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Sports writing is nothing but customer service

When you see the (sports) world around you as merely transactional, it forgets that we live communally.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Milwaukee Brewers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

There are a lot of societal trends I pretty much call BS on, but the atomization of our culture is not one of them. A logical extension of the Enlightenment, the thought that the individual possesses autonomy, rights, a self—these are truly modern concepts.

That has only strengthened as a force with the internet, as the atomization of the conception of the self—ie: general principles regarding the self—morphed into an entire ethos that would govern the self and its activities. A diet regimen, a curated set of music, podcasts, movies, TV shows, and sports piped directly into your eye balls, and even the collection of attitudes and opinions surrounding yourself. We have created the polis, alright, but it’s one person’s kingdom.

Part of this is also because we have increasingly found ourselves in an alienated world. Shrinking financial prospects, dwindling avenues for control over our jobs and political structures, the retreat into the self is only natural in that it’s the one polis where you still hold a semblance of authority.

No place does this theory hold better than customer service. Head over to any suburban abyss in the United States and you’ll find people wielding the hammer of authority—as the customer. I ASKED FOR BUY-ONE-GET-ONE-FREE; YOU DOUBLE-CHARGED ME; WHY AREN’T YOU HONORING MY COUPON. I’m very sure you’ve heard this person, largely taking that pent-up rage over their lack of control out on someone even more precarious, with even less control over their lives.

I preface all of this to say that this attitude is not absent from sports and sports writing; in fact, in a world where you see yourself as a customer, and when that customer is a largely homogeneous group; well, it sounds like its addressing concerns only catered to that group’s transactional needs.

Everyone in baseball is familiar with Josh Hader at this point. After pitching in the All-Star Game, Hader’s older tweets resurfaced where he used the n-word, “white power,” and homophobic slurs. Hader was instructed to take racial sensitivity training, but no official punishment was rendered. Upon his return, he received a standing ovation from the crowd. Tyler Tynes at our own SB Nation had the following to say:

“We cannot accept what transpired as the normalcy of childhood nor infantilize his statements. A mistake for Hader results in a highly publicized media tour where mostly white people, whose job it is to hold his feet to fire, are merely a checkbox on the path toward clemency. No one Hader needed to apologize in front of pushed hard enough for him to feel as if this wasn’t a boyish omission.”

We can’t forget that one aspect, that when it comes to white athletes, the simultaneous infantilization of their actions, and their transgressions being merely an arc to recovery, is rote and toxic. Yet as I’ve said, there’s something else at work in concert: that these actions do not interfere with their consumption of the product as a customer.

When you do not see sports for what it actually is—a communal exercise of watching an outdoor activity, together—you see it as its most atomized version, merely the “self” viewing the game through a port hole, your only complaints to customer service.

Think about how writers talk about racism, or bigotry, or sexual assault, and then look at how they discuss steroids and cheating.

Jon Heyman on Josh Hader: “Obviously, Hader as a child – and the tweets occurred when he was 17, which still counts as a child – had some serious issues. Anyway, while Hader deserves our immediate scorn for his vile words, no one should give up on him. He hasn’t been known to exhibit any bad behavior around the Brewers, and it’s possible he was just an idiot as a kid.”

That very same Heyman, on possible steroid users: “How can you punish guys even if you aren’t 100 percent sure they did steroids? [posed question] There are fair reasons to be suspicious in some cases, from quotes supportive of steroid guys to physiological changes so extreme they’re tough to ignore to other issues that paint a fuller picture. As for folks who claim it is ‘un-American’ not to presume innocence, well, this isn’t a court of law, and the standard for Cooperstown is reasonably lower.”

Immediately after Aroldis Chapman was suspended for allegedly choking his girlfriend and firing ammunition into his garage, George A. King III of the New York Post wrote a glowing piece on how Chapman “could be the best athlete in the majors.” Yet when covering the Roger Clemens beat a decade ago, he was a bit more declarative in his condemnation: “Angry Yankee fans have a clear message for disgraced pitcher Roger Clemens now that he’s been outed as a steroid user: Tell the truth!” I’ve written quite extensively on how with the Chapman case, the spectacle (because it did not interfere with the writers’ consumption) of his suspension made for mere fodder, and not something that held weight or deserved scorn.

This relationship between writers and “the rules” is ingrained into baseball, and it’s pretty much the reason we have a legal-adjacent commissioner, and a sport exempt from anti-trust law. “Regardless of the outcome of juries,” Kenesaw Mountain Landis said, “no player that throws a ball game, no player that entertains proposals or promises to throw a game, no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players where the ways and means of throwing games are discussed, and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever again play professional baseball.” Never mind that throwing games arose from the putrid conditions imposed by the reserve clause, but the real tragedy was that paying customers would not see a fair game.

I’m sure that people will venture to say that this is some false equivalence, that cheating is about the game as a meta-analysis, and the rest—related to identity and politics and the other—are maybe slightly interconnected to the game at large, but the game is in fact the game. Yeah, for you.

Once again, when you see yourself as a customer, and the only customer, of the product you’re consuming, it becomes a tunnel vision, in which you can’t even conceive that someone else’s conception of the self—which likely combines their fandom of baseball directly in relation to who they are and what those sensibilities are—is different than yours. In that very case it may not be possible for a person of color, or woman, or queer person to hold their tongue when they feel they are violated, because the self and sport become intertwined by force. For someone white, walking away from Hader is as easy as closing the screen.

Yet steroids are you marching up to Target, and requesting for a refund, because while you may have ordered the new Star Wars Blu-Ray, it clearly says on the box that there would be a DVD and digital copy included, and well, I feel a little screwed here. I asked for a product and was cheated out of it, so now please issue a refund and an apology.

Most of writing, unfortunately, is like a visit to a store. Player and team analysis is the product review, and value analysis measures your product’s return-on-investment. When we hopefully move away from this construction as centering one identity as the sole customer of the product, I would hope it moves from less of a product-based analysis, but qualitative analysis. Who does this action affect, and why? What do people actually affected by this action actually feel about it within the context of their lives? This actually is a polis after all, and we’re all sitting in the stands watching the same game. Bucking the trend of atomization means not only embracing other people within the community, but ceding ground so everyone’s conception of the sport shines through.