TONY ROMO is not the first pro football player to appear in a supermarket tabloid. He's not even the first Dallas Cowboys quarterback to land in national gossip columns. ( Troy Aikman was dating country songbirds when Romo was still strapping it on to play Pop Warner.) For that matter, didn't Joe Namath used to get a little attention for being what they once called eligible? If an NFL passer, largely without deformities and with a $12 million-a-year salary, can't get friendly with an actress or a supermodel here and there, what was the point of studying all that game film?
On the other hand, you might have found coverage of Romo's romance of mysteriously famous Jessica Simpson ... a bit over the top. It was one thing when cameras found her in a Texas Stadium skybox, cheering on her man, but it was quite another to be charting their trysting across national borders (canoodling in cabo, in case you missed that headline) in the sports pages during the week leading up to the Cowboys' 21--17 playoff loss to the Giants (page 39). Since when did SportsCenter become Entertainment Tonight?
Beyond the obvious—can we really afford to divert paparazzi during the current Britney surge?—there is the question of relevance, as in: How could this ever matter? This much? Well, we're not going to answer that here. But we can at least acknowledge the outlandish preoccupation, if we can't quite explain it, with athletes and their high-profile paramours. Though we've often treated our athletes like celebrities, until now we've rarely made them tabloid ornaments as we have Romo. So, is a new, even tawdrier age upon us?
To the extent that Jessica Simpson remains a newsmaker, yes. Face it, whoever Jess is dating is going to be fodder for the checkout-line rags, no matter if he's a stock boy, a singer or the quarterback of America's Team. Romo isn't the reason the two of them are splashed on the pages of Us Weekly—but he is the reason they're topic A on Around the Horn. And that's what's different these days: how traditional news and sports outlets, everyone from The New York Times to ESPN, have joined the fray, reporting Romo's nightlife as if it were a national-security concern. Never before has PDA appeared in the same sports coverage as FGA. But at least in this case, Romo has to share some of the responsibility for our cultural decline. Before Jessica, this guy, who up to this season was known primarily for botching the snap on a field goal try, was linked to the aforementioned Britney, her pal Ali Sims, actress Sophia Bush and country star Carrie Underwood. He essentially was cutting a swath through the MTV lineup, if not the NFL. And while we have no reason to suspect his chivalry (those cheesy telephoto shots of him and Jess in Mexico—where their heads were helpfully circled, surveillance-style—also showed her parents, as well as three teammates), the turnover causes us to wonder about possible commitment issues down the line.
And an aside here: True, Dallas is not a small town, but it still comes as something of a surprise that it has become such an entertainment crossroads, where TV stars and singers regularly travel, bumping into the preternaturally energetic Romo. Where exactly is he meeting these women? This sort of celebrity speed dating hasn't been thought possible since the heyday of the Sunset Strip. In other words, Dallas hasn't been this Hollywood since Henderson.
As you might expect, coverage of Romo's busy love life has divided this great country into at least two groups. His peers applaud his relationship initiative, teammates and opponents alike agog with appreciation. (The New York Giants' Michael Strahan, in last week's build-up to Sunday's divisional playoff, allowed that if Jess expressed an interest in him, he would "give her a shot.") Neither the Cowboys owner nor the coach (who more or less ordered his players off the premises during their bye week) could find any fault with Romo, for that matter. "No qualms," said Jerry Jones, the owner.
Balding cranks and talking heads in need of something to talk about, on the other hand, were fuming at his apparent lack of professional urgency, noting that when Simpson showed up for a game with the Eagles, Romo's head consequently did not, and the Cowboys got lit up. Dallas's loss to New York confirmed their thesis, even if Simpson was not in attendance on Sunday. (She was working on her new album.) But their big question remained: Shouldn't Romo have stayed home instead of jetting off to Mexico, worked on field goal snaps or something? The Cowboys, after all, hadn't won a playoff game in 11 years and the 12th shouldn't have been left to chance. Romo, Romo, they wondered during that off week, where art thou? To the cranks and the talking heads—and they were out in full force—Simpson was Yoko to Romo's John, Eve to his Adam, Carla Bruni to his Nicolas Sarkozy. And she wasn't even that hot in the Dukes of Hazzard remake.
Parsing this fascination requires more sociology than we have at hand, but it must say something about the continued blurring of sports and entertainment, where fame is increasingly interchangeable with achievement. Not to go all balding crank on you, but this much titillation, in the place of harder earned emotion, seems a little unhealthy. Just a little. What we're suggesting is, if Tony Romo's love life is truly more interesting than his playoff record, we probably don't have him to blame for it, and probably not Jessica either.
Then again: They're still together, right?
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