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Insipid sports "journalism" is harming our democracy.
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Now on to this week’s column!
It’s September, so the training staffs of NFL teams are already extremely busy carting injured players off the field, most recently the legendary and bizarre Aaron Rogers. (Sigh, so great at quarterbacking and TV commercialing; so terrible at life.)
At this time of year, I usually pause to excoriate the NFL, the TV networks, our society’s values and my own personal, hypocritical self for feeding this gruesome gladiator sacrifice. But this year I shall commemorate football season by excoriating a less inhumane but much weirder development in our nation’s sporting life: a new journalistic genre I call the Breaking Hypothetical.
But first, a brief glossary:
“Trade.” In pro sports, teams can exchange contracted personnel for a player (or players) from another team, or for upcoming draft picks or simply for cash. The vast majority of these transactions are of limited interest. For example, just before opening day, the Los Angeles Chargers traded kicker Dustin Hopkins to Cleveland in exchange for a 2025 seventh-round draft pick. No hearts were set aflutter.
“Blockbuster.” Traditionally, this has meant a trade involving two or (usually) more extremely high-profile players. Probably the blockbusteriest of all was the Dallas Cowboys 1989 trade of star running back Herschel Walker to the Minnesota Vikings in exchange for five players and six future draft picks. The Vikes thereupon — over three years with the priciest acquisition ever — won one division championship (but advanced no farther) and otherwise remained mediocre. Dallas used the trade bounty to become a decade-long football dynasty. Walker went on to abuse domestic partners, father unacknowledged children, invent a phony law-enforcement resume and mount one of the most ridiculous and pathetic U.S. Senate campaigns ever.
“Reality.” Something that actually exists.
“News organization.” An institution entrusted to record and transmit reality.
Alas, this is 2023. You can take those formerly useful definitions and just toss them out with your iPhone13. They are no longer relevant.
First of all, there is no such thing as a trade anymore. We live in a media economy fueled by clicks. Nobody clicks on a headline that says:
Chargers and Browns Complete Trade of Limited Interest
“No hearts set aflutter,” says front-office exec
No, headlines are no place for summarizing well-contextualized facts. Their job is to get the juices flowing. Thus, nowadays, in every professional sport, all activity formerly known as a “trade” is advertised as a “blockbuster.”
For instance, at the Major League Baseball trade deadline, the Pittsburgh Pirates exchanged 43-year-old starting pitcher Rich Hill and reserve first baseman/designated hitter Jo-Man Choi. SportsIllustrated.com reported the transaction:
Aug 1, 2023 — Padres News: Friars Acquire Rich Hill, Ji-Man Choi From Pirates in Blockbuster Trade.
Oh, is that right?
Neither Hill, now playing for the 13th team in his waning career, nor Choi is a superstar. Or a game-changer. They were packed off to the Padres in exchange for 3 mid-level prospects.
Since the trade, the Pirates have won 18 games and lost 21. The Padres, who struck the deal in a push for the MLB playoffs, have gone 15 and 22. The blockbuster, alas, was a block bust.
Here’s another screaming headline, this one from ClutchPoints.com.
Orioles Finalizing Jack Flaherty Blockbuster Trade with Cardinals
Well. The injury-plagued righthander, described in the same story as a “former star,” has unsurprisingly flopped for Baltimore. The Cardinals, for their part, received starting pitcher Drew Rom (0-2, 7.79 ERA), promising minor leaguer Cesar Prieto and low minor-league pitcher Zach Showalter. No matter how breathless the original headlines, the baseball universe did not collectively gasp.
In other words, a modest and unremarkable transaction. However — and I simply cannot emphasize this enough — IT DID ACTUALLY TAKE PLACE. Contracts were signed. Parents were notified. Apartments were vacated. Air flights were taken. New uniforms were fitted. What the trade lacked in excitement, it compensated for by, you know, existing.
As readers of sports pages now must contend with, most blockbusters do no such thing. They are simply proposed by sports writers who can generate clicks not by reporting what did happen but by imagining what could happen.
Packers named surprise landing spot in blockbuster trade
Sounds intriguing, but the real surprise was revealed in the story’s first sentence: “The Green Bay Packers have already made one blockbuster trade this offseason, sending Aaron Rodgers to the New York Jets. Could they now trade for a star player?”
“Could?” Oh, it’s a notional blockbuster. A blaring “what if.” In print. ALERT: The Breaking Hypothetical. These items are now as ubiquitous online as they are inane and unethical — if, perhaps, slightly less so now that most of such headlines do include the word “proposal,” acknowledging that no actual trade has been consummated. On the other hand, it leaves readers to assume an actual proposal has been leaked by one of the teams, versus being pulled out of some inconsequential sportswriter’s lazy ass.
Spurs Trade for Hornets’ LaMelo Ball In Blockbuster Proposal
Clippers Acquire Jrue Holiday From Bucks In Massive Blockbuster Trade Proposal
Now, it is clearly preposterous that an entire journalistic genre consists of a writer supposing what might be an interesting scenario. It’s somewhat like any political headline that contains the words “could” or “may”; speculation is generally not, ahem, best practice. This crap doesn’t even rise to the level of rumor. It is mere fantasy. And malpractice.
And, yet, it gets mindbogglingly worse. Because various aggregators and even supposedly bona fide publishers now frequently report on the made-up shit of others as if it were somehow worthy of passing along. That September 4 story, by Freddie Boston, appeared on a Packers fan site called Lombardi Ave.
But it wasn’t Freddie’s random guesswork. No, it was Freddie reporting on some other knucklehead’s post on Heavy.com.
Oh, the Heavy.com scoop was attributed to a tweet by a third source altogether. But of course. It’s “whisper down the lane,” also known as “the telephone game” — the point of which is to begin with a sentence, pass it along a few times and laugh when the final version is completely incoherent. Needless to add, no blockbuster, or any kind of buster, took place.
Now, you might wonder why shoddy sports journalism matters at all. Who cares whether click-addled online platforms trick information-starved fans into opening a dishonest article? The answer is that the public, as research has demonstrated again and again, is too media illiterate to distinguish between legitimate news organizations and shady ones, between well-sourced articles or flimsy ones, between documented information and bullshit (or partisan propaganda), or even between editorial matter and advertising. And every time someone believes he’s been buffaloed, he does not blame Freddie Boston of Lombardi Ave. He blames “The Media.” As if it were a monolith. Which is insult heaped upon injury.
The internet, not out of malice but out of the tragic immutability of the Law of Supply and Demand, has already all but killed journalism. But this Breaking Hypothetical conduct is actively disrespectful, dishonest and dystopic. Clickbaiting is not a victimless crime. The same ethical bankruptcy is to be found at Fox News Channel, Breitbart and the entire Republican Party. As you read this, the president is facing impeachment based on allegations exactly as intriguing — and exactly as solid — as Packers named surprise landing spot in blockbuster trade.