Earlier this week, Jameis Winston filed a countersuit in civil court against the woman accusing him of rape. The announcement of this countersuit came to the uproarious cheers of many Florida State fans and, sadly, led to further blaming of the alleged victim for what she is “doing” to Winston–the quality of his case as the number one overall draft pick suing for lost wages notwithstanding. I’m not sure where to start with that, but assigning fault to an alleged rape victim and then cheering on her alleged rapist when he countersues her because you like how he plays football means you probably need to reevaluate your life. Your compass has lost North. But, this article isn’t really about that. When issues like Winston’s get polarized, we lose all traces of civility and productive discourse.
The key questions are: where did this polarization come from? To find the source of the vitriol, we need look no further than sports media, ESPN especially but not exclusively, due to the push for “narrative” over substance.
Let’s turn back the clock to years before Winston ever played football for Florida State. It was the transition period from print media–where Sports Illustrated was king–to digital on-demand content. HD sports programming was a newly-minted technology. ESPN was firmly entrenched behind the broadcast networks as a sports content provider.
This period–and position of second fiddle for ESPN–would not last. The network expressed excellent foresight, perhaps gained from observing CNN’s news model, and envisioned a world with “always on” sports coverage. This was the period where ESPN hired the likes of Skip Bayless and Bill Simmons, along with other print writers, to provide more entertaining content designed to rip more fans from the major broadcast networks.
Along the way, ESPN sanctioned a batch of point-counterpoint shows as it expanded its foray into original programming. These filler programs were born out of necessity due to broadcast sports not being able to fill the hours during the day.
The viewing public devoured this content. One thing that has always remained constant with sports, fans argue ad nauseum. The fact that two credentialed “experts” were now on our televisions having the same argument as us common fans provided us validation. And there is nothing a sports fan wants more than to have an expert validate his opinion so he can return to his friends to say, “See, I told you so!” What better way to capture all of these fans than by having both sides of the argument on TV? Then everyone has an expert on their side. As these shows grew in popularity, so did ESPN’s power over the prevailing opinion. Throw in Facebook and Twitter where everyone has a voice, and you’ve got an incredibly powerful propaganda weapon.
Social media is a hornet’s nest waiting to be kicked. It’s comprised of droves of people looking to latch on to the “trendy”–forgive the pun–opinion. Feigned outrage, hashtag activism, and disingenuous calls to action are hallmarks of the weaponization of this tool. Still, the mob is powerful and having them on your side is a tremendous advantage. Make no mistake, ESPN knows this, and they exploit it for financial gain.
At some point over the past several years, ESPN and other sports networks have caved to temptation and instead of presenting viewpoints on even keel, they have bullied sports fans into taking extremist views. People like Bayless start with a viewpoint that some people could agree with and then pile on additional extreme points. This leads the audience into believing that they are required to share all the opinions of the pundit in order to also believe the initial point. This is obviously not the case, but has led to the wholesale demolition of evenhanded sports analysis.
ESPN is in the entertainment business; clicks, hot takes, and loudmouths sell. They have traded on their brand recognition for cheap bottom line antics. The writers sacrifice cerebral facts for cloying emotional hooks. Every time we are tipped to love or hate a particular athlete, owner, or team, the ESPN narrative shaping machine has done its job.
Fallen for it? Don’t beat yourself up, we all have.
Let’s return to Winston’s situation and remove the narrative lens from it. Here’s a girl who believes she was raped, reported it, and saw the local authorities who blew the investigation content to let it die until sports journalists uncovered the gross negligence by the police. Regardless, the case quickly became a he said-she said and in all reality, a non-case.
Now, let me be clear. If Winston committed a crime, the fault rests squarely on him. However, no one–not ESPN, not me, not FSU, not Winston apologists and victim blamers–knows what actually happened. Hell, the accused and accuser may not completely know what happened.
So, why, if we have literally no idea, do we insist on taking the ridiculous untenable positions that we do?
The answer is simple. ESPN can’t make any money off telling people they don’t know and playing a waiting game. They pay too many “analysts” too much money to take a level stand. So, they fired up the clickbait machine and paid people to take both sides. However, since most of social media was against Jameis Winston, it was better for them to continue to shape public opinion against him. I bought it. You bought it. And in so doing, ESPN drove FSU fans to take such a contrarian stand that many still seek to blindly defend him, regardless of how they are perceived by people around them.
ESPN has been instrumental in creating the us versus everybody environment surrounding Winston and FSU–though the blame is not squarely theirs. And, they have made millions of dollars on the hate/love dichotomy that is Jameis Winston. They have conquered by dividing. They have reduced fans to extremists and removed any semblance of thought from sports reporting.
Furthermore, with the departure of Bill Simmons, ESPN continues to side with easily consumed fluff and hatemongering over levelheaded, intelligent analysis. John Skipper, ESPN’s CEO, has clearly reinforced that non-sensational content has less and less of a place at ESPN. Skipper apparently believes that thought provoking content and entertaining content are mutually exclusive.
The sad part is that we need only look in the mirror to see who made sports this way. We love to argue, we love to be validated. And when we’re behind social media, we love to take extreme views for the sake of trolling. ESPN and other networks have simply monetized trolling. It’s a brilliant financial strategy, but it’s disgusting and feels cheap.
ESPN creates these monsters and saints. And, simply put, it’s not that simple. Again, consider Winston; depending on who you ask, he is the devil incarnate or a perfect combination of Ghandi and Mother Theresa. Truth is: he’s neither. He’s somewhere in between just like the rest of us. Furthermore, life is infinitely more complicated than only having two possible positions. It’s childish and lazy to believe otherwise. ESPN gladly treats us like children, and is more than willing to make money on our lazy minds.
So, I don’t know if Winston is guilty and I don’t know if Ms. Kinsman is lying. Neither do you. I do know that giving polarizing sports outlets like ESPN the satisfaction is beneath us. Moreover, let’s stop pretending we know more than we do. Let’s stop letting ESPN and other clickbaiting sports outlets manipulate us into losing our minds.
We’re not children.
It’s time we grew up.