Padecky: Sports figures always in the spotlight — and on camera

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It has no sharp edges, yet it can wound an athlete. It makes no sound, yet its impact can be heard worldwide. It contains no explosive, but it can blow up an athlete’s reputation, career, home life. It can be your best friend or your instrument of destruction.

“You need to pay attention to this as much as you listen to your coach,” I told the Rancho Cotate football team a few years ago.

I held up my cellphone.

“Everyone’s watching,” said Jonathon Dewey, the head football coach at Ukiah.

The camera never sleeps, never takes the day off or has a headache. It doesn’t discriminate. Just ask Larry Baer, the San Francisco Giants executive who, as of this writing, is still employed by the team. A cell camera recently captured an angry Baer and his screaming wife in a domestic spat that may cost Baer his job. It already has cost Baer some well-earned but now dissipated goodwill. He still has a reputation, but it may not be the kind he wants.

Oh, one might say, Baer is 61 years old. He is famous. Of course the famous and well-known are targets, walking in the spotlight daily. True dat. But such logic ignores another reality, one that extends all the way to the comparatively anonymous, to high school.

“Whether you think it’s fair or not,” said Rick Berry, the girls basketball coach at Cloverdale, “athletes are held to a different standard than the rest of the population.”

In high school, the profile of an athlete is never more obvious and easily understood. Typically, the events that bring more students together on campus are football and basketball games. A kid may be purposely oblivious to what’s going on. A mouthguard could provide the blocking for the quarterback for all they know. Or care.

But The Big Man On Campus walks with the spotlight and so does The Little Man. As a full and complete maturity has yet to be developed fully, adolescents always seem to have one eye open for A Scene. Someone raises a voice, another gives a push, another wears a skirt seen as too short or another sees a kid with plumber’s butt. Conflict is part of the adolescent genome.

“We deal with it every day,” said Bill Foltmer, head coach Middletown’s football team.

“It’s a daily thing for me,” Dewey said.

“I see it every day at school,” Berry said.

To that stew add a big, fat dollop of athlete.

“Not everyone loves you,” I told the Rancho kids.

But everyone loves their device. It’s a kid’s lifeline to what happens today, tomorrow and forever. Have cell, will travel anywhere. So what if your bud is sitting next to you? Feels cooler, totally appropriate, to text him.

“I have more success communicating with my athletes,” Dewey said, “if I use Snapchat than a team message.”

A cellphone fills the ever-blossoming need of immediacy, an affliction not uncommon to adults as well. Speed is the currency of the day and never is it spent more freely than at sporting events.

“Last year there was a scuffle at a Clear Lake basketball game,” Berry said. “Before I ever saw it in the paper, it was on the internet that morning.”

It was a scuffle, not a brawl, but it was seen, thereby creating the illusion of importance, the assumption being that if it had to be posted, it had to be something of consequence. Otherwise, why do it? Well, there you go, thinking like an adult. For a teenager, a little sensation is better than no sensation at all.

“And if it’s on camera,” Dewey said, “it has to be true.”

Perception versus reality — it’s a battle fought for millenia but now is fought with the hands of a clock tick, tick, ticking to the sound of urgency. Who knows what is real and what isn’t. Heck, it’s only a 15-second clip. Therein lies the rub — perception becomes reality.

“I’ll give you an example,” Berry said. “I have a special-needs kid who needs help tying off his sweatband. So I help him. So someone comes by with their phone and shoots a video. Kids see it.”

Kids mock it, laugh at it. Kids don’t know the whole story. A cell shot doesn’t come with an explanation. In this case it comes with a presumption, more accurately described as a judgment, an acerbic judgment.

“We as a society are quick to judge,” Dewey said. Patience left when the cell camera arrived. We have become a video society. It’s not real unless we can see the video.

Would the Larry Baer incident carry the same tumultuous weight without the video? Would Kareem Hunt get bounced from the Kansas City Chiefs if we were just “told” he attacked his girlfriend in a hallway? Would Ray Rice still be out of football if we “heard” he pushed his wife in an elevator? Would Russell Westbrook still have been fined $25,000 if someone “said” he f-bombed a fan?

The answer is as obvious as the cellphone we hold in our hands.

“And you can’t defend it,” Berry said. Because whatever you might say in your defense, that is seen as a shuck and a jive, a little verbal soft-shoe as you back out the door a cad, a loser, a thug.

Of course, not every teenager walks around looking for the best photo op to be a TMZ star, ready to take down the next jock.

“You hope they are raised properly,” Foltmer said. “You’d want them to be made aware of the (cell) camera. You want them to be responsible.”

An athlete creates a crowd. Like it or not, the athlete never travels alone. The athlete is watched.

It is both a blessing and a curse. It is up to the athlete to know the difference and pay more attention to the latter than the former.

If that can’t happen, a reminder is necessary. Won’t take much effort. Just go to the internet and type “Michael Phelps Bong” and follow the smoke.

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