Rumor has it: Sports gossip has taken over

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The Cauldron

Let's get one thing straight right off the top: One has to work really hard to make up a ridiculous story about Tiger Woods. Why, exactly? Because when it comes to Tiger, everything is believable. If I read tomorrow that Tiger was retiring from golf to launch a record label, start a clothing line, and join a standup comedy tour with Dave Chappelle, I'd have to at least consider the possibility. After all, how much stranger would these scenarios be then what's actually happened?

With Woods, we are talking about a man whose pristine public image went into utter free fall after he crashed his Cadillac Escalade into a fire hydrant and a tree. A man whose infidelity was exposed after his desperate voicemail was leaked by one of the cast-members of a VH1 reality show called "Tool Academy". A man who recently set off a round of crazed speculation by showing up at girlfriend Lindsey Vonn's skiing event without one of his front teeth. Weeks later, when he returned to the golf course - his place of business - he proceeded to chip like, well ... like my own ridiculous attempts to win a free round at the local putt-putt.

Our willingness to believe just about anything when it comes to Tiger is probably the reason why journeyman golfer Dan Olsen was able to start a small brushfire this past Friday via his spot on a local Michigan sports radio station. There, Olsen claimed that Woods was serving a secret, month-long suspension from the PGA Tour.

The statement was quickly met with denials from Tiger's agent, Mark Steinberg, as well as Ty Votaw, executive Vice President of the PGA Tour, and before you know it, every sports media outlet under the sun was on the story. When you think about it, however, calling Olsen's assertion a "story" is probably not quite accurate. Better to label it "rumor," or "gossip," or, better yet, "bizarre conspiratorial ramblings of a marginally connected party who offered no actual information to back up his accusations."

In the end, Olsen retracted his claims, telling ESPN's Michael Collins that, "it was only my opinion."

Except here's the thing, Mr. Olsen ... you're allowed to have an "opinion" on Tiger's swing coach, his putting stance, or whether he should have carried a 9-iron is his bag, but going on the radio, in this day and age, and claiming you had "a strong witness, a credible person who is telling me this," well, that goes well beyond "opinion."

To quote from the great Inigo Montoya, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

Then again, perhaps we should cut the esteemed Mr. Olsen some slack. After all, irresponsibly trafficking in unsubstantiated rumors is pretty much how the media rolls these these days, anyway. Look no further than last week, when, for days on end, one of the biggest stories in sports surrounded the purported existence of a video that, as far as anyone knows, may or may not even exist. Yes, the so-called "Dez Bryant Tape" has taken over the conversation - right behind the color changing dress and the llamas, of course.

(Mike Francesa is right... February gets slower each and every year.)

So, what do we know about the tape that might shape the future of Bryant's career? Well, we know it contains ... something. Something bad. Something "worse than Ray Rice". Something that happened in a Wal-Mart parking lot, maybe? Something that everybody has heard about, but nobody appears to have actually seen for themselves. Something that reportedly has the Cowboys concerned enough to avoid a long term contract with their All-Pro receiver, but not so concerned as to forego placing the franchise tag on him.

(Although how much is $13 Million to Jerry Jones, really? The Cowboys owner probably spends that much on Rockwell paintings. No, seriously.)

Is it all a little bit absurd? Undoubtedly. But make no mistake, #DezGate is no laughing matter. It's entirely possible that all of this amounts to more than just a rumor, and that at some point in the near future, Bryant will be forced to explain ... something.

Sadly, this is well-trodden territory. From a college eligibility scandal, to a mentorship with Deion Sanders that ultimately turned sour, to a special set of rules that the Cowboys put in place for dealing with their star, Bryant's football career has always portended trouble lurking around every corner. And now, it seems that all the concern and worry over Bryant's behavior have become something of a self-fulfilling prophesy, reinforcing the notion that there was, in fact, something to worry about all along.

Perhaps that's why - with no evidence of wrongdoing, with no sign of this mythical tape actually going public - one can't help but sympathize with Bryant. Here he is, at a critical moment in his career, locked in negotiations for a major contract, faced with the impossible task of trying to prove a negative.

What if the tape does not exist; if the whole thing is nothing more than an elaborate extortion attempt or a smear campaign, just some rumor that has taken on a life of its own? Should we not stop and think how the rumors are likely to hang over Bryant's life like some virtual Sword of Damocles. Should we not pity a man whose all-world talent might not be enough to dissuade teams from investing in him over the long haul - what with the specter of unknown tape-horrors just waiting to inevitably be unleashed?

Bryant is but another in a long line of examples of an athlete caught in the middle of a cesspool of corrosive elements drowning our sports culture. He must reckon with our collective tendency to assume the worst, to convict without evidence, and to let our dialog be overrun by speculation, gossip, and the wildest of conspiracy theories.

The state of affairs becomes even more troubling when you consider that NFL leadership has shown time and time again that it is driven as much by public perception, as by any real, concrete adjudication of fact. Why is Drew Magary's satirical call for Roger Goodell to suspend Bryant so biting? Because it almost feels like it could really happen.

It's 2015, and if you reside in the world where sports meets internet, this is the way we live now. Everybody's on the lookout for the next "scoop" or "take" even if there is no actual "news" present.

Parroting the absurd ramblings of golfer nobody's ever heard of or passing along the latest scuttlebutt about a tape that might derail a man's career are just the examples of the day. We don't go so far as to hold these rumors out as facts, we just talk about them as if they are - and that blurs the line between what is real, and what is ratings-driven fodder.

Those who fancy themselves reporters and journalists should reconsider the impact of their words. They should better respect the power and influence of their collective platforms. They should consider the damage that can be done when the shakiest of stories is given an air of legitimacy.

Of course, I'm not saying any of that is true, mind you. It's just my opinion. At a bare minimum, I want to give us all something to talk about.

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