Monday, December 29, 2014

The Unpalatable Molly Knight

Before its first issue in 1998, ESPN Magazine was introduced in a commercial starring NBA players Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury. In this commercial, the then-Timberwolves claimed the magazine wouldn't have "swimsuits, thongs, or bikinis", but instead would be "all nude", albeit "tastefully done". Because that's important.

In its history, ESPN Magazine has not only gone "all nude", but also maintained a high level of professionalism and taste in its pages. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for a recent tweet from one of its writers.

Yesterday, writer Molly Knight caused a social media splash when she tweeted the following:
For what it's worth, I am an occasional reader of ESPN Magazine. Although I do not have a subscription, I get handed issues from family members, see the magazine in doctors' offices, or might even pick one up at random at a newsstand. So there is a chance I have read Molly Knight's work. There is a chance I haven't, but a chance I have.

That said, I will definitely look at her work with a different eye in the future. Am I supposed to believe she is unbiased in anything she writes from here on out?

I will admit, I am a bit old school when it comes to sports writing. I don't believe sports writers should have favorite teams. They can have favorite subjects, but they should leave their biases at the door when it comes to their published work. And contrary to what most people think, tweets are published materials, just as articles, stories, or blog posts. They are, by definition, micro-blogs.

Unfortunately, in recent years ESPN has thrown the "writers shouldn't have favorite teams" idea out the window. They want their personalities to be opinionated. They want to generate argument and debate. For better or for worse, it's their business model.

With that background, let's return to Ms. Knight's tweet. When asked in a reply why she would be rooting for Oregon over Florida State, she replied:

So this is not a case of a writer rooting for a team as much as it is a writer rooting against a team. FSU could be playing the Alaskan State College of Auto Repair and Ms. Knight would have written the same thing.

What is particularly galling about Ms. Knight's tweet is not that she is rooting against the FSU football team because of any on-the-field bias, but strictly because of her thoughts on the off-the-field situations involving the Florida State University football team, the FSU administration, and local authorities. Ms. Knight has taken a moral stand and expanded it to her sports opinions. I don't think that is professional at all, especially for a nationally published sports writer.

If Ms. Knight was against the decisions of the Tallahassee police department, the FSU police force, and other powers that be, those are who she should be commenting about. Or if she is against the coaching staff, than she should express her displeasure with them. She would still be biased, but at least it would be against the right target. The score of the football game is irrelevant to the existence of those entities. Win or lose, none of those organizations will change. Unless she wants to dig in, double down, and hope FSU goes winless until such time Jimbo Fisher is fired. Which has about zero chance of happening anytime soon.

But an FSU loss in the Rose Bowl will make Ms. Knight feel better. Not sure how, but it will.

What Ms. Knight should be doing, instead of writing how she wants the football team to lose, is to use her platform as a national writer to make the changes she wants to see in the world. It is easy to be emotional and reactionary. It is much harder to take action, put your ideas on the line, and push for change.

I would respect Ms. Knight much more if she wrote an editorial either in ESPN Magazine or on her own website calling for the resignation of FSU officials and Tallahassee police officials who she feels are at fault. She could also create a 10-point plan that in theory might solve what she feels is a problem. She could even write how she wants the university to do away with football and for the state to create a "North Florida Football Academy" where athletes get trained under a more competent staff. Whether or not she is right and whether or not I agree or anyone agrees is irrelevant. What is important is that she use her leverage for more than "I hope they lose".

(If she has written this, please point me to a link. Thanks.)

A few days ago, Will Leitch, one of the most level-headed sports writers in the business, wrote an editorial about modern media. In this editorial, Leitch wrote that the goal isn't to be smart, it is to be "loud".
The entire strategy for succeeding at anything, whether it's winning elections, selling a product or attracting visitors for your Website, revolves around pitching yourself as loudly as you can to those people on your side and turning those who disagree with you into the worst version of themselves, demonizing them into something subhuman and venal.
Molly Knight's tweet about how she hopes FSU will lose received over 700 re-tweets and 800 favorites. Her words reached a lot of people. Many of whom probably agree with her, for one reason or another. Would a more nuanced tweet promoting a 10-point plan of action be shared as much? Highly doubtful. But as Leitch said, "Nuance is tossed out, even if you know a situation is desperately nuanced, in favor of quick points and splash".

Quick points and splash. To hell with tasteful.

Two final points:

1) This post is not to excuse any lowlife scumbag who belittles a writer because of her gender. Everyone has the right to work in a harassment-free environment. And if tweets are publications, then twitter is where Ms. Knight "works", and she should be treated with respect by other "publishers", i.e. everyone else on twitter.

2) Before I get accused of being an FSU homer, I've had my own objections with the way FSU does business.

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