Seeing the Seams | Gimme Schalter №12
Every sportswriter will tell you that covering a sport for a living, especially in an access-driven role, changes your relationship to that sport. You lose your “fan card” pretty quick when the players stop being heroes on TV and start being Guys At Work.
It becomes impossible to watch the sport without your analyst brain kicking in: spotting formations and matchups, scouting positive and negative traits. Even if you’re covering the team you grew up loving, your emotional reaction to its every success and failure is dipped in layers of your emotional reaction to what it means for the players involved, what it means to the fans (who are your audience), what it means for the reaction-story idea you’ve been nursing, the season-long narrative you’ve been spinning, the Bold Prediction you made on Friday.
It becomes impossible to casually talk sports with people, because they ask for your professional opinion — and then cut you off and tell you their opinion, and expect you to certify it as Correct even if they’re talking out their absolute ass.
Or they really do want your professional opinion, without an opportunity to do 90 seconds of judicious Internet-checking first so you avoid mistakes like citing Haason Reddick as a reason why the Cardinals defense is playing so well this year (and as soon as the name leaves your mouth remembering that he left Arizona for Carolina this offseason and is actually a reason why the Panthers defense is playing so well this year; my apologies to everyone in the Fayetteville, Arkansas radio market).
It also becomes impossible to consume sports media without seeing the seams, judging everything from writing craft and ad-read smoothness to art selection and overcoat choice, appreciating the all the normally-invisible bits of work that go into the content the audience consumes.
The reporting that Meg Linehan and Katie Strang did for The Athletic around now-fired NWSL coach Paul Riley would be remarkable if it were just that one article. Having those athletes trust you with such painful, personal stories? Connecting and corroborating every facet of them with as many people as possible? Taking exquisite care to make sure everything is as airtight because you know — you know — that it’ll be picked to pieces by everyone from Internet Dickheads to federal prosecutors.
But Meg and The Athletic Soccer crew did so, so much more. They did a running liveblog of global reaction to the article, tracking all the media reports, press releases, organizational statements, and Tweets from players, coaches, teams, league officials, spokespeople, reporters, and soccer influencers around the world. By continuously seeking, receiving, collating, analyzing and re-broadcasting engagements with, reactions to, and impacts of the article, they dramatically increased engagements with, reactions to, and — crucially — the impacts of the article.
From the initial door-slammy ‘we did an investigation in 2015 and the results are private’ answers the players and reporters received from 2015 until publication, the league and associated teams then released statements about how shocked they were by all the “new” allegations in the article.
The backlash to those statements, collected and amplified by The Athletic, prompted real actions: The North Carolina Courage fired Riley. U.S. Soccer suspended Riley’s coaching license. Then-NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird suspended upcoming matches. U.S. Soccer and FIFA announced they were opening investigations. Baird had a “then-” put in front of her “commissioner.” Other sports’ player unions expressed solidarity with the NWSL Players’ Association, which remains resolute in their demands for full justice, accountability, and safeguarding.
Portland fans held a rally in support of the players, and demonstrated in-stadium during the subsequent Timbers (men’s) game. Portland owner Merritt Paulson released a statement — and the backlash to that, including a list of demands from Thorns players, prompted Paulson to put GM Gavin Wilkinson on administrative leave from Thorns duties.
Throughout it all, superstar players like Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan, superstar former players like Angel City co-owner Mia Hamm, other-sport superstars like Aly Raisman, and many many others spoke out again and again, holding nothing back in their scathing critique of the teams and league. Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim, the two brave women whose stories started it all, went on “The TODAY Show” to tell them all over again.
And when these athletes finally got back on the pitch? They wordlessly put an exclamation point on all of it:
Meg and The Athletic got everybody talking about this story by showing that everyone was talking about it; got everybody to pay attention by showing that everyone was paying attention. By committing what had to have been months of effort by many skilled people to get the piece out in the first place, but over a week of ‘round-the-clock effort to boost visibility and engagement, they centered this story in the sports-media world.
It’s remarkable journalism. It’s incredible digital-media work. Even if it had been about something banal, the strategy and execution would have been award-worthy. But it was a gut-wrenching story that must have been agony to work on. Imagine holding your hands over a hot stove for six months, and then sticking them right in the flames for a week.
As I reflect on this, it’s impossible not to think about the other message coming from the players and reporters on the ground in women’s soccer: It shouldn’t take this much to get you all to care.
Technically, this piece doesn’t have a standalone title. But it’s a refrain used throughout Harper Jay MacIntyre’s meditation on why people play old, slow examples of a medium that offers so much new, fast, hot, latest to enjoy. Moreover, why we enjoy playing video games with bright colors and endearing characters and worlds to be saved when we could be scowling about honor and exsanguinating targets at 60 frames per second in glorious 4K.
I’ve been part of video-game fandom so long that I remember wanting nothing more in the world than an NES for Christmas. From my perspective, the dichotomy between bright, colorful games “for kids” and dingy, violent “mature” games has been there from the start. But as a 40-year-old dad, I find the notion that Serious Games work only in cinder-block-eating nihilism extremely childish.
Even so, MacIntyre — a former reporter who now works as a community manager for Double Fine games — makes a wonderful case for old, for slow, for the fantastic, and for fun.
Like basically everyone my age, I loved “Chappelle’s Show” back in college — not least, for me, because I was regularly hanging out with lots of Black folks for the first time in my life. Seeing the similarities and differences in how we were raised and how we expressed ourselves, all while I majored in “political theory and constitutional democracy”? It let me see more of the cracks in the story white America tells itself — the same cracks Chappelle went to work on with hammers and scalpels, by turns.
I try to be an outspoken and reliable ally for LGBTQ+ folks, and part of that is refusing to bite my tongue when otherwise smart people allow their ignorance about trans and non-binary identities to trump, you know, letting those people live.
But Jenkins knows much more about Chapelle, comedy, being Black, and intersectionality than I do, though, so I’ll just say he freaking nailed every word of this review of Chapelle’s new special, The Closer, and I think you should read it.
Longtime readers already knew I’m a huge nerd. New readers picked up on it pretty quick, as I’ve worked up the courage to be loud about the severely geeky things I love.
But…that I not only consumed this two-plus-hour video breaking down the history, symbolism, mythological references and philosophical implications of the 1998 PlayStation JRPG Xenogears, but am working through the series of 13 and counting two-plus-hour videos doing an extremely deep read of all 90+ hours of gameplay?
It’s a level of geekery I’m still ashamed to admit to.
But yet, it RULES:
Luis Suarez wears my son’s cleats.
Or, to be more accurate, the Argentinian superstar owns (and sometimes, but not primarily) uses the exact same brand, model, and color of cleat that my son does for games: the Puma Future Netfit 6.1, in hot pink.
I know this thanks to Football Boots Database, a treasure trove of completely irrelevant knowledge that I am nonetheless passionate about dynamically created data visualizations such as pie charts and bar graphs. I just found this this week, and I’m in heaven.
(there’s a lineup creator!!!)
Doing the Work
As writers everywhere melted down their Slacks discussing this week’s Kidney Lady/Bad Art Friend Writer Group Chat Drama, one of my writer Slacks had, well, a fascinating discussion about what it means to be a writer.
As a longtime working journalist, published non-fiction author, and unpublished (but trying very hard!) fiction author, I came into the discussion thinking that the difference between A Writer and someone who writes sometimes is end product: you pitch, you land, you file, you publish. And even when you’re not actively working you’re plotting your next project, scheming to block out some writing time, or even just mentally circling and re-circling some future date when you think be able to get back to it.
Then my friend Marianne Kirby reminded me that art is not validated by capitalism. A publisher sending you a check doesn’t make you a writer, and an editor not acquiring your manuscript doesn’t mean you didn’t write it.
At the same time, though, someone who’s never been published, has been “working” for years and years and years on the same novel (that’s never going to get published), and spends all kinds of money and time going to writing conferences and writing workshops and being in writer groups yet never writing? That person, I still feel comfortable calling Not A Writer.
So now, my improved personal definition of being a writer is being one who does the work of craft.
Are you taking your writing seriously? Are you reflecting on your end result? Are you sharing your work with even one other person? Are you seeking, and incorporating, feedback? Are you trying to tell better stories? Are you admiring people who are writing the way you’d like to, and admitting to yourself when you’ve fallen short?
As I read Meg Linehan’s work this week, followed her tireless reporting, saw the level of her craft and stood in awe of its ground-shaking impact, I couldn’t help but see all the ways I’m falling short.
While I may never write anything resonates so strongly, or topples so much entrenched power, there’s one thing I know I can do right now that I haven’t been doing: investing in women’s sports.
Sure, I’ve been a figure-skating dad, a gymnastics dad, and soccer dad to two daughters. I’ve coached and reffed girls in soccer. I play soccer with women in an adult co-ed league. I follow lots of womens’ sports people, from writers and editors to athletes and fans. I even retweet some women’s sports highlights sometimes!
But outside of the usual suspects — the Olympics, the World Cup, huge games involving athletes or teams I have some kind of link to — I’m not watching.
It’s not because I don’t enjoy or appreciate women playing sports, but because I have so many things I already care about, so many other entertainments and distractions, and I just let inertia win.
No, I don’t know why; one of the stories I’m proudest of was a deep-dive into the abuses of the womens’ football league where they don’t wear very much clothes (whatever they’re calling it this year), and I came out of it thinking there’s a whole career worth of amazing stories in women’s sports.
But somehow, the same inertia that stops me from finishing my own eternal novel project has also stopped me from being a better sports fan, a better ally, a better writer.
I’m telling you all right now: I’m going to do the work of craft.
As you may have guessed from that little bit at the end there, I didn’t make any progress on either CODEX 17 or the new A&A project this week, either…
…but next week is looking promising.