Sports, Social Media, and The Information Age

Grantland.com recently published what they’re calling an “email conversation” between editor in chief Bill Simmons and popular author and New Yorker journalist Malcolm Gladwell. The entire discussion is incredibly engaging and is a tribute to both of these writers’ intellects and their ability to see things for what they really are. They touch on the Kennedy assassination, Kevin Garnett as a teammate and coin a new term, “jockosopher” (uh oh Shaq) for athletes who might have been better off writing about sports than playing them. Ultimately the discourse centers on the idea that being an athlete today is harder than it was before the internet blew up with twitter and Facebook, and news became instant. They offer a lot of good points and discuss things like “what if Lebron was ten years older?” Would “the decision” have ever happened in 1999? Would anyone have even cared at that point?

They really key into the fact that today’s media is different. Not just in the sense that there was once a time when reporters and athletes were friends, and not enemies, but in the sense that anyone with an internet connection now has a voice – and that’s not a bad thing. What it does mean though is that athletes, and the “brand” that they want to push for themselves are being constantly analyzed. When you think about it has Lebron really handled these past few years so poorly? He took a few punches but he got back up. I’ll accept that he’s a professional athlete and public scrutiny is part of the job, but imagine coming home from work and having 10,000 tweets about how you “choked again” or “are the most hated player in the NBA” is pretty hard to handle.  Worse still,  are all the unnecessary expressions of hatred that really should have no place anywhere. See: Joel Ward of the Washington Capitals.

They echo a few opinions that I’ve felt about Tiger Woods since he took a hatchet to his professional in personal life in 2009. (Though for the good of the PGA he seems to be coming back).  Now, two years removed, do people really care? In a matter of less than a week, with Facebook, twitter, and the blogosphere humming at full capacity,  Tiger Woods was all but ruined. Certainly by his own doing but it raises an interesting ambiguity. It’s been just two years and it seems to be all but forgotten, right? He’s just Tiger Woods again. What Simmons and Gladwell attempt to illustrate is that there exists a give and take with this new type of media. We can grant athletes their privacy and silently frown upon lewd behavior, or blow up their lives and agree to accept the fact that bad things are going to come up.

And the most important part is that it really just matters in sports. Gladwell provides a great analogy to drive this point home. I’m paraphrasing: “If a bright kid from a solid liberal arts school got a job at a banking firm in Cleveland, hit the ground running and proved that he had an innate tact for reading the markets, we’d call him a superstar in his field. Now if this banker decided that he wanted to move to New York and take a lower level job at Goldman Sachs with the intent to increase his opportunities by working with better talent, in a better city, and ultimately make a company a hell of a lot more money that it was prior to his arrival, then who would care?” Seems like a pretty logical business and life decision to me. But people don’t follow stock traders, wear their custom suits and stand outside of the NYSE cheering, ranting, and getting piss-drunk.

I’ve turned this into a ramble here. Read the full article here. You might not be convinced but you’ll definitely be thinking.

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