IS THAT A FACT?
Flagrant foul: Misinformation and sports
Season 3 Episode 3
In today’s episode of our podcast Is that a fact?, guest host Jake Lloyd digs into how misinformation manifests in the sports world with author and journalist Jemele Hill, a contributing writer for The Atlantic and host of the Spotify podcast Jemele Hill is Unbothered. Hill discusses not only how sports falsehoods spread, but also how the nature of sports reporting makes it more resistant to manipulation than news coverage.
Additional reading and listening:
- What does Kyrie Irving see in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories? Jemele Hill, The Atlantic
- The story behind the most notorious fake news outlet in sports, Ben Pickman, Sports Illustrated
- Jamele Hill is disappointed in a lack of courage in journalists today, Dessi Gomez, The Wrap
- ESPN posted manipulated image of Joe Burrow after AFC Championship loss, RumorGuard (The News Literacy Project)
- Hamlin’s collapse spurs new wave of vaccine misinformation, Ali Swenso, David Klepper and Sophia Tulp, AP News
- Uphill: A Memoir, Jemele Hill
- An NBA all-star missed more than a month, and reporters had no answers, Ben Strauss, The Washington Post
Is that a fact? is a production of the News Literacy Project, a nonpartisan education nonprofit building a national movement to create a more news-literate America. Our host is Darragh Worland, our producer is Mike Webb, our editor is Timothy Kramer, and our theme music is by Eryn Busch.
For many sports fans, life would be drab, with few diversions to mark the passage of time besides the anticipation of their favorite teams facing off in pre-season games through the playoffs. Sports tap into our deepest desires for belonging, drive lifelong loyalties and fuel our need for competition. And like every sphere of influence today, the sports world has seen its fair share of misinformation. In fact, falsehoods are everywhere in the sporting arena – imposter social media accounts masquerading as your home team’s postings, doctored images of your favorite athlete wearing a t-shirt with a slogan they’d never actually support, and cheap, fake videos of foul balls that never really occurred. But just what’s at stake?
I know me as a consumer is that if I am following a particular site or a Twitter feed that is a media outlet, and if I see constantly they’re getting stuff wrong, why would I still follow them? It’s like “I can’t believe anything you say, so what’s the value in it for me as a consumer?” I think that’s a question that we have to ask ourselves is, “Why are we continuing to support places that outright lie?”
That was Jemele Hill. I’m Darragh Worland, and this is Is That a Fact?, brought to you by the education nonprofit The News Literacy Project. For this episode, I turned the mic over to my colleague Jake Lloyd, our senior manager of social media and resident sports guy, for a conversation with the longtime sports writer, commentator, author of Uphill: A Memoir and host of the self-titled podcast Jemele Hill is Unbothered. Take it away, Jake.
Jemele, thanks so much for making the time.
Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
So let’s start with something you talked about last year when you spoke to The Wrap. You said you were disappointed in how misinformation is so easily pedaled and has been turned into a cottage industry. Why do you think that is? Is misinformation less of a problem in the sports world, or does it maybe get less attention because people see it as less consequential?
I think it’s a little less prevalent in the sports world. Certainly, the sports world like any kind of media space that you have your gossiping, you have your rumors, you have those kind of things and that happens. But the one thing that sports has going for it is that the results are right in front of you. I can’t make up the Lakers won a championship ’cause you saw it. So there’s certain things in sports that are just undeniable. Even though I realize that we had an entire election conspiracy that was pedaled by a lot of people that was undermining this democracy, but part of the reason that process is a little different despite the fact we know how the votes were counted. We know it was a legitimate election. We know there was no election fraud, but there’s still so much of what happens in voting that’s behind closed doors.
It’s not like you get a camera that shows every single person in America voting, but when the Lakers play or when there’s the Super Bowl, we see it. We see everybody on the field, we see what happens, we see all of it. So while sports is certainly ripe with conspiracy theories, and they’ve existed throughout the history of sports, nobody is using those conspiracy theories and peddling them to then create an entire cottage industry of misinformation. There’s nothing to be gained from it in sports because so much is based off meritocracy. Either you did it or you didn’t do it. Either you’re the greatest or you’re not, and so it’s just very different in that way. So there are some things that happen in terms of misinformation in sports, it’s just never to the degree that we see in our political arena, and the stakes are different. At the end of the day, if in some universe you could lie about who really won the NBA Championship, it’s not going to undermine democracy if that happens. Nobody’s going to storm the Capitol over the Lakers.
Yeah, people might storm some streets in LA, but-
Correct. It’ll be some light posts that bite it for sure. There might be some cars that get flipped over, but it’s not going to be the degree of obviously what we saw on January 6th.
So arguably the biggest purveyors of misinformation within the sports world are the athletes themselves. NBA star Kyrie Irving is one of the most prominent examples having pushed the flat earth conspiracy theory, anti-vax falsehoods and much more. But he’s also idolized by (an) allegiance of fans, and he’s well liked by his fellow players. Kyrie’s far from the first famous athlete or celebrity to spout misinformation. But how do you think sports journalists should cover such athletes in their opinions, even if the falsehoods they share don’t relate to the games or the sports themselves?
Well, I think the media has a responsibility to be fair and to tell the complete picture as they would with anybody. Certainly, as you mentioned, Kyrie, there’s been some very questionable to dangerous things that he has pedaled. Of course, it creates the question of, “Okay, is a post an endorsement and all those other things?” But I think a reasonable person would say that if you have millions of followers as he does, and you put something on there that’s factually not true or continues to further some dangerous stereotypes or opinions, then you are partaking in that. You can’t divorce yourself from it unless in a caption or in a video you explain why you’re doing it and really help us understand why you felt like it was important to expose your millions of followers to this. So that’s one part of it.
I think journalists, particularly since you’re putting this on a public platform that we all can see, it’s not like your account’s locked, and it’s not like we can’t see it, then yes, it is within fair territory for a journalist to ask Kyrie Irving, “Why did you post this?” Now I know that he was initially very defensive about this. There was the back and forth and all of that, but on the other end of it, when the league and the team stepped in and you see what his punishment was, there’s also the aspect of asking the Brooklyn organization “was this fair to do” compared to other things that have been posted or said? Is he being held more responsible than some other people have engaged in maybe what is harmful speech? So it’s a complicated issue with Kyrie because as you said, he is, well liked. Even though him posting about the documentary, which I watched, and it was full of Holocaust denial, thought it was very dangerous to post that. I disagree with him doing that.
There’s one part of that, and then there’s also the part of the fact that Kyrie has stood very strongly for women’s athletes. He’s known as being extremely charitable, but I think it’s also a good window into how powerful information and misinformation can be. He’s not the only athlete that has regurgitated conspiracy theories or other things. I think what it does is show that money, fame, special ability, none of that prevents you from being susceptible to misinformation. The bottom line is that we are in a age now that if you have a thought, no matter how ridiculous that thought can be, there’s 35 YouTube videos that you can find probably more than that support that same thought. It’s so much harder now for people to be able to distinguish between what is truth and what is coming from a credible place and what is not.
Part of the problem, I think, lies in the reality that many sports fans really don’t care to be bothered by facts. Watching sports and reading about sports is escapism for many. Why should a fan bother to fact check something when they just want to read about their favorite team or retweet something positive about their favorite player? It’s almost like the same tribalism we see in politics, but with lower stakes or even less just conscientiousness. Does that sound right to you as far as how content is consumed by sports fans and what the general attitude is?
So the one thing I would say I would disagree in this way is, I generally label it the “bar argument.” The bar argument has always been a part of sports, like where fans want to debate who’s the greatest. When you’re debating who’s the greatest at whatever, it’s subjective. There is certain criteria maybe we can all agree on and to say, “Yes, Tom Brady’s appeared in 10 Super Bowls, he is the greatest quarterback of all time.” But some people might say, “Okay, well I happen to think that Aaron Rodgers, even though he doesn’t have as many rings, or even though he doesn’t have as many Super Bowl appearances, based off skillset, based off what he’s able to do, MVPs, he’s the greatest quarterback of all time.” I think those are totally okay arguments to have. Even though if we went purely by fact, if you wanted to go just strictly leave it to championships, Bill Russell’s the greatest basketball NBA player ever ’cause he has 11. All right. The next highest you have Kareem, you have Michael Jordan. Those are the ring carriers pretty much in the NBA.
So I think it’s okay to bring in subjectivity built around facts and how you want to perceive them. I think sports fans want to argue, that’s what they want to do. They want to argue sometimes in the absence of facts, and that’s fine. The one part that I think that has made maybe the entertainment of sports unhealthy and perhaps even less enjoyable is we’re in a severe period of “ring culture.” By “ring culture,” I mean now the only way to define greatness is if you got a ring. If you don’t got a ring, you’re not great, and that’s just how binary sports fans have become. Part of that is that bar argument that you would have with your friends started going to television. So suddenly you had a explosion of debate shows on television where it was just about the bar argument and not really about the factual argument. So I would agree with you, it’s less dangerous. Somebody saying LeBron James is the greatest NBA player of all time is not a dangerous argument to make compared to Joe Biden’s not really the legitimate president.
Right, for sure. But as you also know all too well, sports is not some different world in which Joe Schmos can evade today’s incredibly polarized political environment. Just in the last six months since we launched our RumorGuard site, which curates and summarizes debunks of some of the most significant viral rumors, we’ve done sports-related posts on everything from World Cup related falsehoods to trolls using imposter content to spread hate, when Brittney Griner was released to anti-vaxxers immediately exploiting Damar Hamlin’s collapse in that game against the Cincinnati Bengals. So has misinformation recently gotten worse in the sports world as we see more national and even global stories that bad actors try to exploit?
Absolutely, because I think one of the naïvetés of sports and sports fans is they try to act like sports and politics social issues are happening in two different universes, and they’re happening in the same universe. Obviously, one of the biggest issues in sports right now is how trans athletes are being treated. Within that, you have a lot of misinformation. You have a lot of debate that is very similar to what we would see, I hate to say the political arena ’cause I don’t consider humanitarian issues to be politics, but for the sake of this conversation, I’ll put them in that bucket. Some of the same conversations that you see happening about trans people period in this country or in the world are happening in sports.
They’re happening in the same way and with the same types of misinformation, with the same types of transphobia. It’s not any different. So because sports, it’s more out front because you know we’re living in this 24-hour news cycle, you have people covering it very intensely that people in sports or people who watch sports are seeing that there is no separation of the two. They try to deny it because as your point earlier, they want there to be that escapism in sports. When they watch the NFL, they don’t want to think about head trauma. They don’t want to think about how the NFL use race norming. They don’t want to think about the fact that the NFL’s never had a Black majority owner or the lack of Black coaches.
They don’t want to think about any of those things. They just want to watch their favorite team play. While I understand that, it’s also not realistic, particularly since the history of sports has shown us that sports has always been intersected with race, with gender, with politics, with culture, it’s always been in that space. So I think now as a sports journalist, it’s incumbent upon you that you cover these issues with these same level of attention, delicacy, care, fairness, as it is being covered in wider society. I don’t think today’s sports journalists can afford to be cowardly about these issues because that is how misinformation is allowed to persist even within the world of sports, especially with those issues that are being talked about across the country in corners that are not sports related.
Let’s talk about echo chambers, a common term used in the news literacy world where you’re fed information by algorithms that reflects and reinforces your existing beliefs regardless of whether that info is true or not. When it comes to sports, I think it’s understandable because for instance, I’m a Michigan fan and you’re a Michigan State fan. Google and Facebook and Twitter have all learned based on my follows and my likes and my browsing and that Michigan content keeps me on the platforms where they can serve me even more ads. I’m guessing, just guessing here that the same might be true for you with pro-Spartan’s content. But do you think it’s a stretch to say that sports help us normalize and accept being echo chambered? Do you think that has an effect on our other news consumption habits? Does that then translate to information that we seek out or are fed around more important issues than our favorite teams?
It is a little hard to decipher ’cause this is a chicken or the egg argument, and it is a little hard to decipher what influenced what more? Because certainly I think in sports, once sports media outlets figured out that you can have specialized aggregated content that directly appealed to people of a particular team or a particular athlete, it was a win from a consumer model for sure. But then you have to ask, “Well, obviously other media outlets in politics and news could look at the same thing and say, ‘Hmm, we could do something similar.'” I guess maybe debate shows is what I would look at as how much and how we talk about sports has now infected how we talk about politics. When I was at ESPN, and that was sort of the – I saw ushered in the era of the explosion of the debate show, like First Take and Around the Horn and PTI, all very good shows. But what I certainly noticed is that suddenly CNN, Fox, MSNBC, they started to develop shows that were very similar, that took some of the same elements to create networks and programming that focused more on debate than facts, arguments than facts.
Because these are such ratings bonanzas then that as a consumer, suddenly you don’t care so much about just the facts, ma’am, or just the news. It would be naive to think that that intentional marketing did not bleed over into news stories and tweets and the general algorithm understanding the general concept that people these days, especially as we become more tribal, as we become more insular, as we live more in vacuums and echo chambers that people just want to see the people that they like, the opinions they agree with, the things that make them comfortable, and that’s it. Unfortunately, when you do that, the downside is that there’s not much learning, and there’s not much growth, is that there are people, and we see it all the time that have plenty of opinions about things they have never actually looked into or investigated. I’ll take the trans athletes as a really big example to me, is I see a lot of people talking about protecting women’s sports and like, “We’re doing this to protect women’s sports, we got to make sure … ” None of them know how very few trans athletes are competing.
It’s such a minute number. So they literally have created this mass hysteria about trans athletes and trans people period has been created based off nothing. Unfortunately, once you have an opinion and once you decide it’s unfair for trans athletes to compete, it’s hard to get you off of that opinion because everything you’re consuming is telling you you are right. It’s justifying how you feel and justifying how you think. Even though I doubt very seriously any of them have read the medicine on this, any of them understand how puberty blockers actually work, any of them understand that at the Olympic level, there’s a very strict test in terms of testosterone levels. They don’t understand any of that. All they see is people start to thinking, Juwanna Man is a documentary,” and that’s what you’re stuck with in terms of trying to wade through and crack open that misinformation, and it’s hard. I think this is one of the most challenging times in media that we’ve ever experienced.
It’s definitely, definitely a challenge. I think one of the biggest issues we see in sports journalism, which is also a huge problem as we’ve talked about in the political news system, is content where consumers do not understand that difference between news and opinion and also the proliferation of programs and websites that blur the line. Do you think that’s at all intentional on the part of some of these sports sites to rile up sports fans and to boost traffic and gain social shares?
Oh, yeah. I think the business model now, because that’s what they’re paying attention to, has made it very enticing and profitable to traffic and outrage and to the more people that you can get screaming at each other, the more you can drive up traffic on the site or a particular story because of the complete dismantling of local news. To have media in such a for-profit, for click reality, it inevitably infects the content that you want. Investigative reporting is expensive, it’s really expensive, and you really have to be committed to it. You have to be okay with letting journalists investigate something for six, eight months a year to turn out one or two stories. That’s a hard bargain for people to come to terms with because they need output, they need constant eyes and traffic. One great story a year is not going to give them that on a consistent basis.
So then all of a sudden, the resources that used to be put into more long-form writing or long-form reporting, now you’re putting that into more portable bites, portable bites of opinion, of news, of things that people can consume quickly, get outraged about fast, and that can drive traffic to the site. So once journalism made the switch of playing to the crowd as opposed to reporting on what’s actually there, that further compromised the industry. Also, it’s compromised our democracy, because the main function of a healthy democracy is a free press. Now, if that free press has become so corporatized and under the pressures of corporate media, you’re not going to get the same level of accountability of the powers that be that you would if that weren’t the case. So inevitably, the business has become more central than the journalism.
But nobody likes to be fooled. Even when I think about parody sports sites and social accounts like Ballsack Sports, I can’t sit here and pull the average person who re-shares their content and think that they want to be fooled. Why are so many people falling for tweets about, for instance, Carmelo resigning with the Knicks? Why are these tweets and these posts taking off and being re-shared to the thousands within seconds?
Well, granted some of this, I remember this was a thing for a while, and it still happens where you have … and I think things are even trickier given where Twitter is where you had people with fake accounts of real reporters putting out news and saying things. A lot of it is that I think there is a gullibility there. When you play to information that you want to see, then it makes it that much easier. Michael Jordan is 700 years old, but I’m sure if some account nobody heard of started a rumor that Jordan was coming back, it would spread like wildfire within minutes. Some of it is how we get our news too. It’s like it used to be, “Okay, I’m going to turn on SportsCenter at 6:00 and that’s when I’m going to find out what’s going on.”
But now we’re in an age where people are more on their phones than they’re watching linear television, the fastest way to spread a rumor is through the phone. So once it gets spread there, you can’t undo it. There’s a willingness to believe in things that you want to see and a willingness to believe in things that already affirm what you already believe. I think as a consumer, people have gotten out of the habit of making sure information is credible. When I was coming up in journalism, there was a very high standard in terms of accuracy. You misspelled somebody’s name wrong, you had to write a correction. It appeared in the newspaper. It was a whole big process. As a journalist, you were embarrassed about the mistake. In today’s world, journalists aren’t that embarrassed or ashamed about making mistakes. So because of that, they can continually make them and still be considered a credible source.
Jake Lloyd :
Let’s pivot to education quickly. Even Matt, the guy who runs the Ballsack Sports account, the pin tweet he has is of a graphic he created of Damien Lillard, which he just put together in a few seconds. He used it as an example to try to get people to invest in media literacy and not believe every faked image that they see. What can we do to help sports fans not be fooled by the next imposter Woj (Adrian Wojnarowski) or Adam Schefter tweet or whatever platform they’re posting in months from now?
Well, I think there’s got to be a level of accountability that has to happen when these things are wrong, and the community has to hold each other responsible. We have to absorb some of this responsibility. Like before you retweet something, ask yourself, “Does this make sense?” Look at the account. Does that look like Adam Schefter? We have to start sort of going through our own checklist before we just willingly spread something. Unfortunately, that checklist doesn’t happen a lot. I think media outlets, especially legacy media outlets, can be leaders in that particular way. If they feel like there is accountability or at the very least there’s some kind of process in which something is reported, I think that makes people feel good about receiving credible information as opposed to something somebody’s cousin said on the internet.
So I think now more than ever, media outlets have to be as transparent as possible about how they report and about how they break stories and about, “Okay, this source here tells me this, blah, blah, blah.” I’m not saying you out your sources ’cause that’s not something that you do in general, but that’s why it’s important that when a media outlet makes a mistake, they take full accountability so that people can see there is a danger in passing along something that’s not true.
One thing we notice often with breaking news events or national stories that are developing is that bad actors and grifters slide into the information vacuum to spread conspiracy theories. I mentioned this because of the Andrew Wiggins story. The Golden State Warrior missed more than a month for personal reasons that were not reported on, but in this case, most reporters chose to be really sensitive to the personal matter and give him his space. It’s a really tricky situation. How do you think about sports stories like this and the balance between wanting to get the facts out while also respecting a person’s private life?
I think this is what’s tough, is that balancing the public’s thirst to know with you feeling like you can present credible information. I’d rather be slow than wrong, especially as it relates to somebody’s sensitive situation, whatever that may be. Because if you get that wrong or if you mischaracterize that, you don’t get that back. That eats at your credibility and the trust that you have. At least from what I saw of the reporting, you’re right, there was a long gap he was gone. While it was explained he was gone, Golden State certainly was not disclosing why he was gone. So what you hope as a journalist is that you have good enough sources that you can cultivate, sources you trust that will tell you what’s happening, that you can relate to the public. If you don’t have that, staying silent is always a good option because that’s something that we have to, as journalists, we constantly deal with.
It’s like, yeah, the public’s right to know versus my credibility. There’s got to be some middle ground where that I’m not putting my reputation on the line just for your need to know. It’s got to be true. You would prefer I tell you the truth and not a lie no matter how long it takes. So obviously once Wiggins came back, then you saw a little bit more reporting about what may have been the cause of why he was gone as long as he was. But again, unfortunately because of social media, because of the way digital media now works, I could create a blog tomorrow that is all about sports gossip. If I get something wrong, there’s no real consequence for me.
Yes, you could say the consequences that people don’t believe you, but we see blogs and digital sites report information that is wildly inaccurate all the time, and there’s no consequence, and they’re still up and they’re still operating. They still have thousands of followers and get millions of views. There’s no downside to them pedaling rumors or misinformation. The only accountability that can come from is from fans. I know me as a consumer is that if I am following a particular site or a Twitter feed that is a media outlet, and if I see constantly they’re getting stuff wrong, why would I still follow them? It’s like “I can’t believe anything you say, so what’s the value in it for me as a consumer?” I think that’s a question that we have to ask ourselves is, “Why are we continuing to support places that outright lie?”
That brings me to my last question, which really is, I think you balance, and a lot of others do this as well, balance the fun and the entertaining side of sports really well with also how serious issues are at the intersection of sports and basically name any other big story going on in the world. When you think about the future of sports journalism. What is the best case scenario for a news literate public where people are still able to have those bar stool conversations and debates, the kind of things that I love to just sit on the couch and talk with friends about while at the same time, valuing facts and not letting the sports information world devolve into what a lot of the misinformation crisis has become?
Well, I think the best case scenario is continuing to support and also continuing to grow outlets that do believe in having standards when it comes to reporting and journalistic credibility. It was great to see how much say The Athletic has grown. You have some of the best beat writers, columnists that write for this site. They have a very specific business model for sure, but you hope that that becomes a model for others that maybe want to get into sports media. So I think sports media really now just needs more balance. I think it’s over in debts with opinion. We need more reporting in sports, particularly more investigative reporting as the relationship between sports, media, politics, race, gender, and culture as that continues to expand. We need more actual journalists. So the best case scenario is that people see the financial viability in investing in sports journalism. That way that it’s not just a couple of sports outlets that are practicing it.
Because even that isn’t good because I think you still need independent journalists and independent organizations that are not ESPN, that are not Fox Sports. You need other places, ’cause at the end of the day, as big as ESPN and Fox Sports are, they’re in a financial relationship with the people that they supposedly cover. So while you know that yes, they do report on the news, but there’s something to be said for how that relationship impacts how they report and what they report on. So we need more independent media organizations covering sports, so I hope to see more of that. That to me, is the best case scenario. The worst case scenario is probably what we see now, or it continues to go and the direction that it’s going into where a lot of things are entertainment based, not really reporting based, debate based, not really reporting based. I think that there’s room for all of it. So I’m not saying I want to see some of these other places go away, I just need more balance so that every consumer need is being met.
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense and certainly something we can hope for in having a more news literate fan base, if you will, will also help. Jemele, I really appreciate you coming on and taking the time today on Is That a Fact? Thanks so much.
All right. Thank you for having me.
Is that a fact? is a production of the News Literacy Project, a nonpartisan education nonprofit building a national movement to create a more news-literate America. I’m your host, Darragh Worland. Our producer is Mike Webb, our editor is Timothy Kramer, and our theme music is by Eryn Busch. To learn more about the News Literacy Project, go to newslit.org.