Sportswriting’s fans-behaving-badly act is lazy, boring, and unhealthy

Yesterday Kevin Durant announced his decision to join the Golden State Warriors and occasioned yet another installment of a time-honored internet tradition: sportswriters coming together to ridicule the passion and emotional investment of the fans whose passion and emotional investment underwrite the entire business of professional sports and therefore, in the long term, those sportswriters’ jobs.

Freddie deBoer pushed back on this and this morning got into it with HardballTalk’s Craig Calcaterra, and while I’m not here to score a Twitter fight or litigate the specifics of the Durant situation, I’ll say this: few writers perform this routine as eagerly and consistently as Calcaterra does. He’s by all appearances a decent guy and writes intelligently about a lot of things, but man oh man do the ambit and incentives of his job at HBT give him a blind spot with respect to how tired the internet’s look-at-these-stupid-fans act has become:

If you think I’m cherry-picking, search his Twitter feed for the word “fans” and see for yourself. Or try “commenters.” Again, I think this stems almost entirely from what he’s tasked with doing day in, day out at HardballTalk: generating a lot of content and clicks and social media traction with basically no resources devoted to traditional reporting, which means (aside from aggregation) a lot of #takes, which inevitably means oversampling the fan-driven social media sports “conversation.” But Calcaterra is far from the only sportswriter to have developed this bad habit.

It’s long been a cliché, a running cultural joke, that any performer onstage anywhere can get cheers by talking about, hey, what a great town it is that they’re in. It’s such a joke that practically nobody does it any less than half-ironically anymore, because everybody knows that it’s the cheapest applause in the world. The inverse of this is what happens every time a national baseball writer singles out a fanbase for some passing Twitter ridicule, and it’s not a single iota less cheap or self-indulgent or pointless; the only difference is we’re still falling for it. Fans everywhere are—stop the presses—equally touchy and tribalistic and stupid about their favorite teams, but quote-tweeting a Bills fan with 16 followers with a don’t-throw-me-in-the-briar-patch “LOL Buffalo RIP my mentions!!!” guarantees you a constituency of 31 other fanbases who’d like to feel a fleeting sense of superiority over a group of people from whom they’re separated only by an accident of geography or upbringing.

The fact that this is a time-wasting feedback loop of pettiness and smug posturing should be reason enough for sportswriters to quit doing it. (A lot of them have!) But sometimes I think there’s something even more nefarious going on with the flogging-the-fans routine: the subtle inoculation of powerful institutions against any popular criticism by the journalists who depend on those powerful institutions for access and therefore, in the short term, their livelihoods.

You see this most clearly on the local level, particularly in smaller markets, where beat writers and columnists and radio yakkers love to pick fights with random morons, play the Savvy Insider to the fans’ Fickle Mob, and applaud the wisdom and virtue of anyone—owners, GMs, coaches, and, yes, players—the Fickle Mob dares to criticize. Often the points of contention are as trivial, in the grand scheme of things, as a quarterback controversy. Often, whether in regard to social issues or labor laws or domestic violence or taxpayer-funded stadiums, they’re not.

None of the writers who return time and again to draw from the look-at-this-idiot well are engaged in a grand antidemocratic conspiracy to diminish the influence of popular opinion in order to protect the interests of the elite. But that doesn’t mean that those writers—particularly those who see themselves as right-thinking and progressive and #woke—shouldn’t think about how their dysfunctional and rapidly-evolving industry might be incentivizing them to do just that, anyway.