To lip readers certain phrases are famously difficult to distinguish. It's hard to tell, through a soundproofed window, if that woman has just said "I love you" or is merely asking for "olive juice." Her lips will move the same way whether she wants to "marry" you or "bury" you. These seemingly identical phrases—or homophones—remind us what a difference a letter makes.
This is an article from the April 25, 2011 issue
Kobe Bryant, in mouthing an antigay slur during a televised Lakers game last week, was caught out by the unmistakable F at the start of the epithet, which was directed at referee Bennie Adams. The offending word, though inaudible on the TNT telecast, became unmistakable to a nation of lip readers watching in HD, rewinding on DVR, then uploading to YouTube for further video vivisection. Bryant couldn't pretend to have said something else, and he didn't try. For want of a homophone, he was branded a homophobe. What a difference a letter makes.
Had Bryant chosen any number of equally offensive but less lip-readable expressions, no one would have noticed. But because his chosen word was not just detestable but detectable, Bryant was fined $100,000. He made a swift and seemingly sincere apology, and said he'd learned a lesson in how hurtful such epithets can be (page 24).
Another lesson Bryant might have learned is this: He and other athletes are under a forensic level of scrutiny that didn't exist just a few years ago, before everything was caught on high-definition camera and replayed—often gleefully—at the touch of a button.
Where once a centerfield camera might have glimpsed a manager idly probing his nose, baseball now has cameras in the dugout, courtesy of the MLB Network. The celebrity fishbowl has become a fish barrel, with everyone happy to shoot. The eye in the sky is unblinking. When Alex Rodriguez was hand-fed popcorn by his movie-star girlfriend at the Super Bowl, it was difficult to say which lovesick creature was more doting: Cameron or cameraman.
For high-profile athletes, it's an exceedingly wearisome way to live, as if one's life is a film to be broken down by countless coaches. Last season, after Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez was criticized by commentators for moping on the sidelines during games, the team began fining Sanchez for poor body language in practice. After a broken play Sanchez—in the words of offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer—"kind of looked like it was somebody else's fault." Here was a leap forward from lip reading to mind reading. And from an NFL coach, of all people—one of those men who speak only from behind the laminated place mat of a play chart, lest anyone read their lips.
Coaches have good reason to cover their mouths. We've become a nation of narcs—constantly lip-reading, uploading, dissecting, Deadspinning. We are 300 million Gladys Kravitzes, the nosy neighbor on Bewitched, fogging the glass of the window next door. That window, of course, is a 52-inch pane of plasma. It keeps us increasingly spellbound and couch-bound, forever on the lookout for human frailty.
In January golfer Camilo Villegas was disqualified at Kapalua when a TV viewer phoned in a rules violation: After the Colombian chipped up a slope, the ball rolled back toward him, and Villegas brushed away some loose blades of grass in its path, a violation of Rule 23--1, as cited by an anonymous Poindexter pushing up his glasses with one hand and speed-dialing the USGA with the other.
The USGA and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club are to be applauded (or at least golf-clapped) for changing their rules in time for the Masters. Violations caught on camera—but not reported until after the player has signed his scorecard—will no longer result in automatic disqualification, disappointing an army of armchair Frank Hannigans.
That was one small pushback. A larger—and more boneheaded—one: When Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney scored the third goal of a hat trick against West Ham this month, he turned to the camera and told it profanely where to go. Significantly, Rooney was cursing not at the cameraman but directly into the camera lens, as if to make eye contact with—and speak directly to—the home viewer.
Other athletes will just have to laugh off the long-lens surveillance of society. Or not: Cardinals quarterback Derek Anderson, caught laughing on the sideline while his team trailed 24--6 in the fourth quarter of a game in November, took a long and painful turn in the spanking machine of sports media, beginning with a postgame press conference of almost proctological inquiry.
The quarterback who can't laugh can only cry. Except that's not an option either. When Patriots quarterback Tom Brady shed tears in an ESPN interview that aired last week—he was recalling the NFL draft of 2000, when he went unchosen until the 199th pick—he was roundly ridiculed for his display of human emotion. Another Pyrrhic victory for viewers-turned-voyeurs. Final score: Peeping Toms 1, Weeping Toms 0. For Brady—and all his colleagues—the only thing left to cry is uncle.
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For more from Steve Rushin, including his weekly column, Rushin Lit, go to SI.com/rushin