By Kyle Taylor, columnist

Nothing unites and captivates a group of people more than a shared passion for athletics. Tailgates, double headers, Sunday night football parties, face painting, school spirit and, of course, endless trash talk and discussions can enchant any sports fan. What is often at the center of the excitement and drama is the superstar athlete’s personal life. This is even enough to give paparazzi a job and provide endless stories for journalists all over the world. And why wouldn’t it be? Tales such as these captivate an audience because of an undeniable fact: regardless of age, interests or knowledge: people love to gossip.

Fans relish being ahead of their friends and up-to-date on the news, always seeking the “Have you heard…” moments. We naturally hope for them to say that they haven’t so we have the opportunity to hold the mic and shine underneath a spotlight, even if it is just a moment. While it feels good to be ahead of the mainstream news, this obsession with the latest dirt has its consequences.

No one likes it when people talk behind their back or perpetuate ridiculous rumors, but there seems to be some sort of obsession with spreading rumors when it comes to athletes. We, without much thought, will destroy an athlete’s right to the presumption of innocence by constantly discussing and drawing opinions on media stories and rumors. News spreads like wildfire and, before you know it, an entire story is created off little or dicey information. We’ve all heard the stories: the running back gets into a brawl at a bar, the point guard is charged with date rape after a night of binge drinking or the goalie crashes his sports car at 2 a.m. While investigators will do what is necessary to get the right story eventually, the process takes time, and the initial reports and rumors will live on.

The reality is that being the “big man” on campus can ironically place the athlete under the tiniest of microscopes, making any drama involved in his or her life newsworthy. This is not to say however that bad behavior, criminal conduct or just plain stupidity should be excused or forgotten, but it is so easy to forget due process and the presumption of innocence should apply to star athletes as well.

I am certainly not willing to excuse truly bad behavior. Athletes should understand that they are a part of something bigger than themselves – they get perks and also have additional responsibilities. They represent their family, their team, school and often the the community around them. In some cases, like it or not, athletes have the ability to be role models for kids. Recognizing that others view them as the epitome of focus and hard work would likely be a good step towards staying on the straight and narrow.

As fans and consumers, however, we have but one task: enjoy their athletic performances on the field, but recognize these people are only human.

I am in no position to shake my head or wag my finger at other sports enthusiasts nor to tell them how to converse. I engage in the same conduct as most fans, my only hope is to make us aware of what we are doing and understand that a mere conversation can mean a lot more than just small talk. Behind the commercials, shoe deals, highlights and fame are real people who don’t leave the spotlight when we get bored of talking about them at the dinner table. So, when you inevitably begin to chat about the next scandal, think twice about the things that you really do know. I will try to do the same, because when it comes to gossiping, I am, just like many fans, undeniably guilty.