The One To Shun

A pair of noxious responses to the vandalism of LeBron James’ property have served to highlight Fox Sports’ problem with regressive commentary, one that the network’s own employees are speaking out about.

Just a little over a month ago, when Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones shared the fact that, during a recent game at Boston’s Fenway Park, he’d been the target of rather heinous abuse, including racial slurs, and having a bag of peanuts thrown in his direction, the proper reaction seemed, as these things ought to be in 2017, rather simple. The fan’s behavior was deplorable, the situation was unacceptable, and the fact that such incidents still take place is a depressing part of our continuing reality as a society.

Saying these things isn’t a solution, of course. Acknowledging, and decrying racism isn’t going to make it go away. But it is, on some level, the very bare minimum of what should be expected in these situations, and to their credit, most of the baseball community reacted exactly as they ought to. The Red Sox organization issued a public apology, and a lifetime ban for a fan who used a racial slur at the ballpark days later, in a separate incident. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh also spoke on the matter, claiming it was “not who we are as a city,” something the vast majority of Red Sox fans attempted to themselves convey, rising to a standing ovation for Jones in his next game at Fenway.

None of this is groundbreaking, or earth shattering, but given the times we’re living in, it is positive that a consensus still exists that racism is bad, and that condemnation is the proper response. That’s not to say it’s the only response, of course. Because given that it’s no longer acceptable in polite company to speak in favor of racial abuse, the more noxious, regressive, backwards members of our society have simply found a new approach.

They deny that it ever took place!

That was the strategy, after all, for former Red Sox pitcher and current shitposting meme-lord Curt Schilling, whose response to the abuse Adam Jones suffered was that it was obviously horrible, if it happened, which it almost certainly did not. According to Schilling, the fact that no direct evidence of the slur existed was suspicious, and not, I don’t know, perhaps a product of the fact that it would have been hard for Jones to operate a tape recorder while wearing a baseball glove. Furthermore, posited Schilling, there was plenty of motivation for Jones and others to simply fabricate the incident, given the positively booming ‘cash in by making up horrifically inhumane racist treatment’ market, which exists in the one-time video game developer’s head, and as far as I can tell, literally nowhere else.

And make no mistake, to place the burden of proof of racial animus on the person experiencing the abuse is some truly next-level wretchedness, the sort of further victimizing of an injured party that only the worst sort of person in the world would even attempt. It’s stubborn, it’s ignorant, it’s vile, all of which is to say is, it’s perfectly on brand for Schilling’s current employer, the Andrew Breitbart Memorial House of “Just how loud can we make this here dog whistle before there are any real consequences?” God knows that Schilling, and Breitbart News, have both demonstrated that there is an audience for barely veiled prejudice and blanket hatred of all the “others”. They have, undoubtedly, carved themselves out a little corner of our world, and the only solace the rest of us can take is that it’s a relatively dark corner, filled with cobwebs, where we keep the chemicals, the tactical body armor, and the doomsday seed packets, and where we try to visit as infrequently as possible.

Not that Schilling stands completely alone, of course.

If this whole, “deny an act of racial abuse even happened” scenario seems familiar, it’s probably because, well, it’s happening again right now, this time with regards to the fact, confirmed by the Los Angeles Police Department, that the N-word was written on the gate of LeBron James’ LA home, prior to the start of the NBA Finals. Much like Adam Jones, LeBron James addressed, in personal terms, the effect that the vandalism had on him, and just as in that case, the entire sports world made it clear, in no uncertain terms, how hideous such an action was.

Well… almost the entire sports world. Because in a piece for his “Outkick The Coverage” site, Clay Travis instead decided to question whether the whole thing was in fact just a made up scam.

Sure, it’s certainly possible that a racist white person decided to lash out at LeBron James and write a racial slur on the gate of his multi-million dollar Los Angeles home. If so, then all the media reactions are justified. But what if this was an angry black person trying to draw attention to racism the day before the NBA Finals started because he or she knew that a white person would be blamed and this would go viral? Or, even more strangely, what if there was never any racist graffiti at all and this was a hoax perpetuated by one of LeBron James’s employees to draw attention to himself and he never thought the police would be called? Isn’t that certainly plausible too?

The answer, of course, is most certainly no. Nothing about this paragraph, or the piece as a whole, (which you can most certainly read in full, if you hate yourself) is plausible in the slightest, but instead the type of delusional conspiracy theory that results when someone is trying really hard to avoid the right answer, which is simply that racial slurs are awful, and neither LeBron James nor anyone else should have to put up with them. I know this, you know this, and believe it or not, Clay Travis knows this, because, as plenty have pointed out, the character that he plays, that of the ‘radical moderate’ who thinks that women need to pipe down, ESPN might turn your kids into Bolsheviks, and who is ‘just asking questions’ about whether racism is still really a thing, is not in any way honest, but instead a cynical turn by a sports take artist in a crowded field.

Somewhere along the line, Travis decided that ‘Barstool Sports for the south’, represented his best product positioning. One could debate endlessly the exact extent to which he believes the routinely racist, sexist, regressive swill that is printed on his site, but one thing that’s for sure is that his very specific type of fan eats it up. There’s no denying that to a point, it’s proved very lucrative, landing Travis plenty of traffic, and a relationship with Fox Sports that includes frequent appearances as a television guest, and a nationally syndicated daily radio show.

But it’s also, undoubtedly, turned Travis into a certain kind of commentator, the kind that most serious people have no time for, the kind that plenty of sports fans would prefer to ignore, so as not to provide the outrage and hate-clicks that have built his brand. ‘Don’t feed the trolls’ is the closest thing we have to internet law, after all, and Clay Travis is nothing if not a master troll, writing and speaking not out of any real wisdom, or considered thought, but simply to provoke the biggest possible reaction, regardless of the effect on the dialog, or his reputation as a whole.

Of course, everyone has their limits, and it’s worth noting that, as has happened periodically in the past, Travis’ racial slur trutherism was so repulsive that some of his colleagues were unable to simply tune him out. Nick Wright, set to host his own Fox Sports 1 morning show, “First Things First”, which launches in September, lashed out at Travis, and his rather ridiculous effort to stake out ‘the other side’ of the racism ‘debate’.

As Wright points out, evidence of the racial slur most certainly does exist, and if anyone would know this, it’s Clay Travis, since, for those that may not remember, he’s been down this exact road before. Back in November of 2015, when the University of Missouri football team’s protest put racial tensions at the school at the forefront of the national conversation, it was Travis who had the bravery to question whether a swastika reported to have been drawn in a dormitory restroom was ever real in the first place. When photos of said swastika did eventually become public, Travis was forced to concede that sure, maybe it did exist, but as this week’s embarrassing display has proven, Travis clearly kept that particular page in his playbook for future use.

The good news, for Travis, is that even if he’s once again forced to concede that yes, sure, the racial slur was real, and not a product of the vast liberal social justice conspiracy, that needn’t prevent him from finding a ridiculous contrarian take. Instead, all he has to do is look to another colleague, “All Takes Matter” host and walking self-parody, Jason Whitlock. Whitlock, to his, um… credit, I suppose, has not questioned whether the N-word was actually written on LeBron’s front gate. He has, instead, questioned whether it’s really all that big a deal, since, after all, this isn’t James’ primary residence.

This scorching hot proclamation, one that he’s asserted across multiple shows and platforms (hooray corporate synergy!), that wealth and status can apparently serve as some sort of racism insulation, should come as no surprise. Ever since Deadspin’s Greg Howard so thoroughly exposed the flaws in his ‘sports through the lens of respectability politics’ persona, Whitlock has responded not by taking a step back, and considering the merits of this criticism, but instead by doubling down, and finding the alternative to the conventional narrative whenever possible, particularly when that alternative allows him to wag a finger at progressives, at Twitter, at the PC police, at the liberal sports media, at the cyber-humans, at all those who are, in his mind, turning the sports world into a safe space. (It just so happens that these are the same constituencies who recognized Whitlock’s tired act and reduced him to a joke amongst thoughtful sports fans, but I’m sure that just happens to be a coincidence.)

In any event, the end result is that, for Whitlock, in just a few short years, LeBron James has gone from a transcendent figure in pursuit of the vast legacy of Muhammad Ali, to a whiny, spoiled figure who should keep quiet about his personal experiences with racism, so as not to come across as a ‘victim’. None of this should be surprising in the least, given that Whitlock has, especially in recent years, bounced incoherently around the issues, with the closest thing to a unifying philosophy being that the sports world has it in for him, and that liberal boogeymen, funded by native advertising, have kept him from being rightfully recognized as the visionary thinker of his time.

That’s how you arrive at Ronda Rousey as Hillary Clinton, LeBron James as Donald Trump, and of course, Colin Kaepernick as ‘Martin Luther Cornrow’. To borrow a particularly wonderful phrase from Tim Kawakami, it’s just Whitlock in the Darkness now, literally howling at the moon, hoping that someone, anyone, will pay attention to the nonsense he spews forth on a daily basis. And wouldn’t you know, just as with Travis, there are plenty of colleagues more than willing to oblige. This time, it was Fox Sports host Mike Hill who couldn’t hold back, explaining, in a series of tweets, that Whitlock’s haughty dismissal of LeBron’s grievances was precisely why he won’t be a part of the network’s debate programs.

Suffice it to say then, that there are going to be plenty of awkward moments at the next Fox Sports company picnic.

In July of 2015, at a time when Reddit was struggling to police, and deal with, its problem with hate speech, (a struggle that continues in the present), Chuq Von Rospach, a career manager of a variety of online communities, authored a blog post that circulated prominently around the debate, and which has stayed with me over the past couple of years.

My favorite visualization of online communities is the community bar. I’ve used, managed and built online communities going back into the 1980s, many of them sports related, so it’s natural to look at those communities as sports bars. The thing I’ve always told people interested in community management is this: if you’re running a sports bar, and you have a gang of bikers move in, you have two choices. You can either eject the bikers, or you’re running a biker bar. I never set out intending to put my time and energy into a biker bar, so I always worked to prevent the rowdy elements from taking over my communities, because I knew that would cause the people I wanted to be around to leave and find some other place to be.

Now, me personally, I have no problem with bikers. No, I’m far more bothered by fraudulent hucksters who trade in sexism, racial animus, and cheap demagoguery to build a following. Which is to say to the people in charge at Fox Sports, in case it isn’t perfectly clear, that the longer you harbor the Clay Travises and Jason Whitlocks of the world, the more and more they become the poisonous public faces of your operation, whether you intend it or not.

It should be noted here that I, myself, am not simply some outside observer of the operation, but rather, a former employee of Fox Sports 1, hired as the network launched in the summer of 2013, and let go during a series of layoffs in 2016. In between, I worked on a number of projects, including television pilots for both Whitlock and Travis, neither of which (thankfully) ever made it to air. Additionally, somewhere in the archives, if I’m not mistaken, sit a few emails expressing an interest in working with, or writing for, the pair.

My only excuse, lame as it may be, is that much like Howard himself described in his work on Whitlock, I did not truly understand, at the time, the full extent of the two men’s work, and what it truly represented. Suffice it to say that in retrospect, I’m quite thankful that I never ended up working on a show fronted by the pair, that my words never ended up on either of their sites. It’s also worth noting that their output has grown even more toxic, over the past two years, following the network’s pivot.

On that very subject, back in March of this year, Slate’s Ben-Mathis Lilley authored an extensive look at Fox Sports 1, and their relatively recent shift to opinion based programming, or, to put it another way, all debate, all the time. In the piece, which is well worth a full read, Lilley posits that despite fears, by some, that FS1 would seek to replicate the Fox News model by presenting sports news and debate with a conservative bent, something different happened instead.

(Jamie) Horowitz’s strategy, in the end, has less in common with FX (a venue for creators with individual visions) or Fox News (a venue for a single ideology) than it does with present-day CNN, which covers the day’s events by assembling enormous panels of ardent and/or insane partisans. The best way to present the news in 2017, Horowitz and CNN’s Jeff Zucker seem to think, is via prefiltered, oppositional takes that inspire people on the internet to express feelings of total validation or extreme rage. If every viewpoint is represented, every viewpoint can be consumed and shared.

It should come as no surprise then, that nearly two year’s into Horowitz’s tenure, Fox Sports 1 is indeed suffering from the same issues that plague CNN. We’ll call it the ‘Jeffrey Lord Problem’, and it’s what happens when the most foolish, most pathetic, most ridiculous member of your group, also becomes the most well-known, the most talked about, the most identified with your organization. It’s just the way the world works, and for CNN, it means that even if they filled their airwaves with the most diligent reporters, the most erudite commentators, and the most gifted hosts, the only person anyone is really going to notice, in the timeless words of one Anderson Cooper, is the man who would defend Donald Trump “if he took a dump on his desk.”

The past few weeks have made it abundantly clear that Fox Sports has a similar problem. As noted by Lilley, the networks employs plenty of thoughtful, reasonable, intelligent people, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. But none of them will be able to do a damn thing for the reputation and regard of the network so long as it empowers people who use baseless conspiracy theories to dismiss racial prejudice, or who make attempts to minimize the damage of such attacks.

The previously mentioned Nick Wright, who went public with his criticisms of Clay Travis? He’s a talented voice, with plenty to say that’s worth hearing, on racial justice, and much more. Of course, when his show does launch in September, one wonders how many people will even give it a chance, given that they already associate the entire network with hot takes and retrograde social views. Veteran host Mike Hill, who gave Whitlock a piece of his mind? He’s an incredibly skilled TV jack of all trades, who can host, offer commentary, and bring a lot to the table, but as noted in his tweet, his contributions to the network are limited by the fact that he wants nothing to do with the current shout-fest.

And then there’s the matter of Katie Nolan, who, as plenty have noted, is still without a new vehicle at Fox, despite the fact that back in February, executives promised that they “could not be more excited” about her future with the network, and that we’d soon see her “five times” as frequently. Instead, months later, there’s no word on where, or when, Nolan will be back on the air. While I have no inside information on the matter, logic would suggest that perhaps one of the hangups is the fact that her brand of youthful, feminist, forward-thinking comedy and commentary doesn’t exactly mesh with the hot take suicide squad, something that Nolan herself has noted in the past, (in addition to her own public criticism of some of Travis’ and Whitlock’s more problematic content.)

Of course, there’s another matter to consider, and that’s the fact that Fox Sports also has a great many partnerships to think about, ones that are far more important to the network than any single commentator. This is, after all, an operation that holds television rights for the NFL. At least one of the league’s superstars took issue with Whitlock’s LeBron James foolishness. Is it crazy to think that, should this brand of idiocy continue to be tolerated, more players, and perhaps even the league itself, might grow less than keen about being associated with it? Fox also partners with a variety of major college conferences, who might, one imagines, eventually decide that they want nothing to do with Clay Travis’ dumbass frat boy aesthetic. The lifeblood of Fox Sports 1, meanwhile, from a live event standpoint, is NASCAR, and the UFC, two sports that probably wouldn’t be thought of traditionally as ‘progressive’, are nevertheless doing everything they can to court a more youthful, diverse fan-base. Does rhetoric like the kind peddled by these opportunists really help that effort?

Then there’s the matter of sponsors running for the hills, something that Travis himself has some experience with. Ultimately, if the hope is for Fox Sports 1 to eventually grow to something that can actually rival ESPN’s ratings, carriage fees, and cultural resonance, they’re going to want to retain, and add, big ticket, blue chip sponsors, the sort of ubiquitous brand names that hope to be all things to all people. And therein lies the conundrum. To this point, FS1’s more backward, destructive, offensive moments have tended to fly under the radar, given that the network has yet to develop a studio show that can out-rate it’s own racing news program, a holdover from the departed SPEED network. But should the station actually manage to gain traction? With more success comes more scrutiny, and people like Whitlock and Travis will be a lot harder to explain.

Which perhaps explains why Fox Sports, in their ways, seem to be trying to have it both ways with the pair, to attempt, in some ways, to keep them at arm’s length, even as they continue to provide a platform. Clay Travis, after all, would be quick to note that he is not actually an employee of Fox, and yes, this is technically true, as is the fact that, despite his pleas, Fox Sports 1 has not given him a regular place on the network. None of that changes the fact that Fox Sports Radio syndicates his daily “Outkick The Show” radio program as a part of their national lineup, hosts his daily live streaming “quadcast”, and regularly promotes him on social media. Fox Sports may not want Travis to appear to be part of their inner circle, but he is, most assuredly, part of their team.

And then there is Whitlock, who when first hired by Fox, was provided a space for his writing, J.School, separate from the main site, not unlike Travis’ Outkick The Coverage. But after a series of increasingly inane and incoherent columns, Whitlock has not published anything at the site for more than a year now, and has suggested, on more than one occasion, that he’s been frustrated by his lack of an outlet for his writing at Fox Sports. It is indeed interesting then, as noted this week by Awful Announcing’s Andrew Bucholtz, that Whitlock’s writing has resurfaced at, of all places, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, where he’s now authored three columns over the last month, including one that reasserts his willful and absurd misunderstanding of the LeBron James situation. Whitlock has supplemented these columns with increasingly frequent appearances on a variety of right wing outlets: Tucker Carlson Tonight, The Blaze, and yes, of course, Breitbart Radio, where Whitlock was a recent guest of who else but Curt Schilling.

And that, at the core, is the real problem that Fox Sports must confront. The question, increasingly, isn’t whether they want to be Fox News, or CNN. No, the more obnoxious, outrageous, and flat out offensive their commentators become, the network must instead ask themselves if they’re comfortable being perceived as the Breitbart, the Blaze, the Infowars of sports. As the alt-right has demonstrated, there’s obviously money to be made in racist dog whistles, in grievance politics, in pitting us against them, in trading on people’s fear, and rage, and baser instincts. But there’s also a price to be paid, as thinking, decent people, as polite society as a whole, begins to see you not as a space for everyone, but as a dark corner of the conversation that we know exists, but that we’d really prefer to steer clear of, to not indulge with more attention and respect than it deserves, which is to say, any at all.

To be clear, this isn’t about politics, despite whatever narrative misdirection Whitlock, Travis, and their ilk might be attempting to pull off, with their endless prattle about liberal media, leftist conspiracies, and MSESPN. It’s silliness, obviously, because we’re not talking about tax burdens, foreign policy, or a good faith debate about the national budget. No, what this really comes down to, is a question of whether inclusion, equality, and yes, social justice, are valued or not. When it comes to Clay Travis and Jason Whitlock, I know the answers already, and I’m most certainly not naive enough to expect anything to change. They made the decision, some time ago, to cast their lot as divisive, disingenuous, deplorable figures, to sell their souls, for publicity and profit.

The question then, is for Fox Sports itself. We know exactly who these guys are, and so do you. For too long now, you’ve looked the other way. So it’s time to ask yourself, what sort of network, what sort of company, what sort of community have you really built here? You may think you’re running a sports network, but there’s an unsavory element in the building, and it’s time to show them the door. Otherwise, you’re not a biker bar.

You’re something far worse.

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