Recently Russell Westbrook threatened to beat up a husband and wife, two fans, very badly and very unabashedly. This threat was as public as possible, occurring at a game, and as is everything, audio-visually recorded. I don’t really know what the fans said and I am not defending the fans, nor am I rebuking the punishment the husband received: a lifetime ban. But I was positively staggered by how little the NBA punished Westbrook. Per USA Today,
“Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook has been fined $25,000 for “directing profanity and threatening language to a fan,” the NBA announced Tuesday afternoon.”
Westbrook makes about 570,000 dollars a game. Which means that, even ignoring the limited marginal utility of 25,000 dollars to someone with tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars, he was fined a little over one-percent of a work week, or for someone making 1,000 dollars a week, about ten bucks. The NBA sent a message and that message was We protect our superstars. And maybe I’m missing it but I didn’t hear a peep of outrage.
Mainstream sports media is hyper-consolidated and reporters more than ever not just defer to athletes but in many ways do their bidding. The reporter and the athlete are not peers. The reporter is fully fungible, makes ... well, I don’t know but I would guess not a whole lot, and the athlete is so valuable as to be very nearly an industry unto her or himself. Making it as a workaday sports journalist means so fully deferring to the athlete as to render them not journalists at all, but a kind of inside man disseminating whatever information their contacts would like them to disseminate.
That came to mind when I was reading this story and the very specific demands made therein.
- Russell Wilson ... gave an April 15 deadline for a new deal to the team in January.
- Wilson wants his contract situation settled before getting back to work.
- Wilson has since fallen to 12th in terms of annual average salary among quarterbacks, and it is believed he wants his next contract to hold up longer than his last one did.
This is from another story but the false binary it presents seemed in keeping with journalism as advocacy for the player.
“Interesting strategy by Russell Wilson, giving the Seattle Seahawks an April 15 deadline to do a contract extension with one year left on his current deal. If it works out, he’ll probably be the highest-paid player in the league by Easter. If it doesn’t, then a year from now, he could be the most exciting free agent in NFL history.”
He could be, but of course, that would require the Seahawks to not use the franchise tag on him, which would only make sense if Wilson, I don’t know, lost a limb. This news preys on worry like a lot of news. It reminds me of a quote by Daniel Kahneman when describing the scientific community.
“I have yet to meet a successful scientist who lacks the ability to exaggerate the importance of what he or she is doing, and I believe that someone who lacks a delusional sense of significance will wilt in the face of repeated experiences of multiple small failures and rare successes, the fate of most researchers.”
News is very often now reported with an interpretation of that news, either by the journalist (which is bad form) or by a handpicked expert, that emphasizes the deep significance of that news. Some people live in a state of alarm, synthesizing anxiety disorder simply by watching too much cable news, I think. They are bedeviled by news slanted toward the sources, exaggeration by the source which is often not questioned but amplified by the reporter, and repetition. Again, Kahneman.
“A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth. Authoritarian institutions and marketers have always known this fact.”
Now do not misunderstand me, I do not think journalism was once pure and objective. Nor really do I expect it to be. For all my rhetorical acrimony here, I am actually pretty at peace with the world. I love it I think a little like Henry Miller loved it. I love the world but critically and with endless curiosity for every virtue and vice of which man is capable. I want to know it. I do not want to bend it to my needs.
Individual bias can be escaped or at least mitigated by means of a plurality of perspectives. Most sports media now seem athlete focused. The alternative we are often given is to be management focused. I’ve yet to encounter the journalist who is owner focused. But the most important perspective possible is increasingly the purview of community blogs like this one. That is the perspective of the fan. The fan which makes anything Russell Westbrook does matter one iota.
Westbrook has been made filthy rich by the leisure spending of millions. He has earned it, don’t get me wrong, and I am not one to minimize the importance of that which we do for fun, that which creates joy within our lives, but if people did not feel entertained by the very weird thing that is NBA basketball, Westbrook would be out of work tomorrow. Nothing he does for a living serves any essential function.
All journalism should be reader focused. It should be. Unlike the NBA or the NFL or MLB, journalism serves an essential function. The world is much too big and much too complex for anyone to understand even a small part of it without the help of others who may make disseminating information their career. It is a public good. But it becomes a curse when it’s beholden to the source so much that it comes to see the reader as a mark.
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When I was young the city of Seattle was a place of wonder for me. The whole Pacific Northwest was a place of wonder for me, and I read about the Space Needle and Olympic National Park and Mount Rainier and noteworthy people and places and events found in the World Almanac and Funk & Wagnall’s (the discount encyclopedia we bought at Stop & Shop) with the kind of obsession and rapture only a bookish, often alone child is capable. I do not know if “love” is an appropriate description of my, well, love for so great and so dense and so multiple a thing as a geographic region, but living here and belonging to this place was a long-held dream of mine.
Seattle has proven somewhat elusive and I did not so similarly love Portland, but of course they are more alike than different, and Seattle’s never a long drive away. My father brought me to the Portland metropolitan area after a cross-country flight from New Hampshire, and as it often is with the poor and mediocre, I’ve never moved too far from where I went to high school. To my father, Portland was where he and my mother fell in love, where they lived in abandoned warehouses in what’s now called The Pearl with a group of homeless people called the STP, where his best friend Jack (then my mother’s boyfriend) died of a hotshot of heroin, and where with Jack’s dying wish he asked my father to forever take care of my mom. Very romantic in summary but fuckin’ hellish in practice, their marriage.
Now that I am a bit of an old guy I do not think the many millions of people who populate the Pacific Northwest are so very different from millions whom might be found in many regions the world over, but if that may have been disillusioning to the younger me, it’s actually very comforting to me now. Another way media tends to distort the truth is by exaggerating relatively small differences in culture. To butcher Whitman, Seattle is a place of multitudes, Portland is a place of multitudes, and to love either is to be of multitudes oneself—to love critically but forever suspend judgment.
I love the Seahawks ultimately because when the Seahawks win, a bunch of strangers I will never know, never meet, may find obnoxious in oh so many ways, are happy. Television raised me and I am not wholly worse for that. Today, April 5 of 2019, I have essentially no family but my wife. My family dissolved and scattered and died. I replaced my essential need for family with a love for people on the whole, which is kind of sick I admit, and the people of the Pacific Northwest were from that billions a nuclear family of sorts. A subset I was especially partial to.
I think many today are similarly sickened but not by my peculiar regional love. They love celebrities. Much as I was beguiled by the slick eloquence of the television personality, they are beguiled by the all-out media assault so many celebrities coordinate to better their brand. They read banalities on Twitter. They gawk at the fiction of Instagram. Etc. And, by extension, fans of Russell Wilson probably really do give a flying fuck at a rolling donut whether Wilson is the highest paid quarterback in the NFL, for how long, and in a year, two years, three years, if that contract “holds up.” But I don’t. I want the Seahawks to win and Wilson’s contract, should it be bloated, will become an impediment to that.
I’m sort of a dinosaur in that way: The crabby old sports columnist so pro-fan as to be almost anti-athlete. Many years ago I had a choice. Brandon Mebane’s agent contacted me and invited me and whoever from the site was interested to go bowling. I cannot tell you how incredibly tempting that was. I loved Mebane’s performance as a defensive tackle. He was one of those thrilling young talents which make losing seasons bearable. And I was desperate for any kind of concrete success. I had worked years, often multiple jobs for years, sacrificed every friendship, strained my relationship with my wife, become so sleep-deprived that I could lapse into waking dreams just by lying down, worked two jobs through walking pneumonia, chasing the dream of writing for a living. It may seem very self-righteous for me to say this, but I just didn’t want to be used for leverage in a contract negotiation. At a more elemental level, one that is almost puerile, I did not want to help price Brandon Mebane out of a Seahawks uniform. Gosh, I’m a child.
Which is part of why today I live adjacent to a Portland Housing Project, i.e. The Projects. Why I cajole rats from my cat Oliver’s mouth. Why I worry nonstop about the danger of air pollution to my wife. I live in a predominantly African American neighborhood, and if you find phrases like “systemic oppression” recondite and impenetrable, live in a poor, predominantly African American neighborhood. The sidewalks are broken. Trash blows into our complex like tumbleweeds. Chunks of rust fall out of my bathtub spigot. The soil at the community garden was full of rusted metal and asphalt. The newly evicted often live in or around the park across the street. I don’t know for sure, but my former neighbor was from what I could tell running the brokest ass prostitution ring ever conceived. Women like you’d find slumped over on The MAX, coming and going, coming and going. And if not for the thorough kindness and goodness of my other neighbors, this would be the worst place I’ve ever lived. Instead it’s the best. People are so warm and open you could almost call this complex a community. My neighbor the kingpin, shit we’d smoke weed sitting on the power transformer, and once maybe in an attempt to con me out of money, he called me his best friend in the world. Wherever you are, good luck Darrell.
Sometimes it seems growing up is becoming part of the wicked, exploitative and oppressive systems that as a child you loathe. Those systems are a means to make and protect wealth and power. And it is the wealthy and powerful who write paychecks. I’ve never known otherwise. Growing up is certainly earning and depending upon a paycheck.
Which is why I do not hate those poor people who have to carry Wilson’s water to make a living. That is the model we the people have made. Paid journalists are essentially embedded within the team, and the most successful are those that play ball and thus break news. Fan-centered journalism—and if the above is journalism, Field Gulls is journalism—is not valued by the fan. Whatever other reasons I have given for quitting something like ten years ago, I never ever ever would have given up a living wage for a reasonable workload.
But even at the contract salary I work on now, it is a privilege to write to all y’all. You’re my people. Strangers, but my people. Funny that euphemism “disruption,” I guess replacing-living-wage-jobs-with-below-minimum-wage-contract-work is too wordy. As a Seahawks fan, and of Seattle by birth (Tacoma, actually) and self-made destiny, I want the greatest quarterback to ever wear a Seahawks uniform to stay until he’s unbearably old and shitty, and at a price which maximizes his team’s chances of winning, and of thus spreading joy throughout this beautiful region. I’m pretty partial that way. Biased, even.
Thank you for reading and as ever, SEA!