… I hear him mock
The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men
To excuse their after wrath.
—Antony and Cleopatra V, ii
Stephanie Wei, the ex-Yalie golf blogger, recently got her press credentials revoked for the crime of filming tour players during a non-televised Monday practice round at the WGC-Match Play using a live-stream video app. According to her own account, the tour said that her “live-streaming of behind-the-scenes content had violated the Tour’s media regulations.” Wei has admitted that the tour did have a right to take away her credentials (it’s in her contract), but she argued in response that her work produced “fresh, interesting and different content,” and thus enhanced the value of the tour’s product. Wei’s argument however, as seductive as it might be, is a great example of someone manipulating what Thomas Frank has called “the titanic symbolic clash of hip and square” for their own ends: Wei wants to be “hip”—but her actual work is not only just as “square” as any old-school sportswriter who didn’t see fit to mention that Ty Cobb was one of the meanest and most racist men in America, or that Mickey Mantle was a nihilistic drunk, but in fact might be even more harmful.
As Thomas Frank was writing so long ago as the 1990s, the new digital economy has been sold as an “economic revolution,” celebrating “artists rather than commanders, wearers of ponytails and dreamers of cowboy fantasies who proudly proclaim their ignorance of ‘rep ties.’” In contrast to the old world of “conformity, oppression, bureaucracy, meaninglessness, and the disappearance of individualism”—in a word, golf—the new would value “creativity” and “flexibility.” It’s the bright new world we live in today.
So inevitable does that narrative appear that of course Deadspin, the hipsters’ ESPN, jumped on it. “It’s not surprising,” proclaimed Samer Kalaf, “that the PGA Tour, a stuffy organization for a stuffy sport, is being truculent over something as inconsequential as this, but that doesn’t make it any less ridiculous.” The part of Judge Smails (Caddyshack’s prototypical stuffed shirt) is played in this drama by the PGA Tour’s Ty Votaw, who told Golf.com that in the eyes of the tour, what Wei did was “stealing.” On the theory of the tour, what Wei did extracted value from the tour’s product.
Wei herself, to be sure, had a different theory about her actions. Wei wrote that her purpose in transmitting the “raw, alternative footage”—excellent use of buzzwords!—was to “spread fanfare.” In other words, Wei was actually doing the PGA Tour a favor because of her hip, new kind of journalism. It’s an argument you are probably familiar with, because it is the same one the venues that don’t pay bands, or the companies that tell you to take an internship, or people who tell you to “get on YouTube” make: think of the exposure, man!
Yet while Wei pleads her case on the basis of her hepcat, app-using new jive journo-ing, in fact her stuff isn’t much, if any, different from the bad old days of sports reporting, when writers like Grantland Rice were more interested in palling around with the athletes (and, more worryingly, the owners) than with the audience. The telling detail can be found in her coverage of Rory McIlroy’s win at the very same tournament she got busted at: the Match Play.
The Match Play, obviously, is conducted under match play rules and not stroke play, which meant that, to win, Rory McIlroy had to win seven consecutive matches. In several of those matches, McIlroy came from behind to win, which prompted the following from Wei: “What I found the most interesting [what? Wei is missing a noun here] about McIlroy’s victory,” Wei wrote, “and his route to the winner’s circle was the way he found another gear when he was losing late in the match.” This McIlroy is not the same McIlroy as the one “we knew two years ago”—he is “a more mature one that knows how to dig deep.” Wei thusly repeats one of the most standard sorts of sportswriting cliche.
What of it? Well, the difficulty with this particular cliche, the reason why it is not “on a par” with those jolly old-school fellows who didn’t mention that a lot of ball players took speed, or cheated on their wives, or beat them, or that the owners were chiseling everyone for pennies on the dollar while looking the other way as men’s brains were slowly battered into jello—oh wait, that still happens—is that it justifies a species of rhetoric that gets repeated in many other arenas of life. (The most important of them being, of course, the economic.) That is the rhetoric of “toughness,” the “intangibles,” and so on—you know, the ghosts that don’t exist but are awfully handy when justifying why nobody’s getting a raise.
The belief in a player’s “toughness” or whatever words a given sportswriter can invent—the invention of such terms being largely what sportswriting is about—has been at best questionable, and at worst a knowing cynicism, ever since Gilovich’s, Tversky’s, and Vallone’s landmark 1985 paper, “The Hot Hand in Basketball: On the Misperception of Random Sequences.” The “hot hand,” the three proved, is merely a product of cognitive bias: when people are asked, for instance, to predict sequences of coin tosses, they inevitably expect the tosses to be half heads and half tails—even though such an even breakdown, no matter how many tosses are made, is nearly impossible.
So too in sports: writers continually ask their audience to believe that an athlete has “matured,” or “dug deep,” or what have you, when the more likely explanation is just that the athlete’s inherent talent level eventually expressed itself—or, in the case of a losing effort, the other side “got lucky.” Outcomes in sports are determined by skill (and the lack of it), not by “grit” or “will.” Rory won because he is a better golfer than nearly anyone on the planet, and while that skill can be masked by chance, over time it is more likely to expose the other player’s relative lack of skill.
Rory McIlroy won his tournament because he is a good golfer, not because he has some kind of psychological strength the rest of us lack. The fact that Stephanie Wei participates in this age-old sporting charade demonstrates that, for all her pretensions to the contrary, there isn’t a great deal different between her “new school” approach and that of her “stuffy” opponents. There is, perhaps, even reason to cheer for the PGA Tour in this dispute: at least they, unlike many in the age of the New Economy, believe people ought to get paid.