By Ryan Lund
Patrick Sharp is a hard man to dislike.
With a winning smile unblemished by a 13-year NHL career that landed the high-scoring winger on the cover of Chicago Magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful Chicagoans” issue in 2011, Sharp is an instantly recognizable face on a team that seems to deal almost exclusively in recognizable faces.
But despite his very public face, the quick-wristed 33-year-old has managed to keep a relatively low profile.
There have been no bar fights, court dates or social media tirades; no Twitter-backed embarrassment campaigns linking Sharp to domestic violence or drugs, just a clean slate of productive play.
Sharp has netted fewer than 20 goals just once since 2007.
By all accounts, Patrick Sharp is a man that you want to have on your team.
Well, nearly all accounts.
In the midst of an offensively disappointing season, Sharp has found his name circulated with TMZ-like glee in certain circles over the last few weeks, attached to rumors and anonymous reports purporting to have the inside scoop on the forward’s personal life.
Built on personal insults and dubious reporting, the latest round of rumors is an attack not just on Sharp, but on the credibility of sports media outlets across the board.
The primary source appears to be Sports Mockery: a Chicago-centric website that purports to peddle in “a unique blend of sports content and making sports news fun” of the sort that caters to 20-something-year-old men, per web analytics company Alexa.
Think Deadspin – a sports-centric blend of satire and hard news — laced with the over-the-top elements of TMZ.
Sports Mockery published a laundry list of salacious rumors purportedly surrounding Sharp, offering scant details and even scanter sourcing for a range of allegations that includes adultery and a locker-room fistfight.
But according to ESPN Chicago’s Scott Powers, there’s nothing legitimate to publish.
“You’re dealing in facts as a journalist, but also in newsworthiness,” Powers said via email. “Something related to those rumors would have to clear a lot of massive hurdles to ever be printed.”
But rather than backing off after numerous members of the Blackhawks organization stepped in to defend Sharp, Sports Mockery doubled down.
“Sports Mockery is not digging into people’s personal life [sic], this wasn’t and still isn’t our intention,” wrote a website contributor posting under the alias WindyCityFan. “We simply discovered information that has been swept under the rug for years when investigating the issues with the team. We are sharing what we found.”
Meanwhile, Sharp threatened legal action.
“If everything we posted was “false” and “laughable,” then why are the Chicago Blackhawks responding to it?” reads Sports Mockery’s latest report.
The Blackhawks are responding because these reports – no matter how unsubstantiated – have gained traction, and because a media outlet that presents itself as a professional entity is spreading them.
Ed Sherman, who writes a sports media blog and is a contributing columnist at the Chicago Tribune, said this sort of speculation is driving down journalism’s collective standard, and staining us all in the process.
“I think that you’re living in an era where there’s a lot of dangerous speculation and people not using the same standards that used to exist,” Sherman said.
Sharp is being forced to defend himself from an Internet mob, and as much as people like to disguise it with correlations to his poor play on the ice, it has exactly nothing to do with ice-time.
“There’s such a disregard for people’s lives,” Sherman said. “This is not about a game. This is about a family.”
In the wake of cases like Tiger Woods and Brett Favre, the sports-watching public seems to have developed an addiction to scandals.
Meanwhile, this newfound interest is taking a toll on athletes, and perhaps more importantly, the people who support them off the field of play.
Because Sharp isn’t the only one being targeted.
The belief that Sharp’s public-facing profession somehow makes him a fair target ignores the fact that his family now has to deal with these persistent rumors as well.
Sharp said he felt forced to respond to the rumors, giving his own critics a platform and legitimizing their existence.
Sharp can threaten the offenders with lawsuits and batter them back with denials corroborated by his teammates, but the rumors are going to exist regardless, percolating in the background thanks to an irresponsible brand of journalism and a reckless disregard for the personal lives of athletes.
In the midst of sports journalism’s battle for access versus public relations departments putting increased pressure on athletes to remain on message, anonymous speculation like this is damaging the media’s own cause as well.
“I’m sure it will. It has to,” Sherman said. “I just think it’s like anything. If you had a bad experience with a doctor, the next doctor you visit you’re probably going to be nervous.”
When players like Sharp begin taking their cues from Marshawn Lynch and shutting the media out entirely, what will all of this speculation have amounted to exactly?
“If you get burned the next time you go into that situation, these guys are smart, it’s just human nature to have their guard up,” Sherman said.
While it would be nice to chat with Sharp about the Blackhawks power-play struggles and the team’s chemistry with recent addition Antoine Vermette, it would be totally understandable if Sharp wanted to avoid the media entirely.