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Though reluctant to disclose their names, two of the site's six founders--all women; they say they met on a message board for baseball groupies and are now in their 20s--agreed to talk to SI. One of the two, who goes by the alias Satine Ivey, says she is a 20-year-old accounting major at NYU and that neither her parents nor her friends know she runs the site, because if they did, "they'd think I was some sort of slut." (The other interviewed founder, also an NYU student, 20-year-old "Katharine Heart," would communicate with SI only by e-mail because her parents pay her cellphone bill.) When asked why they run the site, Ivey said, "We want to expose the hypocrisy of players. A lot of people think these guys are perfect with their cute little family and the pretty wife and the money. But they're so messed up, the drinking and the drugs and the women."
As for how the site got started, she said, "We just had a crazy idea one night. Let's do something like this, nobody will ever find out. Well"--she giggled--"I guess they did." In an attempt to prove that On the DL's stories are accurate, Ivey offered the cellphone number of a married big-name American League pitcher who, she said, tried to persuade her to come to his hotel room.
(You might be wondering: When might libel lawyers get involved in such an enterprise? According to Jeffrey Neuburger, chair of the technology, media and communications department at the New York City law firm Brown Raysman, Internet portals are protected under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and Communications Decency Act in ways that print publications aren't--because sites are hosts and not responsible for what people write--but the posters themselves can be held liable. Bloggers can be sued not only for what they write, but also if they post a doctored or falsely incriminating photo or reprint a libelous rumor from another source. Says Neuburger, "If you put up a defamatory rumor about Derek Jeter and he can find you, he can sue you.")
This is the power--and the danger--of the Internet: Any girl or guy at a bar can bring down an athlete, and a rumor can be fanned into a full-fledged conflagration. The result: Athletes are very wary. Even Darrin Horn, the basketball coach at low-profile Western Kentucky, is worried; he says that last summer he declined to have his picture taken with two women at a golf function. "It would have just been an innocent thing, but people can even misinterpret pictures and make a story out of it," says Horn. "So no pictures like that. You just can't do it."
New Orleans Hornets forward David West echoes that sentiment. "You always have to be conscious of where you are and who you're around," he says. "Those camera phones are bad. When you go out, you've got to make sure you're not caught in a compromising situation."
Where is all of this leading? Well, for one, athletes--already inclined to hide behind agents, tinted windows and the gates of walled-in communities--will become as guarded as A-list movie stars, if they're not already. Maybe the Web, while providing more access than ever to the games, is really taking us further from those who play them. This shouldn't be surprising. "Athletes are celebrities," says Leitch. "We get enough people like the guy who took those pictures [of Orton], and we won't be stopped."
Stopped from what, exactly? "So what, a guy's drunk?" says Padwe. "What does that tell me about him?" Perhaps the advantage is in not knowing: Ignorance, or at least detachment, is bliss. And detachment is what allows Internet scribes to trash athletes from their living rooms without fear of reprisal. Maybe, in a weird closing of the circle, we are returning to the earliest days of sports journalism, before those long train rides, when the writers didn't even go into locker rooms. The famous 1924 story by Grantland Rice about the Notre Dame--Army game--you know, "Outlined against a blue, gray October sky the Four Horsemen rode again"--contained not a single quote.
"I think the main reason I've done well is that I like sports," Simmons says while watching a Celtics game on TV and complaining about Doc Rivers's coaching. "I feel that a lot of people in the media, columnists for big papers, don't like sports. I think fans can relate to me partly because I'm not in the locker room."
As popular as he is, though, Simmons is already thinking about his life after Sports Guy; he says he has only "a good 18 to 20 months left in me," because he doesn't want to be "that 42-year-old guy sitting on a barstool, saying how hot Anna Kournikova is." And that may be a good thing, because despite Simmons's vast readership, some believe his time has passed. In an ironic twist, there is a message board called Sons of the Sports Guy--observers critiquing the observer--that obsessively follows Simmons's work. Of late, some have soured on the Sports Guy, and Leitch sees where they're coming from. "Simmons is talented, but I think he's kind of worn out," he says. "One of the reasons that people have turned on Simmons, I think unfairly, is that people think he's not one of them anymore. He goes to parties, and you have to go through a forum to e-mail him."
Yes, it's hard to be a "common fan" when you become a celebrity, even if your columns remain funny and provocative. And it's probably inevitable that the blogosphere will eventually turn on Simmons, who isn't truly "one of them." His format--long columns without responses--really makes Simmons a transitional figure between the old-school journalists and the new bloggers, like Leitch, who are champions of interactivity, who have taken fan empowerment one step further, for better or worse.