Dear progressives: Words matter, and listening matters

Do you want to feel better about yourself, or do you want to change the world?

They’re not mutually exclusive, but focusing on the first at the expense of the second is one of the reasons we’re in the mess we’re in today.

Americans love “progressive” policy — background checks on gun sales, a path to citizenship for immigrants, keeping the U.S. in the Paris climate agreement, etc. They hate being belittled. They hate being condescended to.

And like the people who take Trump’s suggestions to hurt journalists or guzzle hydroxychloroquine literally, a lot of people are going to take slogans such as “defund the police” literally.

Rule of thumb: If you have to write several thinkpieces explaining your slogan, your slogan sucks.

  • Law professor Christy Lopez in The Washington Post: “Be not afraid. ‘Defunding the police’ is not as scary (or even as radical) as it sounds, and engaging on this topic is necessary if we are going to achieve the kind of public safety we need.”
  • Ray Levy-Uyeda at Mic: “Defunding the police is a more holistic demand to reduce police department budgets to $0 for the staunchest activists, and for others a call to simply reallocate some of the money dedicated to funding law enforcement to other community resources instead.”
  • Dionne Searcey at The New York Times: “Leaders in different cities have advocated various specific plans, but generally speaking, the calls aim to reimagine public safety tactics in ways that are different from traditional police forces.”

Granted, any word or slogan can be twisted. When you think “anti-fascist,” do you think of folk singer Woody Guthrie, who wrote “This Machine Kills Fascists” on his guitar? Or do you think of overblown fears of white “antifa” dudes looting in bandannas to prove their street cred?

And yes, it’s understandable that we’d like to see the Overton window — the gamut of things that can be discussed without being immediately dismissed — pulled back after a few years of seeing it yanked violently toward racism and ignorance.

The media are absolutely complicit in the Overton window’s rightward tilt by allowing “both sides” to be defined as one extreme vs. another, or one extreme vs. the supposed status quo. Instead of having climate change “debates” between one people who accepts the facts and one who doesn’t, the debate should be between “hey, here’s how we can adapt” and “we’re toast and should pack for Mars.” Debates over stopping police racism should be between those seeking mild reforms and those seeking comprehensive overhauls, not between someone still drunk off looted liquor and someone who wants the police to roll a tank through Lafayette Square.

If we pay more attention to potential policies rather than professional trouble-makers (looters, yes, but also the Fox News prime-time lineup), we could change the conversation.

We could debate all the ideas mentioned in the pieces above, some of which are already in action. Divert some 911 calls to mental-health professionals rather than police. Cut away the militarization that has made local police much more dangerous.

Another idea implied but not directly stated in the harrowing piece “Confessions of a Former Bastard Cop“: Hold police accountable, in part by stopping retaliation against whistle-blowers:

Every quarter, we were to write anonymous evaluations of our squadmates. I wrote scathing accounts of their behavior, thinking I was helping keep bad apples out of law enforcement and believing I would be protected. Instead, the academy staff read my complaints to them out loud and outed me to them and never punished them, causing me to get harassed for the rest of my academy class. That’s how I learned that even police leadership hates rats. That’s why no one is “changing things from the inside.” They can’t, the structure won’t allow it.

Seems like something we should address.

It’s condescending to think people can’t see nuance. You don’t need a slogan to tell people — as Lopez, the anonymous ex-cop above and John Oliver have — that police are asked to fill too many roles, especially that of an ad hoc counselor or therapist.

It’s offensive to assume someone who doesn’t immediately jump on your bandwagon is less empathetic than you are. I’ve been dealing with this on Facebook not only in the discussions over the protests and COVID-19 but also in a group I moderate that has taken discussions on development density into an assumption that anyone who’s concerned about traffic and overcrowding is really just in it for the racism.

A common thread in both of those: People are refusing to listen. They’re good at telling other people to listen but not so good at doing it themselves.

A discussion about police reform should include people — and you’ll find a lot of people of color — who fear for their own safety. A discussion about agriculture should include farmers. A discussion about closing coal mines should include people whose livelihoods will be displaced. (An honest discussion — not Trump’s insinuation that people in West Virginia can’t do anything but work in a coal mine, so we’d better keep them all open.)

My experience is that once you talk and listen, you make progress. I say that as someone who grew up the grandson of a segregationist. I had stereotypes of gay people, Muslims and “Yankees” that faded only as I grew up and met gay people, Muslims and “Yankees.” I only started to support gay marriage maybe 15 years ago, and I assure you no one changed my mind on the subject by telling me what a bigot I was.

The best slogan may or may not have originated with Native Americans. You may call it “cultural appropriation” if you’re feeling cynical or “learning from indigenous peoples” if you’re feeling generous. It hits directly at the notion of “privilege,” either reinforcing it (by making people consider their own privilege as well as their political opponents) or undermining it (by restating the concept in way less likely to put people on the defensive):

Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes

Change “man” to “person” and “his” to “their,” and you won’t find a better guideline for any political thought.

Racists posing as “antifa” make Twitter and Facebook take action

You wouldn’t expect bigots and fascists to be above misinformation campaigns, would you?

Fortunately, Twitter and Facebook have spotted these campaigns. Give them some credit.

Twitter has phony “antifa” accounts urging protesters to fulfill white supremacists’ fantasies of violence.

On Facebook, these dirtbags are playing Palpatine and trying to stir things up from both sides, posing as “antifa” on one hand and asking counter-protesters to show up with guns.

If only we didn’t have so many suckers who believe this crap.

A brief history of U.S. journalism (and how we got to COVID-19 crap)

Plenty of bad things happen in journalism. No one knows this better than journalists.

Like soccer referees, we tend to be lightning rods for angry people — and worse, slimy people trying to “work the refs” — and we don’t get enough money to make up for it. (Perversely, in journalism, the people who do make enough money are usually people who have transitioned into talking-head status and don’t do the grunt work any more, if they ever did.) Most people do it for the love of the game. Or the love of truth. Or the power trip.

It’s a little frustrating when we hear that we’re all biased. It’s true. Just not in the ways a lot of people think, and it doesn’t get at the heart of the problems.

For 20 years, I’ve been linking to a piece at Rhetorica.net in an effort to explain the issues, and it’s still useful today. That piece shows how bias isn’t necessarily political. It’s many things:

  1. Commercial (we need to stay in business)
  2. Temporal (what happened in the last five minutes >> something that happened yesterday)
  3. Bad news (not the Spinal Tap/Rutles-ish band below featuring 3/4s of The Young Ones)

Sound familiar? Explains a lot of COVID-19 coverage, doesn’t it? And I did warn people about this 20 years ago when I did my grad-school thesis.

I also did an interesting independent study in grad school that confirmed something rather obvious that we all tend to overlook: News organizations’ commitment to objectivity or partisan bias is dictated primarily by business concerns.

Duh, right? The same market forces that led Dominos to sell pizza rather than haggis are the same market forces that made a lot of 20th century newspapers reasonable but boring, and they make cable news interesting but unreasonable.

It’s not just the revenue side. Dominos delivers pizza instead of beef wellington because it’s easier to produce and get out the door for delivery. That’s how things work in journalism as well.

Those forces have evolved over time, as such:

18th and 19th centuries: Scandal! Chicanery! Blast those (Confederates, Whigs, Free Masons, etc.) with their other newspaper. Read ours! The media market was a free-for-all. Printing was relatively inexpensive.

19th and early 20th centuries: The miracle of the telegraph! Now we can transmit news over a vast distance! Of course, that costs money, so to make it cost-effective, we’d better be able to serve this information to a wide variety of newspapers, no matter how weird their politics might be. Welcome to the era of reliably middle-of-the-road news.

1914-18: War!

1918-1939: A time to reorganize during our well-deserved peace that will extend indefinitely now that we’ve had the war to end all wa- …

1939-45: WAR!

1946-1960s: Your local newspaper is basically another utility, like your power company or phone company. (Aside to those born after 1990: The “phone company” used to be just one phone company, and you had to sign up with them to have a phone. In your house. Not your pocket.) Your paper has nice roundups of what’s going on around town, complete with a short recap of the local roller derby games and the latest gardening tips on the ladies’ page. The department stores buy plenty of large display ads, and everyone who wants to sell anything takes out a classified ad.

Rule No. 1 of journalism: Get the facts. Rule No. 2: Don’t rock the boat. (Family lore holds that my grandfather quit a job in a dispute over how to play a story involving one of the heirs to the local department store fortune.)

1960s-1970s: Vietnam and Watergate shatter the post-WWII unity in the country, and news organizations have a more difficult time appealing to everyone. Television becomes a more important news medium, especially as shocking war footage changes the country’s perception of Vietnam.

1980: CNN launches. At first, the programming is a bit like a newspaper’s sections — a news report, a money report, a sports report and a fashion report. In prime time, the TV equivalent of the op-ed page takes over with a show called Crossfire.

Mid-90s: Rupert Murdoch, the master of figuring out ways to make content cheap, launches Fox News Channel with the slogan “fair and balanced” delivered with a wink to right-wing viewers who are still bitter over Vietnam, Watergate and maybe even McCarthy. At first, though, the political stance is less important than the staffing decision. Why have the global news-gathering organization of CNN when it’s much cheaper to mimic Crossfire? Just have people shout at each other for a while. It’s entertaining, it’s cheap — what’s not to love? (Unless you’re one of those nerds who likes context, nuance and that sort of thing.)

Late 90s-2000s: The newspaper business model collapses. No one needs to buy classifieds. Department stores’ importance dwindles. Journalism goes online but ad money does not, and newspapers get smaller and smaller. TV, though, keeps marching right along. Producing cable content is still pretty cheap as long as you don’t do any reporting.

TODAY

“It bleeds, it leads” has been ramped up to extremes as news organizations fight for eyeballs.

Search-engine optimization is ruining good writing Kim Kardashian because it makes Kim Kardashian journalists re-emphasize Kim Kardashian a particular key phrase Kim Kardashian to game the Kim Kardashian system, reducing the Kim Kardashian capacity to present Kim Kardashian nuance. (Hey, I just quadrupled my traffic!)

Money for local journalism is drying up, creating “news deserts” where local governments can operate with no watchdogs. Whatever you think of the government-watchdog dynamic (Jefferson said he preferred the latter), we’re not better off with one without the other.

Money for quality journalism is drying up, in part because a generation has been conditioned to expect free “news.” (It doesn’t help that news organizations have been less than creative. If The San Francisco Chronicle has four stories that appeal to those of us outside of San Francisco, do they really expect us to subscribe just to see beyond our three freebies? No a la carte payment? No bundling with other newspapers? Why not?)

The new generation has a lot to offer but often lacks respect for the job and brings it its own agenda. That’s particularly true in sports, where people can make a name for themselves as advocates. Sometimes, they do the work and have a healthy respect for the facts. Sometimes, they don’t.

Political theater is cheap and easy, which is why PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor has been so easily duped into playing exactly the role Donald Trump wants her to play. Being “tough,” in and of itself, can be a counterproductive way to question authority.

And the big one …

It’s a lot easier for a lot of people to tell a lot of lies. In some cases, it’s because people refuse to believe any information outside their own little bubbles. The Flat Earth bubble is small but hardened. If I don’t know anyone who has died of COVID-19 and my favorite politician says it’s not a big deal, then who’s Anthony Fauci to tell me otherwise?

I’m not going to argue that each “side” of the political spectrum as defined in U.S. terms is equally to blame. They’re not. One party has chipped away at the authority of academia and the media, and now it’s come to roost. Another group has preyed upon historical and theological ignorance to propagate a perverted form of Christianity that worships money and hate.

But there’s another “bubble” as well, and it’s mostly the urban view of less-urban America. No economic classes understand each other — TV networks get a lot of mileage out of the notion that rich people are all as effete and myopic as Frasier Crane — but the urban elites absolutely misunderstand the less-urban middle classes.

And here’s what I’d suggest:

  1. Absolutely, consider the perspective of someone who’s presenting information. Is that person seeing all angles? Perhaps not, but then don’t automatically dismiss everything that person is saying. If you think someone is missing part of the story, look for more reports from more angles. This is why media monopolies are bad things.
  2. Then, consider your perspective. When you scold small business-owners who want to reopen their businesses, have you really looked at it from their perspective and not simply the perspective of someone who can afford to stay at home indefinitely? Have you considered all possibilities for tip-toeing back toward normalcy?
  3. Down with slogans!
  4. Believe science. Climate change isn’t a hoax. Vaccines are thousands of times safer than going unvaccinated. The Earth isn’t flat. COVID-19 is contagious and dangerous.
  5. Question the narrative. Is the U.S. women’s soccer team really underpaid? Are we really stuck at home until a COVID-19 vaccine emerges?
  6. Then question the meta-narrative. Why have two “sides” in America defined by the pragmatic Clinton/Obama wing of the Democratic Party and whichever wing of the Republican Party is loudest at the moment? A lot of journalists have been slow to realize that we have at least five distinct political views in the USA — democratic socialism that is the majority view in many European countries, the “liberal” school led by Joe Biden (who’s more “progressive” than Sanders supporters realize but is still not AOC), what’s left of the “Never Trump” GOP movement, the libertarian-ish Tea Party (remember them?), and the authoritarians who’ve embraced Trump.

And please don’t throw up your hands and say “oh, they’re all liars” or “oh, they’re all biased.” Sure, we’re all flawed. But it’s our responsibility to weigh the preponderance of the evidence, and if you read enough, you’ll get the evidence.

The best YouTube music channels

Pure escapism is hard to find these days. Even on TV, many of the ads have reassuring music that isn’t really reassuring. (See this Slackjaw post: “Are You Trying To Escape Reality By Watching TV? Tough Shit, Here’s Our Coronavirus Commercial.”)

Even on YouTube, you might see an International Rescue Committee ad with Patrick Stewart somberly describing the plight of refugees or cat who hangs out with a refugee family.

But for anyone who wants to be immersed in the wonders of music, the finest art form humanity has ever developed, YouTube is still a pleasant sanctuary. YouTube music channels offer education and entertainment.

You can learn about music theory, dissect your favorite songs or see someone have a bit of fun mashing up songs and styles.

They’ve continued to put out new content while socially distanced. And honestly, they’re better binge-watching than anything on Netflix.

A few of the best:

Top 2000 a gogo: Dutch public radio station NPO Radio 2 has an annual countdown of the Top 2000 songs ever. To go along with it, they chat with the artists who made those songs — not necessarily in sitting interviews but with well-produced, short films.

Todd in the Shadows: A different take on popular songs comes from a music critic with a strange gimmick. He sits at a piano in the dark, visible only in silhouette, and mixes in videos from the artist in question. Many of his videos are reviews of recent pop hits — the latest from Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Halsey, Adele and so forth. But his best videos fall into a few categories:

  • Top Ten Best or Worst of a given year, sometimes the year that just passed but sometimes reaching back into history. Good example: Top Ten Worst of 1991 (Part 2).
  • One Hit Wonderland, dissecting not just a band’s one (or biggest) hit but also the history of the band and what happened to them after they hit it big. Good example: The Cardigans’ Lovefool, one of several cases in which he points out several other good songs by the band that may have been hits outside the USA.
  • Trainwreckords, looking at albums that sank an artist or band’s career. Good example: Styx’s Kilroy Was Here, one of the oddest things ever recorded by a major band.
  • Cinemadonna, looking at the films of Madonna. It’s a surprisingly long list. Good example: Dick Tracy.

Todd is candid, even cynical, but that just makes his praise that much more sincere. He also provides volumes of research, digging up videos you probably didn’t see on MTV.

Frog Leap Studios: From Norway, metal-minded musician Leo Moracchioli does ironic covers of pop songs with a lot of metal touches — ominous low guitars, double bass drum pedals, growling vocals, etc. His two biggest are Adele’s Hello (57 million views) and Toto’s Africa, the latter done before Weezer’s cover and with an English couple adding some guitar and a compelling female voice.

Ten Second Songs: Anthony Vincent occasionally tackles vocal challenges, but he’s better known for taking a song and recording it in 20 or more different styles. His patrons then vote to pick one, and he does the entire song in that style. His tour de force is Bohemian Rhapsody in 42 styles, including Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra, Boyz II Men, Daft Punk, Janis Joplin, Bobby McFerrin, Bruno Mars, Aretha Franklin, Muse, medieval music, and a stunning David Bowie impression that should have won the vote for a full-fledged rendition. His Bowie impression won the vote from his Enter Sandman video.

Rick Beato: An Atlanta-based producer has plenty of insight into music theory and production. He makes some top 20 lists — best bass lines, best guitar sounds, etc. — and occasional editorials about trends he hates in the music industry. But his best videos are in the “What Makes This Song Great?” series, in which he goes through a song and isolates specific tracks — bass, guitar, drums, etc.

12tone: Want more music theory? This channel, named after thankfully devoid of a horrible musical style no one outside academia cares about, sketches out the various elements of specific songs.

David Bennett Piano: A young English pianist also has a theory-first approach with videos like “Songs That Use Polyrhythms & Polymeters” and “Picardy Third: When Minor Resolves to the Major Chord.” He also goes meta with lists of songs that “rip off” other songs or classical music.

Grant Wahl’s firing and the slow, painful death of journalism

I’m very sorry to hear Grant Wahl has been let go by Sports Illustrated. I can only imagine what it’s like to devote more than two decades to something and have it end in an instant. Grant was covering soccer when covering soccer wasn’t cool, and he has been an important voice in the sport.

Between Grant and SI, though, I’d bet on Grant having the better future, by a long way.

Ian Thomas, an excellent sports business reporter, passed along a memo from one of the vultures at Maven, the company that owns SI.

My thoughts upon seeing that:

  1. Even by modern corporate standards, that’s crass.
  2. While I’m sure SI paid well, there’s no way Grant was making $350,000 a year.

And Grant indeed tossed icy water on that:

I think Grant will land on his feet. For one thing, he and Caitlin Murray seem to be the only people who have figured out how to write soccer books that sell. (Since Long-Range Goals, I’ve posted a loss on the books I’ve written. Seriously — I haven’t made enough to cover expenses.) He could always set up shop as a soccer-specific John Feinstein. Or he could go to one of the places offering six-figure salaries for journalists, like …

Well, there aren’t many.

The speculation on social media is that The Athletic should hire him. It wouldn’t be fair to Grant for me to speculate about his next move, and this post isn’t going to be about Grant. It’s going to be about the state of journalism. Buckle up.

Jobs like Grant’s, with good pay for a handful of in-depth features a year, have always been rare. Today, they’re all but extinct.

A decade ago, we had actual bidding wars. A 2007 New York Times story said ESPN was poaching newspaper writers “double and triple what they were earning — $150,000 to $350,000 a year for several writers, and far more for a select handful.” (The “select handful” would be celebrities like Bill Simmons.) Washington Post managing editor for sports Emilio Garcia-Ruiz had a great quote: “My counteroffer usually comes down to asking them what kind of cake they want at their goodbye party.” (I don’t remember what cake I had at USA TODAY, but it was a very nice farewell.)

Since then, ESPN’s business model of raking in cash from cable subscription fees has taken a serious hit, and they’ve had some significant layoffs. They’ve also shut down their magazine.

So now The Athletic is the organization poaching journalists from various news organizations. But as Deadspin reported, their efforts fell flat in D.C. because the salaries at the Post — the same paper that could only wave farewell to reporters leaving for ESPN a decade earlier — were too good. Praise Bezos.

And even though The Athletic is still throwing around startup money, which tends to disappear with time, what it has done to some good journalists isn’t much better than how SI treated Grant. Some of those journalists live paycheck to paycheck.

Who else is out there? ESPN will be OK but has to watch its budget. SI is doomed — the magazine is less frequent and thinner, and the desperate layering of ads on the site renders it unreadable. Vice slashed its sports “vertical.” Fox Sports got rid of all its writers. (Along with FourFourTwo cutting off its U.S. operations, that’s two freelance gigs of mine that disappeared.)

So The Athletic is the biggest ballgame at town, at least as long as the venture capital lasts. And still, it’s not like everyone there is making six figures. Aaron Gordon took a detailed look at The Athletic and the business in general, informed in part by his own layoff from Vice, and found some people can make a ton but it’s more typically $70,000. (Hey, still more than I ever made at USA TODAY, even adjusting for inflation.) A Washington Post piece pegged entry-level pay at $50,000 — you’d think an organization with the ambition of The Athletic wouldn’t have “entry-level” employees, but they do. For the same money, you can go to SB Nation and spend every waking hour tethered to an unrelenting content calendar.

Local newspapers? Good luck. Any opening will attract dozens, if not hundreds, of resumes, and they weren’t known for paying well even when they had steady income from department store advertising and classified advertising.

Want to go freelance? That’s a great gig for the independently wealthy. I cleared $30,000 one year, then had a steady gig yanked out from under me when a news organization shuffled editors.

So you end up with this question: Is The Athletic going to offer a lot of six-figure salaries when they’re not bidding against anyone?

The failure is on the business side. We’re 25 years into the Internet era, and media organizations haven’t figured out a way to deliver ads that are noticeable but not obtrusive. The very biggest newspapers can offer subscriptions, and in some cases like the Post and the Times (or less traditional organizations like ProPublica), they’re worth subscriptions or donations because they provide a valuable public service in the fight against misinformation (cough, TV). I’ve written stories I consider to be important — investigations on U.S. Soccer finances with an eye toward fixing youth soccer, pieces on sexual abuse in Olympic sports, etc. — but I’ve never felt subscribing to sports content was saving democracy.

Some publications/sites are vital reading in a small niche. That’s why I don’t feel guilty about plugging Soccer America, now entering its 50th year as the most vital source of news and analysis in soccer. The Equalizer is also the news org of record in its niche — women’s soccer. The Athletic has the occasional piece I want to read, but so do The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Los Angeles Times, The Oregonian, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, etc. The Athletic would have to hire a lot of people to get my money.

I’ve said it before — news organizations should band together for a universal subscription. I won’t pay $10/month to one newspaper just to read one more story beyond the three or five that I get for free, but I might pay for a subscription that offers me access to many news sites. I’d also be interested in paying a la carte, which is probably easier if you have some sort of universal sign-in.

Consider what restaurants and retailers have done in the COVID-19 crisis. They’re changed their business models on the fly. One of my favorite local restaurants is now offering takeout that I can order through a service I’d never heard of before I started looking for a good way to get fish for Good Friday. We’re also seeing a boom time for delivery services that serve many different restaurants — you can get your food from a local Thai place without that place having to hire its own delivery drivers.

Newspapers? Magazines? Again — 25 years. And they still haven’t figured it out. I started out making $10/hour in 1991, and that job doesn’t even exist any more. Today, a lot of freelance gigs are below minimum wage.

That’s why jobs like Grant’s are going extinct. And that’s why journalism won’t have people like Grant in the future.

And that stinks.

How not to do social media (or, why Stephen A. Smith is not a role model)

A brief history of U.S. media: 

1950s: Calm, maybe a bit boring. Newspapers and TV news don’t have much competition, and they usually don’t want to rock the boat. 

1980: CNN launches. They strive to be taken seriously as a news-gathering organization to this day — a 2016 report shows they had a whopping 31 international bureaus. 

1996: Rupert Murdoch’s global empire, which loves to do things on the cheap and tawdry (I actually did a grad-school paper on this in the late 90s), launched Fox News Channel. They take the worst aspect of CNN — talking heads yelling at each other — and go all-in with that. In that same 2016 report, they have only three foreign bureaus. It’s just easier to prop up someone in front of a camera to yell a one-sided take on things for an hour before handing off to the next person who does the same thing.

2001-02: ESPN launches Pardon the Interruption, turning the newsroom conversations of Washington Post columnists Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon into a rigidly formatted show, and Around the Horn, a panel discussion of “competitive banter.”

2006: Twitter is launched. 

2012: ESPN goes all-in on “debate” by re-hiring Stephen A. Smith, who had gained fame and infamy in his previous work. 

Today: LEBRON JAMES IS THE NO SHUT UP BERNIE BROS SOCCER STINKS EXCEPT RAPINOE AMERICAN FLAG LIBTARD! 

Or something like that. 

Over the past few weeks, Stephen A. Smith has been facing some of the worst backlash of his career. It’s generally not a great idea for anyone to claim a beloved hard-working fighter quit in a fight, especially when you haven’t established any credentials for knowing what you’re talking about, but that’s exactly what Stephen A. did in talking about Cowboy Cerrone after Conor McGregor smashed him in the first and only minute of their recent UFC fight. 

To get some sense of how this commentary has been received in the circles of people who know the sport and followed Cerrone’s career, including his five absurdly difficult fights compressed into one year, check this podcast excerpt from Luke Thomas’ SiriusXM show. (Start at 37-minute mark for the Smith content.)

To an extent, Thomas is also in the “hot takes” business (he used to do a segment called “Hot Takes Tuesday,” challenging listeners to come up with occasionally outlandish opinions), but he does his research and listens. So when Smith’s ever-shifting defense of his ignorant Cerrone turned to “I’m just trying to start a conversation,” Thomas correctly paraphrased that as “I’m going to fart in a room and then leave.” 

It’s easy to get suckered into the “hot takes” frenzy. I know this because … I’ve done it. 

I was a relatively early Twitter adopter because I was USA TODAY’s new media guinea pig for a while. When I went to the 2008 Olympics, I was asked to join Twitter and share observations as I ran around China. I got maybe 4,000 followers, a pretty good number in those days. 

Over the years, I’ve shared my candid thoughts, especially on soccer. Sometimes people like that, and it’s easy to get a big head when a lot of people agree. 

It’s also easy to piss off a lot of people.

The sport I’ve covered the most in the decade since I left USA TODAY for the novel concept of “seeing my family on weekends” is women’s soccer. Even before leaving, I did a lot in the sport. I did feature stories on women continuing to play without a pro league in the doldrums of the mid-2000s, then covered the sport in the 2008 Olympics, site of the U.S. women’s least-expected win. Then I spent a year freelancing for ESPN, covering the early rounds of the 2011 Women’s World Cup and the demise of Women’s Professional Soccer. 

My WoSo cred started to go downhill in 2013 when I wrote a book following the Washington Spirit through their first year of existence. Over the course of a woeful season, a vocal group of women’s soccer fans and media (at the time, the fan media was gaining a much louder voice than in any other sport I can think of) grew angry and angrier with the team’s management. Some were certainly hoping for some great investigation of how management ruined everything, but I simply didn’t have anything along those lines, and I defended them against some of the less substantial criticism. 

Over the years, I’ve staked out some unpopular positions. I questioned whether Megan Rapinoe’s kneeling during the national anthem was the most effective political protest, pointing out that she wasn’t having much success articulating a message behind the protest. (She has since grown into that role, much to her credit.) I called out Marta for diving. And at some point, I surely offered a mild criticism of someone’s favorite player. 

Case in point — a former women’s national team player was so angered by my take that Crystal Dunn had some shaky moments defensively for the U.S. women’s team that she said I should count her “the long list of people that don’t respect you and have cut you off.” That was after I pointed out that I respect Dunn so much that I told my soccer-playing son to watch her specifically when we went to Washington Spirit games.

And over the next few years, I’ve learned a lot about how NOT to engage on social media. Not many people can say they argued about the works of Ayn Rand with longtime U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo, and a lot of the discussions I’ve had over the years have been enlightening. 

But some of my interactions have given me some hard lessons. 

Such as … 

Don’t be too flippant 

Even if you intend to be on someone’s side, it’s far too easy for a Tweet to be misinterpreted. 

And that’s why Landon Donovan, a soccer player with whom I’ve spoken frequently and of whom I’ve written glowing tributes, blocked me. 

I meant it as satire of the current discourse. And I tried to make sure Donovan took it as satire with a follow-up tweet. 

That didn’t do it. I’m blocked to this day.

But that was one person. When I was watching and tweeting about an NWSL playoff game, I said the following about Alex Morgan, who was out injured in that game: 

And Morgan did the equivalent of releasing the hounds:

I watched Twitter responses spin through so fast I thought my computer would explode. One person offered to buy my Spirit book and smack me in the face with it. One person offered to kill me twice. No, not two messages saying he would kill me. This would apparently be a double murder, with me as the victim each time. Not sure how that works. 

How did I get in this mess? With another mistake …

Don’t assume people know the context 

The Morgan tweet came in the midst of a discussion about national team players getting a lot of breaks from referees in the then-new NWSL. Out of context, it looks worse than it was, but that’s my fault. 

The Donovan tweet was similar. If he could’ve read my mind, he wouldn’t have been offended. 

Twitter is not a medium for telepathy.

You’d think these lessons would sink in, but oops, I did it again, and it brings up another thing not to do …

Don’t give a gut reaction 

In covering women’s soccer and U.S. soccer politics as long as I have, I’ve found a couple of things … 

1. The “equal pay” dispute is far more complicated than people think. Australia and Norway have alleged “equal pay” deals that would not satisfy the U.S. women’s team because the sticking point is World Cup bonuses, which are drawn from international prize money that is heavily weighted toward men.

2. The marketing around the U.S. women’s team is that they inspire little girls to be what they want to be. Some people take it literally and think every youth soccer player is on the field hoping to go pro, and I can tell you from a decade of coaching that they’re wrong. But some believe images of powerful women are helpful, and I can’t argue with that. 

3. U.S. Soccer is a deeply flawed federation. But its mandate is clear. It’s supposed to grow the game for all — both genders, able-bodied and Paralympian, youth and adult, etc. It’s a nonprofit organization that has planned to spend a big pile of assets, gathered up through a decade of improved sponsorship deals and hosting the wildly successful Copa America Centenario in 2016, for the betterment of soccer as a whole. 

So when the U.S. women file a motion for summary judgment in their 3½-year legal wrangling that tosses around a number of $66 million, a good bit more than the $42 million U.S. Soccer plans to have after its five-year plan, I see alarm bells. 

I start to question whether the women (and men, who recently presented a suggestion that the women’s pay should be tripled, surely with a corresponding raise for themselves) are trying to take away money earmarked for future generations.   

I got the notice about that court filing late at night. Here’s my response … 

Then I brought up some context from my reporting … 

But then came the tweet that drew the backlash … 

And the people who responded didn’t know what I meant. 

The biggest issue: People thought I was telling the U.S. women their role is to “inspire little girls.” I thought people would understand that I was referring to their public perception, not some mansplained assertion of what they should be doing. I was clearly wrong.

If I had stopped to think about it a little more, maybe I would’ve realized I wasn’t completely clear. Maybe I should’ve waited until the next morning and wrote a blog post so I could establish the context. 

In the frenzy that followed, I forgot another lesson.

Don’t engage with everyone

Some people, you just can’t reach. 

I tried to be selective in my responses, picking out people who had a significant number of followers. Two people who attacked me were journalists who followed me at USA TODAY, and I tried to contact them off Twitter. To my dismay, neither one has responded. 

It’s a natural instinct to defend yourself when you’re misunderstood, and every once in a while, you’ll have a productive conversation. But you can’t appear to have a thin skin. 

Flame ways generally have no winners, with the exception of the rare occasions in which truly horrible people try to engage with people who have an audience and a brain: 

Perhaps the lesson here is that if you commit to remorseless unexamined shouting, as Stephen A. Smith has done, you can make a career out of being a bad guy to many and a truth-speaker to a small cult. That just seems like a terrible way to live. 

So I’m giving up Twitter discussion for Lent. When I come back, maybe these lessons will finally take hold.

Or I can just take Smith’s job.