The Case For: Human Sportwriters
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban took a strong stance against robots and algorithms this week, banning ESPN reporters from covering his team’s home games at least partially because he believes—this logic is about to get twisty—every Mavericks game deserves its own coverage, and that the World Wide Leader’s desire to move away from covering all 82 contests opens the door for machine-based game recaps. For Cuban, the answer to this issue was to ban ESPN entirely. (A lot of Cuban’s thoughts were summed up in a bizarre email he sent Deadspin’s Kevin Draper.)
Basically, Cuban believes ESPN will start using robots and/or artificial intelligence one day to write game stories about the NBA, and the network’s plan to cover fewer Mavs games was a step in that direction. And rather than have actual humans still cover his team, Cuban is… well, honestly, I’m not sure what he's doing, because this makes no sense. It's a hypocritical decision by someone whose name is attached a center for “sports media and technology” at Indiana University, his alma mater.
First of all, it’s hilarious that a proponent of an app called CyberDust is wary of A.I. I know CyberDust is basically the MySpace to Snapchat’s Facebook, but the name sounds super ominous! Wasn’t Cyberdyne the company responsible for the Terminator franchise's machine war? Maybe Cuban needs to look in the mirror before he names apps that kind of remind you of that one movie where robots become self-aware and create a dystopia.
Secondly, robots that write stories sounds like exactly the kind of forward-thinking idea that would get Cuban to throw his money around on Shark Tank. I’m shocked Cuban hasn’t invested more in that kind of stuff, although I guess a max deal for Harrison Barnes will even tighten a billionaire's grip on his wallet.
Anyway, the Terminator scenario should be enough to convince people that human sportswriters are, in fact, a good thing. (So should The Crossover! May I suggest a Lee Jenkins profile?) I want to make an argument for human sportswriters right now, but that would put me on the same side as… Mark Cuban? That’s how messed up this whole situation is.
For all of Cuban’s haranguing about how machine-learning is the future of journalism, I don’t see how robots could do much more than replace very rote game coverage. We still need humans to put things in context, help us build (gulp) narratives, and tell us the stories behind Russell Westbrook's Instagram post of cupcakes. Robots aren’t doing any of that. (Or are they? Am I underestimating them? Is that Watson thing reading this?)
Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if Cuban is secretly on the side of the robots with this one. This whole thing could be an epic smokescreen. After all, what better way to ensure a quicker dawn of the robot-writing era than by encouraging ESPN to give the bare minimum effort in covering Mavericks games? Cuban is either a tired parent who thinks he’s teaching his teenager a lesson, or he’s privately all in on machine-learned journalism.
Whatever the case may be, billionaires have already done enough to mess with journalism this year, so I hope Cuban lets this go. The stories about why the Mavericks (2–5 entering Wednesday) have lost another game may one day write themselves, but the reasons why still need a personal touch.