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Privacy evaporates for athletes, particularly the superstars

| Sunday, March 28, 2010

As the criminal investigation of Ben Roethlisberger plods along in Milledgeville, Ga., the Steelers star will serve as a cautionary tale even if he is not charged with sexual assault.

His image has taken as much of a beating as Roethlisberger, one of the most sacked quarterbacks in the NFL. Pictures that surfaced on, which broke the Roethlisberger story and had been at the forefront of the reporting that exposed Tiger Woods' marital infidelities, are stark reminders of how guarded celebrities have to be in an era of cell-phone cameras and the Internet.

"There is no privacy," said Michael Levine, a prominent Hollywood publicist who has led public-relations campaigns for celebrities such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Mike Tyson, Michael Jackson and Charlton Heston. "As we have become a more technologically sophisticated society, we have become less reverent."

Translation: Nothing is out of bounds when it comes to the loosely regulated Internet.

During a night of bar hopping that resulted in allegations of sexual assault by a 20-year-old college student, Roethlisberger is shown wearing a black T-shirt featuring an oversized image of the devil.

There are also pictures of Roethlisberger posing with college students at different bars before a celebration of his 28th birthday went awry in the early hours of March 5.

What is particularly damaging about the photos on Roethlisberger is the face of an image-conscious franchise. And he is one of the marquee players in a league that takes also perception seriously.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell plans to meet with Roethlisberger, and the latter could be disciplined for violating the league's personal-conduct policy. Goodell enacted the policy in April of 2007 to deter players from tarnishing the league with their off-field behavior.

Players have to be more careful than ever since the voyeur factor has increased exponentially because of technological advances and the enormous popularity of the NFL.

"I think we're seeing more tabloid coverage," Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said. "Players have to be more aware than ever."

Coaches do, too.

"It's something that's new to me, people taking camera-phone pictures of me and my wife in the security line at the airport, taking off our belt and shoes," said second-year Kansas City Chiefs coach Todd Haley, an Upper St. Clair High graduate. "You've always got to be on your best behavior."

Rex Ryan learned that the hard way.

At the end of January, the brash New York Jets coach flipped off hecklers at a mixed martial arts event in Sunrise, Fla. Captured on a camera phone and posted on the Internet, the gesture quickly became a national story.

It earned Ryan a $50,000 fine and public rebuke from the Jets. He apologized for his actions, which likely would have gone unreported if the picture had not been posted on the Internet.

Ryan chuckled when asked the importance of players monitoring what they do in public.

"We'll talk about it more this year because, obviously, it's not just the players that have to worry about it," he said.

The unflattering pictures of Roethlisberger on's site -- there are also ones of him posing with beefy friends and wearing T-shirts that tout the celebration of his birthday as Ben-A-Palooza -- could shape or change the perception people have of the two-time Super Bowl winner.

"Fifty-five percent of what we communicate is with our body language," said Mark Macias, a crisis communications expert and author of 'Beat the Press: Your Guide to Managing the Media.'

"That means what we look like and how we move is going to give people an image of us moreso than what we say."

Levine said the pictures of Roethlisberger from his birthday bar tour undoubtedly hurt his image, although he added that it is unclear if the damage is lasting.

What is clear is that the line between public domain and private life has become increasingly blurred for the rich and famous.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said the new rules that apply - or rather the lack thereof when it comes to posting on the Internet - can't be used as an excuse for unbecoming behavior.

"The reality is you're part of the NFL, and it's a privilege," Tomlin said. "We're held to a higher standard whether someone's looking or not. That's what I stress to our guys and myself."

Macias said the best way players can protect themselves is to assume that someone is watching them - and poised to take a picture of them - when they are out.

"There is no such thing as a private celebrity," Macias said.

He added that the intrusiveness will only get worse for celebrities.

"Unless," Macias said, "we get rid of the Internet, and that's not happening."

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