When Private Sins Are Public News. JOURNALISM: ETHICS

WADE BOGGS, the ballplayer, and John Tower, the former senator, have a few things in common these days. Their personal affairs have been spread before the public in embarrassing detail. Since neither is the most popular man in his respective circle, their discomforts have caused few tears.

Most important, reporters knew about their derelictions - to some degree at least - long before the public did. Tales of Senator Tower's late-night escapades had circulated through Washington for years. Boston's baseball writers didn't all know about Margo Adams, the Red Sox star's traveling mistress, who sued him for $12 million and then told the unseemly tale in Penthouse magazine. But it was no secret that, as Michael Gee of the Boston Herald puts it, ``Wade Boggs was one of the biggest chasers around.''

The press didn't point the first finger in either case. Still, the resulting media sideshows raise a question that sportswriters, like political writers, are having to confront. When do personal matters become public business?

In the Boggs case the answer was easy. ``When your ex-girlfriend sues you for $12 million bucks,'' Mr. Gee observes.

Palimony suits aside, the stock answer is that personal matters become public when they affect public duties. It sounds quite upstanding. But in practice it doesn't always mean much. When reporters spied on Gary Hart's Capitol Hill town house during the presidential primaries, nobody claimed the candidate's roving eye had made him ineffective as a senator from Colorado - only that it might affect his performance as president. In Mr. Boggs's case, the thread was even thinner. The New York Times reported that the third baseman actually hit better when Ms. Adams was with him on the road.

All of which leaves reporters as confused as everyone else. The sports pages are already dealing with everything from contract squabbles to drugs. Are they destined to mimic TV's ``Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous'' as well?

``It's not an accident that [the standard] is changing in politics at the same time it's changing in sports,'' says Ron Rappaport, a writer for the Los Angeles Daily News and commentator for National Public Radio. ``We are all dealing with this.''

In the past, reporters almost always kept quiet about a player's off-field behavior. Babe Ruth's libidinous adventures were well known to writers who traveled with the Yankees, just as John F. Kennedy's were to ``the boys on the bus.'' Most writers aren't eager for change.

``Its a nightmare,'' says Bob Ryan, basketball writer of the Boston Globe, speaking of his response when a player's personal life explodes on his beat. ``Your first instinct is, `Geez, do I have to deal with this?'''

``As far as most reporters are concerned,'' adds Frederick Klein of the Wall Street Journal, ``a guy's private life is his own business.''

Then too, asking a 300-pound defensive tackle to comment on, say, an extramarital relationship is not one of life's more enviable tasks.

And reporters who cover a particular sports team or government agency tend to see the world from that standpoint. ``They become more loyal to the institution they cover than they are to their readers,'' says Bob Sales, sports editor of the Boston Herald.

The threat of libel suits is another reason reporters generally wait until a story comes out through other means.

But the biggest worry by far is that of exile. Reporters who tattle may never get an interview again. ``You write this once and that's the end,'' Mr. Rappaport says. ``You'd find yourself completely cut off from your sources.'' On the other hand, some think athletes with multimillion-dollar contracts should be treated as celebrities. ``Their social lives are very interesting,'' says Mr. Sales of the Herald, which left no Margo angle unexplored. ``They are gossip column items. And if they do bizarre things we have got to report on it.''

Sales thinks the access issue is overblown. ``Most of these guys don't have anything to say,'' he says, referring to vapid quotations of the ``great-game-out-there-tonight'' kind that reporters generally get in post-game interviews. And if a reporter does burn his bridges? ``We'll get another guy down there [in the locker room],'' he says.

The growing social distance between writers and athletes may be pushing things in this direction. In the old days, the two groups would pal around on train rides. They made similar incomes and shared a roguish male world.

Today, by contrast, ballplayers drive to work in BMWs. They live insulated lives and sometimes won't even deal with the press. ``When a guy is stiffing you on a question like, `Was that a curve ball or what?''' says Gee of the Herald, ``your inclination to bust his chops on a question like, `Who was that lady I saw you with last night?' goes way up.''

Newspaper competition in cities like New York and Boston (where the Herald is making a feisty challenge to the Globe) is another pressure in this direction, Ryan says. ``I resent the fact that it's come to this, but it has come to this,'' he says.

Counters Sales, ``Why should the Boston Red Sox be any different than the Rolling Stones?''

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