Back in 2013, I read a blog post by David Brothers that had a big impact on me, and put into words a feeling of discomfort that had been nagging me for a while. You might remember the micro-controversy wherein an Indian-American woman was named Miss America for the first time, and received racist and xenophobic insults as a result, insults which were called out and criticized by online figures large and small. Brothers, though, argued that the well-intentioned act of holding up vile sentiments in order to attack them actually reinforces those vile sentiments, because it transforms the story from being about the actual subject to being about the invective directed at that subject. As he put it in a tweet quoted in the post:
also if I can get really real: spotlighting someone only because racists hate them is privileging the position of the racist, not the person
This principle is one that should guide us more often online. When we feel like expressing our outrage at, say, the antics of Westboro Baptist Church, we should think about who gains from this more, our allies or theirs. Is the game worth the candle, in other words?
This question bedevils sportswriting, particularly online. The emergence of a generally progressive consensus among the current generation of sportswriters has in general been great, not just because it fits my political sensibilities but also because it’s led to the reconsideration of a lot of sporting cliches and sacred cows. However, wherever there’s consensus, there’s a temptation to jump on those who buck it. This can be a problem, even when the consensus is 100% correct, because it elevates bad thinkers and lowers good ones.
I got to see an example of this in real time on Twitter this morning. Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia, a former great who has fallen on hard times but of late seemed to be making a comeback, announced unexpectedly that he would not be joining the Yankees in the playoffs, because he is checking into rehab for alcohol addiction. This startling and poignant announcement was immediately met with reactions from sportswriters and commentators on Twitter sympathizing with Sabathia and his family, commending him for having the courage to seek treatment and wishing him a successful recovery. Even though this may be a somewhat unremarkable attitude towards this topic in 2015, it’s still worth saying, precisely because it’s a sign of how far we’ve come that expressing sympathy rather than scolding towards an announcement like this one is now the default mainstream reaction.
However, from the very beginning this admirable and important sentiment was accompanied by another one, equally true but more argumentative in tone: if you believe that Sabathia should pitch in the playoffs rather than checking into rehab, you’re a despicable person.
This second argument did not follow from anyone prominent saying the reverse (“Sabathia needs to put off rehab until after the playoffs”); it was immediate. ESPN tweeted the news at 10:11 a.m.:
Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia says he is checking himself into alcohol rehabilitation. http://t.co/QMGLv9QSDS—
(@SportsCenter) October 05, 2015
Within two minutes, prominent sports commentators were arguing against the viewpoint that Sabathia was making the wrong move:
just a heads up: thinking someone should wait to get treatment for an addiction after the playoffs is a bad opinion—
Lana Berry (@Lana) October 05, 2015
Saying CC Sabathia should have waited until after the playoffs to go to rehab is basically saying you're happy with the drunk guy pitching.—
Mr. Batter Chokin' (@MrButterChicken) October 05, 2015
CC Sabathia never, ever has to answer for his athletic commitment. All that matters is that he get himself well. Good luck to him. #Yankees—
Mike Vaccaro (@MikeVacc) October 05, 2015
Sabathia has 4 kids, none of them yet teenagers. If you value your team winning over them getting to know their dad as an adult, screw you.—
Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) October 05, 2015
Even if he were super Kershaw as a pitcher, the equation is the same. Anyone who thinks the games are more important may be a sociopath.—
Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) October 05, 2015
To be clear, this wasn’t entirely preemptive. Right from the beginning there were indeed plenty of awful replies to the original ESPN tweet, expressing exactly this idea that Sabathia is some kind of bum. (I’m not going to link to these tweets, since that would go against the point of this post.) But all of these replies were by what I think can safely be called random fans, folks with a few dozen followers and no name recognition. Right-minded writers were not waiting for what I would call, at the risk of being elitist, real people to express despicable opinions about Sabathia. The mere existence of the opinion among a few Internet users was enough to bring out their indignation.
Most of the disgust with the anti-Sabathia view was expressed in general terms rather than targeting any jerk in particular, but a few of these random fans got their awful opinions broadcast directly to the world. For example, this junior in college with 115 followers tweeted this (since deleted):
…which was found by Craig Calcaterra and tweeted out to his more than 28,000 followers: Priorities. twitter.com/GrushNYC/statu…
Craig Calcaterra (@craigcalcaterra) October 05, 2015
Obviously, GrushNYC thought better of his tweet, since he deleted it, so I guess you can call that a feather in Calcaterra’s cap. But it’s my experience that the GrushNYC’s of the world don’t need to be singled out to be corrected; their wrongness will pointed out in plenty of replies from folks like me, folks with barely more followers and plenty of real work to avoid. Do we need someone with Calcaterra’s credentials, audience, and power of expression to step in and crush him like a bug? Whose side does that elevate, Calcaterra’s or GrushNYC’s?
Craig was kind enough to discuss this topic with me following these tweets. He made three main points in defense of highlighting bad, anonymous opinions like this:
- that ignoring idiotic opinions does not actually raise the level of discourse;
- that in fact, these anti-Sabathia sentiments are not “random” but widely held;
- that this kind of widely-held opinion is often unconsidered, and thus negative attention might cause people to reconsider.
As far as point 1, it really depends on what you define as “discourse.” If you’re talking about everything written online, then no, ignoring the bottom-feeders is not going to improve that. But to me the discourse is whatever sensible people would choose to read, which excludes obviously unconsidered, uninformed, or malicious opinions by people with zero reach or influence. I know there’s a perception that it’s good to know what awful ideas are out there beyond our own spheres, but to me that’s the job of FBI profilers, not commentators. Shouldn’t we limit ourselves to what’s actually worth discussing? (I’m sure this issue looks different to a prominent commentator like Craig, who gets subjected to all sorts of awful opinions just in the course of his job, than to someone like me who gets to choose whether to read the comments and random tweets.)
As far as the second point, I don’t mean “random” in the sense of not widely held. The Internet is gargantuan and almost all imaginable viewpoints are widely held. Given any news story, you can predict the most infuriating reactions that will arise from it. I do think, though, that one should at least wait until an awful opinion has been put in the mainstream, by someone with an actual audience, before grappling with it. As of this writing, the nearest thing I’ve seen to a prominent sports commentator saying something awful about Sabathia is former major league pitcher Shane Loux (pointed out to me by Calcaterra):
Blaming Sabathia for his alcoholism is a gratuitously appalling thing to do, especially since there’s no indication that Loux has any knowledge of Sabathia’s life. Even this line, though, is not the same as saying Sabathia should pitch rather than go to rehab (Loux actually agreed that it was good for Sabathia to seek help, for what little that’s worth). And plus…Shane Loux? A former major leaguer who pitched in 58 games over the course of six seasons? Shane Loux used to pitch for the Giants and it took me about half an hour to remember that. It’s not clear to me why his statements are news at all.
To be clear, I’m sure that the awful column, or ESPN spot, saying that Sabathia is a bum who should have put off rehab until after the playoffs, or who should have known better than to be an alcoholic in the first place, is coming. (It may have been published by the time you read this.) But why is it coming? In part it’s coming because every one of the above tweeters is going to link to it when it appears. Just last week a Kansas City Star blogger outraged everyone when he defended Jonathan Papelbon choking his teammate Bryce Harper, then redoubled the outrage when he admitted he had just been trolling (“thanks for the page views”). That guy sucks, but do we want to keep going full-throttle in making that a sound career strategy to begin with?
I’m certainly not saying that bad opinions on issues like this are all just trolling for the attention. Certainly the great majority of people saying that Sabathia needs to pitch for the good of his team really believe it, at least at the moment they hit Send. The conflict, though, is optional. We should not seek it out without a good reason.
The third point is the one that comes closest to convincing me: sometimes this kind of shaming really will have a positive outcome. Of course, sometimes it won’t, because the person is set in his or her (almost always his) ways and just digs in when put on the defensive. And sometimes the person is just looking for attention, so getting called out is exactly the briar patch they want to be thrown in. My point isn’t that it never works, my point is that it’s extremely hit-or-miss and unreliable, and beyond that boring. Watching talented writers contend with arguments that no one of their caliber or audience is expressing is the sportswriting equivalent of watching a great college football team steamroll a patsy school to open up the season. It’s not why any of us are fans of these writers. It doesn’t represent the best of of what we can get from them.
When we begin to see articles shaming Sabathia for caring about his health and his family more than the game he plays, it will be the dull but necessary task of other writers to point out why this idea is so poisonous. In the meantime, it’s up to the genuinely thoughtful and informed commentators to be the influential ones, and you don’t show you deserve influence by punching below your weight. You do it by engaging difficult issues in a thoughtful and worthy way. Why would people want to listen to someone who can’t tell what’s not worth listening to?