"In an interview with The Big Lead's Jason McIntyre earlier this year, ESPN sports business analyst Darren Rovell was described as 'polarizing.' This strikes me as a misrepresentation: Polarizing implies that there are people who love him and people who hate him, in equal measure. But I honestly can't find a single person who likes Darren Rovell. He is polarizing in the same way sleet is polarizing, or a foul smell on the subway is polarizing, or pop-up spam is polarizing."
The column went on to say, "But as an observer of the world of sports media, it's impossible to claim that Rovell is anything other than almost universally loathed."
As phrases go, "almost universally loathed," isn't exactly precise -- what is "almost universally" in a percentage form? -- but it is about as damning a phrase as you can write that can't be proven incorrect.
I read Will's entire piece, found it to be weak, but then found that I kept thinking about it. And not just because it was a weak effort, after all no writer hits a homerun every time out, but because it represented such a fundamental shift from what I've liked about Will's work. I've "known" Will on an email correspondence basis for eight years now, ever since I came across Deadspin back in the Ben Roethlisberger "Drink Like a Champion," t-shirt days. I loved Will's version of Deadspin -- enough to leave CBS for Deadspin in 2008 -- because at its essence Deadspin represented the demythologization of sports, revealing a fuller, less airbrushed picture of our athletes and the people who covered them. All of the most popular Deadspin stories from Manti Te'o's fake girlfriend to Brett Favre's penis have worked because they've had this as a foundational and guiding ethos -- that much of the image that we're sold is complete and total crap. Will's Deadspin was a breath of fresh air in a stultifying sports media environment that took itself way too seriously. Deadspin was the antidote to a festering sports media culture.
Deadspin was fun for fun's sake. As a 25 year old lawyer who didn't want to be practicing law Deadspin helped my day pass faster. And I loved Will for that.
But Will's piece about Rovell didn't represent any of that.
It wasn't funny or witty or demythologizing of sports, instead, it was just mean and bullying. I'm not going to pretend I've never been mean in what I've written, but I've at least always tried to be funny. (I'll excuse pretty much anything if it's funny). But there was no attempt at humor or satire here, this was a serious attack on Rovell's online persona.
The more I thought about it the more I realized Will's column was the culmination of something I've noticed over the past couple of years, the sports blogosphere's descent into "Mean Girls." You remember "Mean Girls," right, the movie that suggested Lindsay Lohan was going to be a superstar, the script that vaulted Tina Fey into the limelight. (If you don't remember "Mean Girls," you're clearly much cooler than me, which may be a given). At its heart the movie was about a group of cliquish girls who didn't think for themselves and bullied everyone else around them. That's when it hit me, increasingly the sports blogosphere in a Twitter age has come to resemble the clique of mean girls at the center of that movie, a cabal of bloggers who all share the same opinions and band together to bully the same targets.
The targets will vary, but they're typically employed by ESPN. From Bill Simmons to Craig James to Rick Reilly to Joe Schad to Darren Rovell to Stephen A. Smith to Colin Cowherd to Stuart Scott, all of them have provoked the ire of the sports blogosphere at some point or another. It's a roving band of ridicule, a bunch of ants trying to take down a rhino.
It's jealousy personified. A group of people without a very substantial audience who go after a target with a substantial audience in hopes of punching up and making a name for themselves. Only the sports blogosphere fights aren't one on one, they attack as a cohesive whole. Everyone, miraculously, has the exact same opinion of every target. And to what end? Are you really telling me that these ESPN targets are so much worse at their jobs than everyone else in the sports media? Of course they aren't, that's not the point, it's that the mean girl clique has nothing better to do than band together and go after new targets over and over and over again. What they lack in audience they make up for in dedication, woe unto you if you have the temerity to question the herd of ants.
This is incredibly disappointing because sports bloggers were supposed to be the fount of independent thought, the voices that would lead us out of the mainstream media morass, an oasis in a desert of vapid cliches. Instead they've all turned into the same person. A decade after it began the sports blogger "revolution" has basically boiled down to a bunch of overeducated white guys who all share the same opinions, writing for the same small audience and picking on a big new target every few months. What happened to the cacophony of different voices, the myriad of opinions that was going to change the sports media forever?
I'll tell you, instead of creating original content they're too busy giving anonymous critiques of Darren Rovell's personality.
They all turned into mean girls.
Think about how homogenous this group is. Isn't it amazing that there isn't a single blogger who loves Stephen A. Smith and hates Gus Johnson or loves Chris Berman but hates Scott Van Pelt?
The sports blogosphere reminds me of the study that came out a few years ago about people who backpack around the world and stay in hostels. You know, the crowd that considers itself to be the most enlightened in the world. Except they actually turned out to be the most homogeneous in their beliefs. Yep, the people sleeping in those hostels who all thought they were so unique were actually the most alike of any group in the world.
As I read Leitch's piece, it occurred to me that the same is true of the sports blogosphere in 2013. A lot of people who think they're incredibly different are actually the exact same. How else to explain Leitch's 11 part catalogue of all of the things that Rovell does that makes everyone hate him. Who are these people? I'll leave it to Will (I've added the bold):
"I spent the weekend asking around to various high-profile Rovell-haters, seeing if they could help me quantify why, exactly, everyone on the Internet smells sulfur every time Rovell does anything. Lest they be another person blocked by Rovell, I've allowed them to remain anonymous."
So Will began with a premise -- Rovell is "almost universally loathed," and then justified that premise by asking "various high-profile Rovell-haters" why "everyone on the Internet" hates Darren Rovell.
Oh, and he allowed all of these Rovell-haters to remain anonymous.
Does anyone else see a flaw in Will's logic here?
It's one that's shared by many in the sports blogosphere: the belief that your opinions are shared in the larger public. Generally speaking, they aren't. You can dislike Dick Vitale or Chris Berman or Lou Holtz, but in public these guys are rock stars. The vast majority of the general public loves them. We can debate what that says about the general public, but the sports blogosphere's biggest flaw is that they believe their opinions represent the majority opinion. They don't. Not at all. The sports blogosphere's opinion is a tiny minority opinion that isn't representative of the larger population's opinion.
What's more, it's a tiny minority opinion filled with people who have the exact same view. So it's an echo chamber. You think more people agree with you because the people like you agree with you. It's the sports equivalent of Ron Paul's presidential campaign believing that everyone in the country loves Ron Paul because they only see people who love him.
How'd that Ron Paul 2012 presidential inauguration turn out?
As if that wasn't enough, Leitch didn't even make Rovell's haters identify themselves, he allowed them to remain anonymous. I abhor anonymity on the American Internet with every fiber of my being. I don't think it should exist at all because I believe it devalues the content of people who actually put their name on their work. But I especially abhor anonymity when it involves personal attacks that don't have to be connected to any real person. That might have made sense in America during the 18th century, but this is 21st century American sports media, not modern North Korean dissent. If you really have an issue with someone, attach your name to it. Don't be a pussy and hide behind anonymity.
Yet Will let all of these people be pussies. (Being a pussy is an all too common part of being in the sports blogosphere. My guess? There are an awful lot of Dick Vitale haters in the sports blogosphere who would get their picture taken with him in person. Same with Chris Berman. All while talking about how much they love him to his face. Anonymous keyboard tough guys are great at this.)
But why would Will give anonymity to these guys? Because Rovell has a Siberian death camp that he banishes all dissenters to? Because Rovell is a billionaire who controls all sports media spending thereby rendering any critic unemployable? Nope. Because if Rovell found out who hated him he might block these critics on Twitter.
Seriously, that's the reason.
Oh, the horror. These people hate Darren Rovell SO MUCH that they choose to follow his every Tweet and if that right was taken away they would be inconsolable. Yep, even though these anonymous critics hate everything about Rovell, they're terrified that they won't be able to see everything that he Tweets. So their criticisms have to be anonymous to ensure that they can continue to consume his content.
I don't think these anonymous bloggers actually hate Darren Rovell, I think they secretly love him.
At least that's what we'd say about this kind of behavior in elementary school.
But that isn't even my biggest criticism of the anonymous commentary. It's this: Why be a sports blogger at all if you can't even tell people what you really think? Wasn't that the biggest criticism of the "mainstream" media, that they didn't tell it like it was, that they played favorites, that they were too quick to form cliques and stifle dissenting opinion? Congratulations, a decade into the blogger revolution, the blogosphere has become what it hated, a collection of people so worried about what others might think that they're afraid to even give their honest opinions.
Voila, anonymity. You might as well be posting on a local newspaper message board under a made up name.
Finally, and potentially worst of all, Leitch says he wrote his column as a public service to Rovell, so that Rovell would know that people don't really like him. Which is so lame I'm embarrassed for him to have written this sentence: "So I decided to help Darren out: I want him to have no confusion. He should know, so he can either react accordingly, change his ways, or go full Bayless and just embrace the heel turn." Yep, Leitch wrote this. I don't know what it is about Rovell that is making Leitch turn into a high school cheerleader, but he needs to just stop following the guy and reading his content. Just say no, Will. Just do it. I like you, you're much better than this. Rovell is turning you into Stuart Scott. Pretty soon you're going to be doing video poetry slams. That goes for the rest of the sports blogosphere too, stop worrying about who sucks or doesn't and create smart, funny, original content. Wasn't that why you started writing in the first place? You're becoming what you once hated, a homogeneous clique of boring writers.
Because right now Leitch's sentence of rationale sounds exactly like what fifteen year old girls do to the cheerleader they decide to bully and ostracize. Everyone who was in high school knows what I'm talking about. Suddenly a team of cheerleaders decides that one cheerleader, generally a pretty one suddenly getting lots of attention from popular boys, is too slutty or too virginal or too smart or too stupid or too something that is different than everyone else. Until one cheerleader, the queen bee, decides it's her duty to notify that girl of the group's opinion. So the meanest queen bee cheerleader, here played by Will Leitch, confronts the ostracized cheerleader, here played by Darren Rovell, and attempts to be a friend on the surface while saying something like, "We all know (the anonymous group of other cheerleaders never actually speaks, they allow the queen bee to do the dirty work) you made out with Timmy last night. Yet you think you're Christian. So it's time for you to decide, either you turn into a slut -- smirky face -- or you change your behavior."
That's basically what Will did with this column, he became the queen bee mean girl cheerleader.
I don't know Darren Rovell personally, but I enjoy his Tweets. Despite the fact that I've "known" Will Leitch much longer than Rovell, I don't hate Darren at all. In fact, I kind of like him. Yes, sometimes he's a jerk and sometimes he's arrogant, and sometimes he Tweets things that I don't find particularly interesting, but it's Twitter, no one is perfect. By and large Rovell provides pretty interesting Twitter commentary. That's why he's one of about 180 people that I follow on Twitter. But you know what I'd do if I didn't think he was sending interesting Tweets? It's pretty simple, I wouldn't follow him. Twitter's free and there are hundreds of millions of accounts that I can follow instead.
Odds are lots of people are following Rovell because they like him and the sports blogosphere clique is part of another minority opinion that it thinks is more popular than it actually is.
But, you know what, ultimately I don't really care why anyone else follows Rovell, I follow him because I'm interested in what he Tweets. I like Darren Rovell, so be it. You may not, so be it. That's life. So what if you do or don't like what I do, we aren't going to agree on everything. And how boring would it be if we did. So what if we disagree, I don't really care. In fact, I don't much care what anyone else thinks of me or my opinions. If I did, I wouldn't be doing what I do now for a living.
I started writing online because I didn't like practicing law and I wanted to give other lawyers ten or fifteen minutes of escape from practicing the law a day. That was my audience, other lawyers who were bored at work. The explosion of online writing opportunity was a godsend for me, it's hard for me to even conceptualize what I'd be doing if I'd been born a few years earlier. For me, writing about sports online was a hobby that I never thought would become an avocation. Nine years after I wrote my first online word in 2004. I'm still doing the same thing I was back then, trying to entertain people who are bored at work. If I'd ever worried about what other people thought of me, I would never have started writing online. I would have just kept practicing law, because that was much safer than telling someone your hobby was writing online for free for a virtually nonexistent initial audience. And that I'd like doing that so much that for years I'd write every day online for free.
So unlike Will Leitch I don't know what Darren Rovell thinks other people he doesn't know think of him. I hope he doesn't care at all. And if you're writing online the best advice I can give you after nine years of writing online is this -- I hope you don't give a damn what people you don't know think of you either. Just be honest about your own opinion and roll with the consequences, don't be a follower. Because there's only one way to guarantee that you're going to suck at life -- by worrying what people think about you.
The best advice I ever got in sports media came from Charles Barkley after about fifteen drinks. He pulled me aside and said, "I used to care what people thought about me. But then I realized that when I tried to make the people who didn't like me, like me, the people who did like me didn't like me anymore. So I just said screw it."
That's fine advice for anyone writing online.
The final irony?
The people who hate you the most will make you the most money. Because they'll consume your content just as much as the people who love you. There are people reading this right now who read every single word I write and hate me with a fiery passion. They also listen to 18 hours a week of live radio. The joke's on them -- the joke is always on them, trust me -- thanks for putting my kids through college and letting me make a living doing exactly what I love to do.
I couldn't have done it without you.
And ultimately maybe that's what Darren Rovell is thinking about Will Leitch and the rest of his anonymous sports blogosphere haters.