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Did Jason Botchford cross the ethical line in reporting Joe Thornton’s ‘revealing celebration’?

Let’s just get this out of the way first: The hockey world is a better place today with the knowledge that a Joe Thornton hat trick is four goals and on-ice masturbation.

Thornton's now-infamous joke about his goal celebration is something Nancy Dowd couldn’t have scripted better – his nickname is JUMBO, for Peter’s sake – and one that immediately makes Joe Thornton infinitely cooler than he was this morning.

The question is whether we should have ever been privy to it.

To recap: Reporters were interviewing Patrick Marleau in the visitors’ locker room in Vancouver, ahead of the San Jose Sharks’ game against the Canucks on Thursday night. Marleau was asked a question about Sharks rookie Tomas Hertl and his fancy fourth goal against the New York Rangers.

Thornton cut off the question, saying to TSN reporter Farhan Lalji, “Shut up, have you ever played the game?”

According to Jason Botchford of The Province, Thornton had the attention of the press scrum and then joked, “I’d have my [rooster] out if I scored four goals. I’d have my [rooster] out, stroking it.”

(Only he didn’t say “rooster.”)

There was much laughter from the 20 or so media members that heard the line. Only one, Botchford, reported it in his notebook for The Province. Once public, the Thornton quote went huge and surged in popularity.

Here’s where things get a little dicey: Did Thornton know this was on the record?

Should he have anticipated that saying anything with reporters in the room meant it could be quoted? Or is there an unspoken agreement between media and players that what’s said by one player when the cameras, recorders and attention are on another player, is effectively off the record? Especially when those comments are off-color?

One assumes Thornton was embarrassed to have this joke get out into publication. And, based on some informed speculation, it could open him up to a fine from the NHL.

The Sharks’ Scott Emmert, director of communication, released the following statement about the reporting on Thornton:

"I don't think it would be a surprise to anyone in the industry that ‘locker room talk’ exists. Professional reporters understand that concept and respect it. This is a pathetic attempt to generate some page hits and controversy by reporting an off-the-cuff and off-the-record comment made by someone who wasn't even being interviewed at the time."

First off: The “pathetic attempt to generate some page hits” claim is asinine. It was a quote buried in a notebook. Even if Botchford promoted it on Twitter, it’s not as if it was the centerpiece of his reporting.

But was it off the record?

Botchford addressed his decision to report the quote on TSN’s Off The Record:

“Frankly, it was a pretty easy decision for me. It’s nonsense that this is off the record. Joe interrupted, with insolence (Ed. Note: Really?) another scrum to tell a reporter, Farhan Lalji of TSN, to ‘shut up.’ Twenty reporters turned to Joe, he said his joke, and a joke that really made the whole Hirtl discussion seem ridiculous. I think it was appropriate to go forward with publishing the quote, for a lot of reasons. First and foremost, because I work for a publication that asks me to think , write and report with edge, and that’s what I think I did today.”

“The problem here for Joe is that he said the comment to about 20 reporters. I looked around, about half of them had cameras. If any of them had reported it, and I had not, I would have been called to the carpet by my boss and asked why I didn’t publish one of the quotes of the year.”

If you watch the interview, Botchford seems to believe that he was on a crusade to defend the honor of Lalji by reporting Thornton’s “you never played the game” malice.

He also makes the bizarre accusation that had Thornton said “the Sedins play like Mary Kate and Ashley” that everyone would report it; somehow equating Thornton joking about whipping his junk out during a four-goal effort with a misogynistic taunt against an opponent.

So did Botchford cross an ethical line?

Sorta.

Anyone that’s been in a locker room, especially after practice, has heard lewd comments and colorful language, from an “he’s the [expletive] man!” when an unsung player is being given the media spotlight to outright mockery of that same media.

It’s not something that gets reported by those on the beat. There’s an expectation by the players that the on the record stuff doesn’t begin until the scrum begins or the reporter starts a one-on-one. It's just how it's always been.

(Making this situation more problematic: I’ve been told that Thornton was asked to repeat his line when his scrum officially started, and he declined, which would seem to reiterate that he didn’t feel it was on the record.)

So that’s the unspoken rule of the dressing room.

But there’s another rule that journalists have to follow, which is that they have a responsibility to their audience to report the news.

Thornton’s line doesn’t rise to the importance of, say, calling the Sedins the Olsen sisters. But if Botchford wants to argue that Thornton’s quote reveals the absurdity of the Hertl criticism – in a “you think that’s bad, you ain’t seen nothing yet!” sort of way – there's a newsworthiness argument one could make, even if the line is chiefly salacious.

It’s 2013. There are cameras everywhere. There is media everywhere.

The dynamic between reporters and athletes has changed dramatically over time. Maybe the “unspoken rules” of interview engagement are another sacrifice to that evolution. Maybe they have to be in this media environment – because if it’s not Jason Botchford quoting Thornton, perhaps it’s an HBO camera capturing something similar from another player. Hell, moments like this are what Twitter is made for.

Ethically, Botchford was wrong, given the history of these types of moments.

Realistically, he was doing his job, even if it meant breaking a reporter/athlete taboo.

Why? Because the quote is awesome. You know it, we know it, and Thornton probably knows it too.

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