Shame in the Game

First published in the War Eagle Reader. You can find it here. MilesTweet

So perhaps West Virginia freshman Daxter Miles Jr. was not too smart in calling out Kentucky before their Sweet 16 game last night.

Predicting a Mountaineers victory was preferable to pre-signaling defeat. But to claim the Wildcats “don’t play hard” might have been reckless.

But the media’s post-Daxter takedown on Twitter following Kentucky’s 78-39 double-down was an unnecessary slaughter of its own kind.

Some samples:

@SportsNation: “Daxter Miles had the same amount of points as Kentucky has losses. None.”

@JimRome: “36-1? Maybe Daxter meant the score.”

@darrenrovell: “Daxter Miles Jr., who said West Virginia would beat Kentucky tonight, finishes with ZERO points for the Mountaineers.”`

@BasketballPics: “Y’all misinterpreted Daxter Miles; He said ‘Kentucky would have a 36-1 run.'”

Reports emerged that Miles “hid” in a bathroom stall and had to be coaxed out to face the media, and the laughs grew louder.  (Hey, Dax: For future reference, when the pros hide from the press, they use the training room.)

And just as predictably, when Kentucky player Devin Booker tweeted “36 and WON” postgame, the rout was on off the court as well.

At this point, of course, I should qualify that the shaming was by no means unanimous and many media members either defended Miles’ expression of confidence or at least condemned the over-reaction to it.

Still, one of the most curious unintended consequences of Twitter is its enabling of mass shaming.  The verbal equivalents of an embarrassing Snapchat photo descend on an unfortunate individual whose decision deserved the drop, but not the flood.

Sometimes it’s a good thing — when Twitter’s democratic muscle calls the rich and/or powerful to account.  But when the media mob attacks an 18-year-old (and the takedown continued old school, on “First Take” and the other morning talk shows), is it going too far?

My thoughts are not directed at the fans.  Fans are fans, and if they were rational — well, I shudder to think what we would watch on CBS and three cable channels this week.  The UK faithful were as savage toward Miles as would be expected.

For Auburn fans, Miles’ words reminded them of a similar situation involving Tre Mason before the 2013 Iron Bowl.  Mason expressed a confidence in facing an Alabama team that was being hailed as a juggernaut similar to this year’s UK hoops team.

Tre did not suffer the same fate.  After al.com columnist Kevin Scarbinsky took Mason to task for his comments, the snarky backlash swarmed Scarbinsky more than Mason.  And of course, Mason’s team fared better than WVU.

Still, I wonder about those tasked with covering sports.  It is bad enough that sports style has evolved into a more personal, opinion-laced style.

But throw in the snark potential of Twitter, and if there is a line out there, sports journalists often cross it. The profile plea, “Tweets are my own” are no excuse.  Readers can connect the name dot to the byline dot.

At another place and time, I would have joined in the fun — maybe not toward Miles, but certainly at a more satisfying target.  And when the culprit is a misbehaving media member, the sharper the comment, the better.

As I’ve thought it through, a recent article by Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute provided focus and clarity.  Whether as participants or as detached observers who end up making a situation worse, journalists need to be careful around those who play with fire.

McBride concludes, “My hope is that … professional journalists will distance themselves from the shamings of private people that create very little social good, recognizing them as click bait and nothing more.  Most Internet stone throwers could be ignored.”

I would extend that standard to shaming of other public figures, including athletes, where there is no social good, only ridicule.

One reason for my re-thinking: Within the past couple of years, I had the chance to interact with a journalist who had been the object of shaming as a result of some reporting that had gone wrong.

I will be honest; I had at first participated in the flip criticisms of the reporter.  But from an outside source, I learned some mitigating details that caused me to backtrack on Twitter and to suggest critics take a second look.

From there, a mutual friend on Twitter encouraged me to contact the reporter, who was dealing with the firestorm.  So I reached out, in confidence (which is why I am being as vague as possible here).

We talked through the situation and possible remedies.  I did suggest some courses of action but was mainly there as a listening ear and an encouraging voice.

The reporter, through excellent subsequent work, has prevailed.  The firestorm is but a distant memory, and I don’t want to dredge it up here.  We DM on Twitter from time to time.  But the experience taught me, maybe more than I was able to help the reporter. No, it’s not as dramatic as those stories where a celebrity confronts a troll.

But it did have a disturbingly similar effect, reminding me that the people we snark on — whether a college basketball freshman or a well-known media member — are flesh and blood and feelings.

That, plus a desire to stand firm within the shifting sands that swirl traditional news and social media, have shaped my thinking.

As I have written before, one of my goals is to avoid being “that guy” on Twitter.  When you draw together enough “those guys,” it only gets worse.

No doubt Daxter Miles Jr. has learned his lesson and will probably do his talking on the court from now on. Sports journalists should realize that for them too, silence can be golden.

Rather than talk the talk on Twitter, they should walk the responsible walk.

This Blog Thing Here

OK, this looks better.  I’ve been planning to move my blog from Tumblr to WordPress for a while, and I have set up this blog, thanks to help from Rachel Pipan.  I’m easily impressed — most Auburn students know WordPress more than I do — but Rachel is wicked smart and talented.

(I’m also in the process of migrating my old stuff here. It’s a tedious process, but check back from time to time to check out the goods.)

To christen this new venture, I thought I would set down some thoughts on why I blog, why I tweet and from time to time, why I embarrass myself on sports talk radio.  I bring more to this process than a craving for attention — though I admit that, like every journalist, I love it when my stuff is read. Commented on. RT’ed. Linked to. You get the idea.

But how does it relate to my work as an associate professor of journalism for Auburn?  As we learn to always say in class with a smile, good question!  And this time I have an answer for it.

It is crucial that those of us involved in profession-related academic programs (education, business, pharmacy, yadda yadda yadda) engage with our profession.  The ivory tower is real to some folks both on and off campus, but we’re not compelled to keep office hours there.

I have found that Twitter in particular gives me an opportunity to engage — not only with professionals who are kind to respond, but also with sports media audience members, including my students.  Sports media as a research stream draws a little more interest than 18th Century Latvian poets.  I’d like to think that I have something to offer both in terms of insight and observation, from both my professional (15 years) and academic (21 years) experiences.

So what does this contribute to my academic career?  Directly, I would estimate somewhere around, ah, maybe, nothing.  None of it goes on my annual report or my CV. Which is fine.  Indirectly, of course, it adds a lot — to the classroom, to my research and to me personally.  Trying to word that last component sounded too California, so you’ll have to get it from that.

That said, let me quickly add that I have nothing wrong with the official stuff — the research that got me tenure and promotion (i.e., job security) in the first place.  At the risk of being celebrated as Captain Cool or Mr. Fun, I will confess that I enjoy my research into the history of sports media.

My blogging has slowed because I am currently gutting out a biography on Ford Frick, baseball commissioner from 1951-1965.  But when it comes to reading the old Sporting News editions online, I’m a geek and I can deal with it.

But I don’t want it to stop there.  When it does, academics are just talking and writing to each other at conferences and in journals, and rewarding themselves for it.  I enjoy the conferences and the journals, but there has to be more to the life of the mind.

If this is your first time at one of my blogs, you might notice that much of my stuff is based on academic research — my own and others.  The Bill Tilden piece for OutSports started as a journal article.  The ViceSports essay on racism in sports broadcasting summarizes the readings for a class lecture on the topic.  The BINGing and CORFing piece applied others’ research on social identity theory to the Auburn-Alabama rivalry in a football game weekend lecture — the Immaculate Reception of 2013, to be precise.

As I relate particularly the work of colleagues, it’s well-received, because it’s like an untapped treasure; many sports fans are not aware of the great media research that has been going on.

I always argue that the most important product of a college/university is not students — it’s knowledge.  We exist as a place where new ideas are tested that will benefit society.  In the social sciences, our mission is to help society understand the processes that affect everyone.

So to me, when I share it through my blogs, it’s an easy sell. There is some good product out there.

Yes, we then impart this knowledge to students, and I will also admit to loving the classroom too.  Teaching is like journalism to me — lecture prep is info gathering, lecturing is article presentation, and grading is editing.  I mean, what’s not to love?

My personal perspective in the classroom and on social media is old school in origin — having transitioned from typewriter to VDT to command-based PC to Mac to networks to Internet to social media.  I struggle to keep up with the tools, as demonstrated by the foray into Tumblr that Rachel had to rescue me from, but the principles still work.

So basically, I love everything about being a college professor (except the endless meetings, of course), and I love reading and writing, particularly as both relate to sports and the pros who write what I read.

I hope that shows through here, and that you enjoy what you read here. If it doesn’t, and you don’t, I can’t blame Rachel.

I Used to Think That It Was So Easy

See if you can guess which ESPN personality made the following statement:

“[The] principles and the integrity associated with [print journalism] serve as the backbone for all that I’m about and hope to be professionally.”

Anyone guess Stephen A. Smith?  Granted, the quote is from way back in 2007, in a textbook, Strategic Sport Communication.  Even so, my students are always amused to hear that.

Smith can still shows his reporting chops.  He beat everyone (including his fellow ESPN-er Chris Broussard) on the Dwight Howard-to-Houston story.  But that’s not what he is known for today

But Stephen A. is not that bad.  Even he has to suffer through First Take with Skip Bayless.  Smith gets more substantial offerings from the chunks that plunge through the ceiling in his Oberto Beef Jerky commercials than he gets from Bayless.

No doubt, Bayless (who also started in newspapers) and Smith have found a profitable shtick. Apparently ESPN has.  But where does that leave sports journalism, particularly for the generation that will practice it in the next few decades?

We have been told that journalists must learn a variety of multimedia skills to survive.  Do we also need to bring a variety of writing styles — news, opinion and everything in between, often in the same article?  To what extent are we expected to sound like a smarter version of Bayless?

With social media, talk radio and traditional media, your favorite sportswriter has a lot thrown at him/her.  It creates a professional minefield, where words written quickly under deadline pressure, then taken out of context, can easily come back to haunt.

When I joined Twitter and started blogging, I did so as an extension of my teaching and research, which centers on sports journalism, particularly its history.

My blogs address issues in sports journalism, often to criticize, it might seem, but more to instruct.  I try not to drop random, pointless bombs, even when I’m harsh.

I could declare that on Twitter I do not troll, but given the response I got from some Auburn beat writers when I said that in class, I’ll amend it to, I do not intend to sound like an ESPN pundit, and I certainly don’t offer it as constant fare.  Sometimes my wording fails me, and yes, rarely I will just drop something because I find it amusing.

What some might assume to be trolling is often a sincere criticism of something I’ve read.  Often I’ll follow up by praising the writer the next time around, and folks will respond, “I thought you hated him/her.”  My response to them is that I criticize content, not individuals.

Overall my guiding principle is, “Don’t be that guy,” and I commend the same philosophy to my students and anyone who asks.  Even within the context of the previous grafs, I feel that I have upheld that principle.  And I feel no motivation to move into Trollville, just to get more followers and clicks.

I want the same from my students and every other future sports journalist.  I will always be a future sports journalism reader, and I want the content to be informative and analytical, without the rhetorical level of an Around the Horn fool-fest.

But those students coming up are getting mixed messages.  And they are writing to audiences that include those who cache their columns and scan their LinkedIn profiles for shriek fodder.

In my 1970s student days, it was easier. You either wanted to be a sports cultural essayist like Paul Hemphill, a columnist like Furman Bisher, or a beat reporter like the ones you grew up reading.  Now, students can aspire to be all three the same day.

And they do so serving a dangerously empowered audience.  Readers/viewers have more choices.  They know it, and the media outlets know it — particularly the local ones.  Offend readers with basic shoe-leather journalism, and they will cry “hater” and find another site.

Fans always have somewhere else to turn, more than in the past. And it’s just another complexity that today’s sports journalists must face.

It would seem glib and useless to say that each sports journalist must simply set his or her moral compass and stay true to it, but even that is more difficult today.  All of the choices were simpler back in the day, the moral options were clearer, and the profession — whether through ethics codes or our fellow professionals — helped keep us in line.

In that sense, Twitter has provided an unintended benefit.  As Ty Duffy noted in his musings a couple of weeks ago, Twitter has brought journalists (perhaps more than other groups) together into a community that shares jokes, true, but also discusses issues.  Sometimes it’s by direct message, sometimes readers join in for better or worse, but at least the open discussions are there.

Even so, the Venn Diagram has so many circles that I don’t envy the coming generation.  They definitely have the technical skills to navigate the new media landscape.  Will the way be as sure for them ethically as it was for my generation?

Probably not. But good writing will continue and readers will read.  With that foundation, the craziness of everything else will have a harder time taking hold, as the long-term value of “that guy” and his drivel becomes clearer.