?'" Witosky recalls. "Our reasoning was that he was a state employee, and that his contract said he had to behave positively both publicly and privately."
So what if Eustachy had been a pro coach, and not a public employee? What if his contract hadn't mentioned private behavior?
"This started the same way the Leinart and Orton stuff began," Witosky says. "But I'm not sure what the responsibility is for guys like that. What's in Orton's contract? There's a difference between being a celebrity paparazzi and doing your job as a journalist."
An investigative reporter who covered the Iowa state house for two decades, Witosky did his job: interviewing the students in the pictures, cross-checking facts with multiple sources, getting his hands on the original negatives to ensure they weren't fakes. Print the photos, but verify the story.
Bloggers aren't bound by the same restrictions. That can open a pixelated can of worms. Humans have evolved to trust our eyes, even when we know better. David Copperfield is rich. A CGI-laden clunker like "Jurassic Park" spawns two desultory sequels. Images seduce, with or without context. A widely circulated online picture shows Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams holding a dirty napkin and a half-eaten chicken wing. Sharing the frame? Two smiling women.
Look closely. A Eustachy situation? Or simply a lousy picture from a harmless meeting? No way to know, really. In Sports Voyeur Nation, we're still learning how to see.
"Eventually, what will happen is that people will manipulate these pictures with Photoshop," Calvert says. "Someone will be duped. And then everyone will be a lot more cautious."
Duping seems probable -- in fact, Williams told the Washington Post his photo had been doctored. As for caution? Don't bet on it. Online pics are like online porn: the genie is halfway to Bali, the bottle smashed into a million shards. As such, a sports star's best defense against embarrassment may be no defense at all. Acknowledge, accept, move on. Roll with it.
Studies suggest that violent images desensitize viewers. Can the quiet horror of a shirtless Daly have the same effect? The more we see Leiter playing beer pong, the more it seems normal; the more we realize sports celebrities aren't gods, the more we accept their human foibles. Acceptance begets celebration. Doddering domestic dopiness prolonged Ozzy Osbourne's career. A leaked sex tape made Hilton even more famous.
Asked by Sports Illustrated about his online photos, Orton was matter of fact: I go out and have fun. If someone puts it on the Internet, so be it. He may have the right idea.
"I liked Orton's response," Leitch says. "He's a 22-year-old kid. We put so much pressure on these athletes to be perfect. I'm 30. When I was his age, I was doing things much worse than in those photos.
"A month ago, a friend of mine sent me a photo of me drunk in a bar. People are scared of that. But what are you going to do?"
Possibly nothing. After all, Orton's verbal shrug hints at something else: in Sports Voyeur Nation, we like being watched, too. Check out party snaps of David Ortiz, A.J. Pierzynski and Manny Ramirez. The ballplayers aren't hiding (well, maybe Pierzynski, but only because he's in mid-body-shot). Those oh-so-humiliating Northwestern hazing pics? Posted voluntarily on a public photo-sharing site, like dozens of similar shots from college squads across the country.
Forget Candid Camera. Ours is a MySpace world, where the status-hungry and the would-be famous scratch and claw for a shot at abject humiliation during "American Idol" auditions. Again, why not? When children want attention, they act out. To be seen is to be weirdly affirmed.
Back to Orton. In his most amusing picture, football's after-hours Waldo sits in the backseat of a car, one hand clutching a whiskey bottle, the other a bottled blonde. Resplendent in a T-shirt and jeans, he looks like a man with nothing to hide, fully enjoying a night on the town. And here is the face of Sports Voyeur Nation: bearded, sweaty, grinning into the lens.
Patrick Hruby is a columnist for Page 2. Sound off to Page 2 here.