Kill the body and the head will die

The other day, a day before a Yankees playoff game, pitcher CC Sabathia left his team and checked into alcohol rehab. 

If this had happened in, say, 2009, I am 100% certain that someone – a columnist, a radio host or a TV talking head, and maybe several of them – would’ve talked about Sabathia’s timing being wrong and about how he was quitting on his team or letting them down. And, of course, we would’ve no doubt heard some ignorant things about the nature of alcoholism and Sabathia’s weakness and toughness and stuff.  

But generally, the opinion was this: 

Good for CC. Glad he’s getting the help he needs. Baseball is not as important as one’s health and family. Thoughts, prayers and hope for him in these no doubt trying times.

This is a very good thing. Good perspective and evidence of an admirable empathy on the part of the commentariat. Empathy and perspective that, when I started writing about sports professionally six years ago, I don’t think would be anything close to uniform. Indeed, I question whether it would’ve been even a couple of years ago. We’ve come a long way.

Of course, even if the bulk of the professional commentariat has evolved on points like these, there are always going to be some sports fans who treat athletes like gladiators and get all pissed if they actually show human qualities. So in the wake of the Sabathia news I, not surprisingly, heard and read several people saying things about his bad timing or his weakness and who otherwise saw this only through the lens of their entitlement as sports fans as opposed to a lens of empathy for a human being going thorough a rough patch.  

This sentiment came in the form of tweets and comments on blog posts. There weren’t a lot, but there were a decent enough number to where it can’t be said that only fringe loonies feel this way. I’ve been in the internet sports business long enough to tell the difference between fringe whackos and the merely misguided. This was the latter. And, as I often do when I encounter some misguided sports sentiment, I engaged with it. I responded to some. Tweeted in general about it a bit. Retweeted some of it to put the speaker on display and open them up to a wider audience so they’ll be forced to either defend or reconsider their views. A pretty standard practice in the world of internet sports arglebargle.

In response to this have come two columns taking issue with me and others who do this. One from Tom Hitchner, a reader and follower of mine and a blogger in his own right. Another from Dan Brooks, who followed on Hitchner’s. The upshot of both of their essays was that it’s wrong for professional writers with big followings like me to call out unpopular or misguided sentiment from random people on the Internet. Tom characterizes it as me “punching below [my] weight,” and asks “[d]o we need someone with Calcaterra’s credentials, audience, and power of expression to step in and crush [the commenter] like a bug? Whose side does that elevate, Calcaterra’s or [the commenter’s]?”

Brooks is more pointed in his distaste for calling out the arguments of the non-professional and non-widely-followed Twitter account or internet commenter. He says that to do so encourages judgmental sentiment and is an exercise in “the worst kind of piety:”

There’s value in refuting popular, wrong arguments. It’s not to my taste, but I’m willing to concede there might be moral strength in calling out people for believing wrong stuff. But looking for unpopular immoral arguments—the kind of arguments that need a search bar to find—so you can publicly rebuke them is the worst kind of piety. It’s the intellectual equivalent of being a pharisee. Punch your weight, as Hitchner says.

Each of their essays have a lot of good points to consider. But each of them presents something of a paradox as well. They tell us that (a) the practice of highlighting arguments advanced by non-professional types with few followers is illegitimate; because (b) It’s judgmental. But is that not itself elitist and exclusionary? If you take the substance of the argument out of the equation, are you not saying “you’re not worth listening to unless you have a certain status or a certain set of credentials?”

I won’t put too fine a point on that because I have a more important point to make here, but suffice it to say that getting into the business of deciding who is and who isn’t worth listening to based on their platform or follower counts can be a pernicious business. A business that, if everyone took to, would’ve kept me and many, many others from ever becoming sportswriters in the first place.

But there’s more to this than merely taking a democratic approach to internet and social media commentary. This goes to the nature of that commentary itself and the understanding that these seemingly random and bad opinions do not exist in a vacuum.  

One thing I agree with Tom and Dan about is that there is a certain groupthink that exists these days, particularly on sports Twitter. There is in-group signaling and some thought-policing that happens. I don’t think it’s some toxic, “politically correct” sort of business in the way it is often described – if you don’t care about losing some followers you can say a lot of gonzo shit – but it’s certainly the case that the platform’s dynamic pretty quickly singles out and disapproves of less-than-widely-accepted sentiment, to put it as neutrally as possible.

But just because that sentiment is singled out and disapproved of among a certain class of Twitter users doesn’t mean that sentiment is refuted, diminished or let alone eliminated. Indeed, all that dynamic really does is cow people who are in the media business and who are more sensitive to public opinion than most. People like Twitter-savvy writers, TV folks, radio hosts and the like. Inasmuch as those folks are influencers of opinion, yes, it likely means that their, um, suddenly more enlightened commentary causes readers and listeners to follow their lead to some extent and, for lack of a better term, think smarter about stuff. But to believe that the Twitter-savvy media’s greater sensitivity to stuff like Sabathia’s alcoholism means that people in general are is to greatly overstate the influence of the Twitter-based sports commentariat.

Tom and Dan characterize the seeking out of unpopular opinion like some sort of archeological expedition, but it’s nothing of the sort. One need not dig down deeply to find people who think Sabathia is some worthless drunk who quit on the Yankees. They’re all over the place. My comment section at HBT is full of ‘em. Just because the folks saying these things don’t have little blue checkmarks by their name doesn’t mean they’re buried under the dirt. These are people echoing the sorts of sports opinions you hear at every bar, every office water cooler and on every call-in radio show in the country. And, even if they aren’t as immediately visible on Twitter, there are WAY WAY more of these people than there are of well-followed and allegedly influential sports bloggers like me. 

Look at the most popular sports shows and personalities in the country, and who do you see? Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless spouting 95% garbage at “First Take.” Collin Cowherd doing, well, Collin Cowherd things at Fox. Mike Francesa at WFAN and the scores and scores of talk radio hosts who followed his lead into the business trading, for the most part, on the lowest common denominator. These people dominate the non-Twitter, non-blog portion of the sports discourse. And that’s the vast majority of the sports discourse.

These guys aren’t popular and highly paid because no one listens to them. They’re popular and highly paid because LOTS of people listen to them. People who don’t have a lot of followers on Twitter but who spend a ton of time consuming sports and sports commentary. Each of these personalities have orders of magnitude more influence than the allegedly right-thinking folks on sports Twitter do, and all of them together render the notion that someone like me is squashing anyone like a bug – to use Tom’s phrase – laughable.

In our little Internet/Twitter bubble, we don’t see a lot of them. They may comment on the occasional blog post but generally do not. They may respond to the occasional tweet, but generally do not. But they are out there. In great numbers. And no matter how far sports discourse has come in the past several years, they still dictate the shape of sports discourse as a whole. They’re the ones who allow the Stephan A. Smith’s and Skip Baylesses of the world to make the nice living that they do and who continue to make sports a safe place for bros and neanderthals who, even if they didn’t slam CC Sabathia all that much this week, spend a lot of time spewing misogyny about Jessica Mendoza. Or offering thinly-veiled racial critiques of Latino ballplayers. Or when a domestic abusing football player is suspended immediately worry what it means for their fantasy team as opposed to the human beings affected.

When someone like me challenges those folks it may seem like I’m punching below my weight. But I prefer to see it as taking on a far larger, far more formidable fighter and working the body a bit before going for the head. And as a wise man once said: kill the body and the head will die. 

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the national baseball writer for NBCSports.com. He writes about things other than sports at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.

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