By Pete Thamel and Thayer Evans
The New York Times
While shopping recently at RadioShack, a woman approached Florida quarterback Tim Tebow with a seemingly innocuous request to take a picture with him. But an instant before her mother snapped the photo with a cell phone camera, the woman tried to take off her shirt.
"It's happened four or five times," Tebow said with a sigh. "Most of the time I just dive out of the picture. Some people can just be crazy."
In the era of Twitter, Facebook and Deadspin.com, being the big man on campus no longer means being the life of the party. For all the images of marching bands, cheerleaders and raucous student fans associated with college football, the romantic notion of a quaint campus life for star quarterbacks such as Tebow, Oklahoma's Sam Bradford and Texas' Colt McCoy has all but disappeared, killed off by a combination of cloying fans and new technology.
Athletic departments now monitor social networking Web sites, and cell phones are collected at the door of college parties to try to keep embarrassing or illegal moments off the Internet.
"The latest stuff with the cell phones and digital devices has erased the boundaries between public and private," Michael Oriard, an Oregon State professor who has written three books about the culture of college football, said. "It's an enormous jump, as it's not just ESPN or Fox cameras, but it's everyone with a cell phone."
Oriard, a former Notre Dame football captain, said college athletes, who are unpaid, experienced the problems of celebrities such as Tom Brady and Paris Hilton without the monetary payoff. "It's the downside of celebrity without the upside of it," he said.
Tebow is all too familiar with the omnipresent spotlight.
"It really hinders you from going places," he said. "People will do a lot of things to get you to try and look like you're not doing something right."
Bradford, McCoy and Tebow, the leading vote-getters for the Heisman Trophy last season, are among the most recognizable people in their states, and they receive intense scrutiny.
McCoy said he once called the police when a man was screaming outside his apartment in the middle of the night. Tebow said he could not go on a date because pictures would be on the Internet in 10 minutes. Bradford, who has been sidelined recently with a shoulder sprain, has had contentious encounters with professional autograph seekers.
At a restaurant recently, McCoy said, a woman in an adjacent booth appeared to be talking on her cell phone but was actually using it to record video of him. He said that he was frequently filmed while walking to class and that he was cautious when people asked to have their photographs taken with him.
As Kent Bradford, Sam's father, said, "You don't know if you're actually having that picture made with a known gambler or a known prostitute or a known drug dealer."
Compromising photos and videos of athletes often turn up on the Web. The typical path is from a cell phone to a Facebook page to a message board. Then the mainstream news media pick it up.
Perhaps the most popular distributor of athletes' pictures is Deadspin.com, known for its snide commentary on modern sports. Deadspin's editor, A.J. Daulerio, said the site feeds the age-old fascination with athletes' lives off the field.
While in New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony in December, Sam Bradford was continually pestered by a professional autograph collector seeking his signature on a photograph, said Kenny Mossman, the senior associate athletic director for communications at Oklahoma. After Bradford declined to sign several times, the collector ripped up the photograph and threw the pieces in his face.
Even staying at home cannot always protect college athletes from unwanted attention. Last season a man showed up at McCoy's apartment at 3 a.m. and woke him by beating on the door and screaming.
The police were called and they took the man away, McCoy said. Shortly thereafter, he and his roommates moved to a place where his pickup truck would be less visible.