Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of #HotTakes
In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Weary of what he saw to be increasing corruption and overstepping of boundaries in the Roman Catholic Church, Luther decided change was overdue. While Luther is widely credited to be the catalyst that sparked the Reformation, the advent of the Scientific Revolution proved to be the fuel that kept the movement going. The increasingly educated populace was more willing to challenge the established doctrine and more willing to think for themselves. Almost 500 years in the future, we have the potential to experience a similar reformation in the way we cover and consume sports media. The world is changing and writers, fans and athletes have a responsibility to embrace the changing landscape.
While comparing sports media to the Roman Catholic Church of the 1500’s seems, at best, heretical, Americans watch a crazy amount of sports. Americans spent 33 billion hours watching sports on TV in 2013 and spend 22% of “Primetime TV Hours” watching sports compared to 26% watching the news.1 Compare this to the 1500’s where religion served as a primary source of identity and purpose. You worked, went to church and prayed for a better life. Now we work, go to church and pray for a better season. On Sundays alone, Americans spend nearly three hours longer watching TV than they do at church.
We’re at a crossroads in how we consume our sports content. From dedicated sources like ESPN or Sports Illustrated to subsections on CNN or Yahoo, to beat reporters for local teams, there’s more content than ever before for the average, or even avid, fan to parse through. Love of teams creates obsession with individual players and this admiration of their personalities and skills drives a significant portion of fandom. The idolization of athletes through marketing and branding has created a huge platform for athletes to use how they will. With Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and other forms of social media, athletes are finding their voices to go with this platform and providing a new level of access for fans than ever before.
Guttenberg’s printing press placed the Bible directly in the hands of the people, leading to the devaluation of the gatekeepers of the Catholic Church and empowering commoners to interpret the Bible on their own terms. Social media is our printing press. Fans no longer need sportswriters to color in the edges of our favorite personalities. Joe Montana, Mean Joe Greene, Larry Bird, Nolan Ryan, Magic Johnson – our perception of them was heavily influenced by how writers and reporters characterized them. Was Mean Joe really that mean? Was Joe Montana actually that cool under pressure? It didn’t matter because those narratives sold headlines.
In my own lifetime, Tom Brady has gone from “underdog kid that no one believed in” to “insanely competitive star who doesn’t eat tomatoes and destroys cell phones regularly.” Our idols no longer conform to the binary roles of hero and villain that we so desperately attempt to fit them into. And that’s a good thing. We’re talking about real people after all, with real quirks, opinions and personalities. For the first time, we’re actually seeing them for what they are – and that’s a scary thing. Part of the draw of sports is the fantasy of it all. The escape from the reality of day-to-day life.
This presents an interesting dilemma: How do we reconcile persona on the field versus personality off the field? Colin Kaepernick has been a lightning rod for criticism over the past few weeks with his recent public protest of police brutality. Many of the criticisms have been rooted in the overwhelmingly insulting sentiment, “stick to football.” That statement is frustrating on many levels. The implication that athletes are only qualified to comment on their sport is insulting at best and it’s rooted in a childish fear – if our on-field idols have opinions and personality, then they’re human beings like the rest of us. We don’t dedicate our time and money to see human beings. We want to see superhumans, demigods and Goliaths; our athletes are supposed to exist in a different realm than the rest of us. What does it say about sports culture that we’d rather have athletes give us meaningless platitudes-“They played a great game,” “We didn’t execute as a team,” “It was a great team victory”-than feel real emotion or use their platforms to speak to real issues in this country?
The Protestant Reformation didn’t end the Catholic Church; it provided people with more options than ever before. Similarly, sports media isn’t going anywhere, but maybe we can change it. Many established writers found their voice when they were the sole gatekeepers of content. If people didn’t like your style, it didn’t matter because you were one of few sources for the news they were craving. You didn’t have to change because you had a monopoly on your topic. But just like I don’t want a pastor who’s going to read me line-by-line through the Bible or recite his own anecdotes exclusively, we don’t need sportswriters rehashing already reported angles or obsessing with his or her role in the story reported. I want writers to embrace the new flexibility they have with their platforms and to focus on meaningful content and informed opinions, not heavy handed self-indulgences.
Now is the time where our gatekeepers must transition to guides. The seemingly never-ending sea of access gives us new information but information is itself lacking context. This is where our writers can help us and many are trending that way. Give me the context to understand what I’m experiencing. Guide me through the waves of #hottakes and storms of opinions. Help me make my way through this new frontier and we can continue to grow together.
Martin Luther wrote 95 Theses. I have only one: Embrace the change. This applies to writers, fans and athletes alike. Sports exist as a series of dichotomies – the coaches and the players, the players and the fans, objective results compared to subjective feelings. Everyone experiences a game, a play, differently but at the end of a game, a season, there are objective results. Sports commentary is inherently a valiant failure, an attempt to bridge the gap between the subjective and the objective. There is so much we don’t know about what we’re seeing but we can learn. Keep giving us a chance to do so and we can enhance our understanding. With unprecedented access comes a responsibility to foster these developments. Failure to do so is to do a disservice to fans, athletes and sports themselves.