Tue. Dec 1st, 2020

Sports Media Sensitivities Are Getting Out of Hand

“The immaturity and accusatory behavior has to stop. If this is how we’re going to operate every time a personality offers a strong point of view, the future of the sports media business is in big trouble.”

The sports media business has long been fueled by two things: opinions and competition. Those who do this line of work understand that sports radio and television are fun, lucrative, and highly visible industries to work in. That makes them attractive career options to men and women all across the country. You’re expected to consistently bring it, because once you take a day off, let alone an hour, there’ll be someone behind you gunning for your position.

Equally as important is being able to express a strong point of view, operate without fear, and endure the bullets firing in your direction especially if you offer opinions that don’t satisfy the majority. The beauty of opinions is they are a point of view – they are not necessarily facts. Two people can see things differently, each stating their case and supporting their positions with evidence, and they can be right in their initial observations. What decides who’s right and wrong is the result (fact) that follows.

When you examine the weapons at the disposal of an on-air personality it boils down to a few key things: their eyes, ears, mind, voice, personality, and their information and opinions. Those qualities separate great hosts from average ones. Nobody can control the voice their born with or who they are as an individual, but they can use their eyes, ears, and mind to process information and form unique opinions.

In today’s media climate, talent have to work harder than ever to cut thru the clutter. On-air people must possess the skill to make an audience stop, think, and react to what they have to say because competition for the eyes and ears is intense. Featuring people on-air who fill the airwaves with noise and fail to stand out puts brands in position to lose money let alone future listener, reader or viewer support.

But sensitivity is increasing in the media business, especially when uncomfortable opinions are shared. Not everyone is built with thick skin or emotionally equipped to handle the verbal onslaughts that follow when they say or do something that others take issue with, and social media has led many of these issues to be magnified. I was reminded of that this past weekend when Doug Gottlieb took to Twitter to question Maria Taylor’s credentials in the NBA voting process after she left Anthony Davis off her ballot for the NBA’s all-defensive team.

Having worked with Doug during my career, I know he has the ability to get under your skin. He’s good at it. He drove me nuts many times inside the ESPN Radio studios. But I also know he speaks his mind and isn’t afraid to question things that warrant a closer look even if it generates a negative response from others in the business. That’s what a good talent is supposed to do.

What bothered me about the social media response to Doug’s initial tweet was the defensive nature of many in the industry. Rather than stick to what the actual tweet was about, criticism of a decision and questioning if Maria was closely following the NBA after making a glaring error, it turned into ‘he’s a sexist, racist, and should cancel his Twitter account.’

This immaturity and accusatory behavior has to stop. If this is how we’re going to operate every time a personality offers a strong point of view, the future of the sports media business is in big trouble. Disagreement is at the core of everything that matters in the media business. Anyone making a living in this industry should understand that. Players, coaches, and sports executives deal with it from the media on a daily basis, and sometimes industry members end up in the eye of the storm too.

The fact of the matter in this situation is that Maria Taylor turned in her first NBA ballot and failed to recognize one of the best players in the NBA for his defensive excellence. That wasn’t an issue for other voters and observers. Given that it was her first time voting you’d think she’d be even more careful submitting her ballot. She wasn’t though, and that’s why the question was raised. Making it about more than that distracts from the issue at hand, and labels the person raising the question unfairly.

That doesn’t make Maria Taylor any less of a broadcaster or person, it makes her human. For the record, I don’t know Maria personally, but I think she’s excellent on television. I’m not advocating for her voting privileges to be revoked just because she made an error. We all make mistakes, and when you operate in a public industry there are going to be times when you’re called out for them. Heck, Mike Francesa is still criticized for falling asleep on the air 8 years ago for a few seconds despite spending twenty seven and a half hours per week successfully hosting a talk show in the nation’s #1 media market for nearly 30 years. It comes with the territory.

Where I disagreed with Doug was when he suggested hosts shouldn’t vote. When you lump every host into the same boat, you’re leaving no room for exceptions. I agree with Doug that former players, coaches and executives turned analysts pay more attention to the league as a whole than a host running point on a league focused show, but that doesn’t mean every host lacks the ability to stay up on the league. Nor does an honest error suggest that Taylor doesn’t do her homework. By Doug’s own admission in a later tweet, Nick Wright and Ryen Russillo were mentioned as people who host and pay close attention to what’s happening.

What I didn’t understand is why this particular issue set off Doug in the first place. There are media members every year who vote on awards and either screw up or make questionable decisions. It’s nothing new. One could argue that if a television host isn’t qualified to vote on awards due to not watching and studying the league enough then the same criticism should be levied against on-air radio personalities who are charged with discussing the entire world of sports yet can’t possibly watch, read and listen to every single team or game. Doug knows how that can bite you in the ass because his George Kittle take last year was a swing and a miss.

But this is how it should always work. Broadcasters watch, listen, and read things, process the information, and then offer their opinions on them. It’s then up to us to find parts of their commentary to agree and disagree with. Two people can be right or wrong for different reasons, and conversations are more interesting when multiple views are presented. I’m not going to watch Maria Taylor any less on television because of her ballot snafu, and I won’t listen to Doug any less on radio because he thinks hosts shouldn’t vote.

The bigger concern I have is over the difference in responses between people over and under the age of 35-40. I noticed that many of the defensive tweets on social media came from younger folks, the group many refer to as ‘millennialls’. I prefer to call them the ‘social generation’ because they’ve grown up in a world where everything they see and hear exists on a social platform.

Young people in the industry calling for others who share opinions and do the same line of work to be cancelled, quit Twitter or casting labels without knowing who or what someone is like in everyday life is foolish. It also misses the point. That could be YOU the next time you provide a take online or on-air that others disagree with. Is that the precedent you want to set? Do you think silencing discussion and not raising awareness about issues will increase the amount of people who consume your work? Do you want to operate in a sports media world where everything is positive and questioning decisions is off limits? What if teams insisted on that type of treatment? The world of sports would be pretty vanilla.

What some folks lose sight of is that half of your audience think and live differently than you do. You’re not going to change them either. If you only cater to the 50% who see the world the way you do, you’ll one day be sent to the sidelines for not attracting a large enough audience. Disagreeing on sports and the issues that surround them is fine, but calling for people who see things differently and raise awareness to issues that strike a nerve is asinine.

Talent in our industry generate attention from millions of people everyday. Like it or not, your words and actions are monitored. When Stephen A. Smith made a blunder two years ago suggesting Hunter Henry had a favorable matchup against the Chiefs despite being out for the season, he got roasted for it. When Fred Hickman cast the lone MVP vote for Allen Iverson in 1999-2000 denying Shaquille O’Neal a unanimous MVP award and NBA history, he too got ripped.

The criticism Stephen A. and Fred endured had zero to do with their age, race, religion or anything else, it was about their comments and decisions. They took the heat because they knew it was warranted, even if they didn’t like it. It should’ve been the same with this situation except Maria didn’t squash it immediately by saying ‘I messed up’. I realize she was put in an unfair position last week having to deal with unnecessary drama due to Dan McNeil’s tweet, so that could have been a factor in how she responded, but we’ve got to be able to separate one issue from another rather than making it into something it’s not. What Gottlieb tweeted was not the same as what McNeil did.

Stephen A. Smith - ESPN Press Room U.S.

In the television business, a host often speaks to a camera, pushing content at the audience without viewers having a chance to respond back. In radio and podcasting, the same is true unless the host and producer invite audience interaction via phones, texts or social replies. But Twitter puts every individual in charge of their own content. We speak our minds about various issues on the platform and feedback flies in immediately whether we’ve asked for it or not. Like a moth to a flame, we often check to see what people are saying about our opinions and observations, and it can create tension, hurt feelings, and overreactions that don’t exist in other mediums where feedback is limited and controlled.

Handling the social media noise isn’t easy. We’re all human beings who don’t appreciate when others take shots at our performance. We’ve seen some of that this week with Jason Whitlock taking Taylor, Katie Nolan, and others to task. But this is part of the responsibility that comes with being a public figure. We may not like it when peers, colleagues or competitors criticize and raise awareness to our mistakes or flaws, and some may have different agendas or personal histories that factor into the way criticism is presented, but that doesn’t mean the criticism itself isn’t warranted.

From my vantage point, sports media needs more, not less, personalities offering bold opinions. You may not like what a host has to say sometimes, but we’re all adults with a choice of whether or not to watch, listen, read or follow an individual. We should be encouraging our personalities to share their views without fear, while pushing them to do their homework, defend their positions, and keep things focused on the result rather than making things personal. But if everyone is timid or even worse, cancelled, what will we watch, read, follow or listen to that’s worth our time?