Sports

I Read the Comments. Yikes.

photo by P. A. Jensen

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I wrote an opinion column in the Star Tribune that made a simple argument, albeit in a covert way (more on that later). The argument revolves around two main points. First, the coach of Minnesota’s WNBA team, Cheryl Reeve, has made many public statements advocating for inclusion of women and people of color in leadership positions, especially as coaches. These statements have included calls for “sacrifice” and “courage.”

Second, Reeve herself holds two jobs – head coach and general manager of the Lynx – that are typically held by two different people. I say “typically” here in the sense of professional sports in general, as about half of the twelve WNBA teams are led by coach/GM combos, and it’s not unheard of in the NBA, even if it’s uncommon. It’s rare in the other three major professional sports in the US.

These two inarguable points lend themselves to a little syllogism: if Reeve herself wants more people of color in leadership positions, and if she holds two leadership positions commonly held by two separate people, then she should just give one of her jobs to a woman of color. Easy-peasy.

Or not, apparently.

Now, before we get underway with the good stuff, I’ll make a note about the style, or covertness, of the column itself. I’ve submitted a few columns to a few outlets making similar arguments in the past, and those have gone unnoticed and unpublished. Interestingly, those columns made arguments along the lines of “Hey, if this is true, then this should be true, too, and anybody who doesn’t see the contradiction should rethink her positions.” Did I mention that these went unpublished?

So, to shake things up, I wrote this column without the “told you so” feel. To be clear, I didn’t lie, and this isn’t a hoax: I just didn’t chastise the positions themselves as nonsensical, even if they were. A reader would probably assume that I championed the cause that Reeve claims to champion, even though that’s not true – it just goes unaddressed, and I’m polite about things, to boot.

But it also doesn’t matter: Reeve said what she said, and because she said it, she’s kinda painted herself into a corner, logically. I decided to point that out using honey instead of vinegar, is all.

Anyway, the responses to the column self-sort into a few themes of varying levels of cleverness and intrigue. First are the throwaways that are inevitable among anonymous comments on the Internet: I’m a “misogynist,” for example (because Reeve is a woman, and because I didn’t similarly challenge the coaches of the other major professional teams in the state, who are male – more on this later). Or, a little more interestingly, but only barely: I shouldn’t tell other people how to live their lives, never minding the fact that I’m merely repeating Reeve’s words back to her.

Or, most interesting of the least interesting: that giving away one’s job to someone else based strictly on diversity quotas is a stupid idea. Ironically, I agree, but I don’t really fault the reader for being confused, largely because my honey-not-vinegar mode of delivery might have made it seem as though I supported Reeve’s position. I don’t. So, I chalk that up to attacking me as if I’m a social justice warrior when, in fact, I’m not – I’m just speaking about social-justice issues more neutrally than people who disagree with them usually do. I’ll consider that an odd flavor of friendly fire.

But some of the comments are more interesting. One theme is that I, as a white male, should then give up my job – or “journalism career,” as one put it – to a person of color, too, and my failure to do so demonstrates my own hypocrisy. Ha. This is pretty laughable, for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is I’ve never publicly advocated for inclusion of people of color in journalism, so it’s not a parallel to Reeve’s case. Also, to say that I have a “journalism career” at all is odd, if understandable. Sure, the column was printed in the biggest newspaper in a major media market, but it was published under the “New Voices” initiative (a sort of affirmative action program for new writers, best I can tell), and my bio says that I run a blog, which these days means nothing. And if you saw the traffic analytics for Rurality Check, “nothing” comes pretty close to the truth.

To put a finer point on it, even if I had made comments about social justice and therefore were indeed susceptible to calls for hypocrisy (again, I haven’t, so I’m not), I’ve merely started a little blog just like literally millions of other people have – this is far from holding a coveted job in professional sports, as Reeve does. Bloggers are not a finite, exclusive pool, either: nothing’s stopping any nobody from starting a blog and submitting opinion columns for free (evidence: I’ve done exactly these things), but one can’t just wander the Internet in one’s pajamas and cheaply buy one’s way into a head-coaching job of a WNBA team. So, you know, apples and kumquats, or something.

(Side note: one commenter asked, apparently as some sort of “gotcha,” if I have ever given up a job in the name of social justice. Hm. Well, I left a tenured professorship that was subsequently filled by a woman – in a STEM field. Does that count? I’m told it does. Gotcha back at’cha, I guess?)

One more ratchet-click to the left were the comments declaring that I, as a white man, had no business commenting on social justice issues at all, let alone the career of a woman. This is more troubling, even if it’s silly. I chalk it up to confusion about a well-meaning point about diversity: while it’s probably true that people of diverse backgrounds will produce a greater diversity of ideas than would a monolith of white men, conclusions about scrutiny of those ideas don’t seem to follow, logically. That is, while I might subscribe to the idea that the generation of more diverse ideas is a good thing in the pursuit of some sort of Truth, capitalized – and maybe, therefore, that hiring more diverse people is a good thing – I don’t see how that leads us to a place where the ideas themselves are sheltered from scrutiny from certain groups. The opposite would be true, actually: if anything, in the name of diversity we would want more diverse viewpoints scrutinizing ideas in general, to more assuredly approach consensus, or maybe Truth. So, when I merely parrot a woman’s views, I’m adding to the diversity of the crowd talking about those ideas. Good for “diversity,” no?

Puzzlingly, of course, the column is written in a way that isn’t clear that I’m scrutinizing the ideas at all, or even the person. And even if the column is viewed as sarcastic, it’s not so much scrutinizing the ideas as demanding that the speaker hold herself to them. So, for some people, not only is who says the idea more important than the content of those ideas, but an idea can become stained when the Wrong People simply repeat the ideas of the Right People. Or something.

So, comments of this stripe seem to boil down to an exclusivity argument wrapped in language of inclusivity, which, sadly, is too common in our discussions of diversity, and maybe on the political left in general. It’s racist, or sexist, really, and people, plural, felt emboldened to write it in plain language, even if anonymously. Seems regressive, not progressive. Sigh.

This brings us to the non-anonymous comment, a letter to the editor from one Barb Lutz that the paper published the following week. I have to say that I couldn’t have written a better synopsis of the confused thinking regarding the issue of diversity in coaching – I wonder if a sympathetic reader wrote it as a troll, but I doubt it, if only because I wonder if anyone would be that bored.

The letter is four paragraphs, and the first is a pretty fair synopsis of the argument in general, at least after a sardonic comment that she “doesn’t know where to start.” The wheels fall off immediately thereafter. After a throwaway “Really?” to start the second paragraph, Ms. Lutz asks why I didn’t also call on Geno Auriemma, the legendary white, male coach of UConn’s women’s basketball team, to resign his job in the name of social justice.

Again, right back at’cha: Really? One wonders where to start.

Mr. Auriemma may be the single worst comparison to the Reeve example – both cruxes of the argument don’t apply to him. First, and most obviously, he doesn’t hold two jobs: he coaches women’s college basketball, which doesn’t have separate coaches and general managers. Asking someone to give up his only job is different from asking someone to give up one of her jobs – that’s the biggest reason to single out Reeve in the first place. So, it’s apples and kumquats again, right from the start.

More interestingly, Mr. Auriemma has made some (in)famous comments about why there aren’t more female coaches. (He hypothesizes a lack of interest due to grueling schedules and the need to move around the country.) This got him into some hot water. This is the opposite of championing “social justice.”

Throw in that the Star Tribune probably wouldn’t publish something about a coach half a country away in its Opinion pages (especially from a nobody writer – “journalism career” or not), and it’s tough to see a worse comparison. No matter – let’s press on.

Ms. Lutz continues with some statistics about how half of the coaches in the WNBA are male, and all of the NBA coaches are. This is true. Also, I don’t see how it’s relevant. I suppose that this means that the sex ratio of coaches would skew further female if, rather than Coach Reeve, a male coach would resign and give his job to a woman of color. I suppose that’s true, too.

But I’m not advocating for more female coaches, really. I’m pointing out that the woman who wants more women of color in leadership positions in the WNBA is, as a white woman, herself holding two leadership positions in the WNBA. The shifted focus to sex ratios seems like a dodge from the real issue: the contrast between Coach Reeve’s statements and her (lack of) action. The sex ratio of coaches doesn’t change whether Coach Reeve is behaving hypocritically, or whether she can help solve the problem she claims to think is so dire.

Next comes more of the same, where Ms. Lutz claims outright that Coach Reeve is “not taking jobs from women of color. Men are.” Sadly, and obviously, these aren’t mutually exclusive: They all are, yes? But one of them, at least, is making comments about sacrificing to include more women of color, which seems inconsistent. Hence the column.

This is where the letter takes a fun twist. After citing statistics about the coaches in professional basketball (where the coaches in the women’s game are 50-50), Ms. Lutz pivots back to college basketball to cite that “Division I athletic directors are 90% male,” and that “Men hire men in sports positions because that’s who they are comfortable with.” She follows with “That’s human nature, and you can’t ignore it.”

Like the singling out of Auriemma, this is an unfortunate choice. 63% of Division I women’s basketball head coaches are female. So, by Ms. Lutz’s reading of human nature, the majority of white, male athletic directors hire… women? It’s exactly backwards.

You can ignore it, apparently.

We wrap up with a few baffling parting shots. Lutz says that I suggest that Reeve be “penalized (for her success) at the height of her amazing career.” I say no such thing, of course: I merely repeat Reeve’s words back to her, juxtaposed with her choice to hold two jobs. If it’s a penalty, it would be self-imposed. I’m not suggesting anything – Reeve herself is.

Lutz saves the best for last: she ends with a “by the way, Mr. Jensen” that alerts me to the fact that “very few coaches select their successor [sic].” See, I outlined in the column that Reeve, as the general manager, would probably choose her successor as a head coach – I think that scenario would qualify as one of the “very few coaches who select their successors.”

Regardless, even if she recused herself from the search, one can rest assured that if a woman at the height of her career in professional basketball held a press conference demanding that her job be taken by a woman of color (which would undoubtedly receive national media coverage, both from the sports media and from the news media generally), I’m guessing the resulting hire wouldn’t be someone named, say, Ole Swenseid.

Again, sigh.

So, what to think? If the letter the Trib chose to publish is the best letter it got, the argument in the original column seems to have escaped unscathed. Instead, there was much screeching about the column (I haven’t mentioned the goings-on on Twitter) that redirected attention to the irrelevant, or the confused, or the ad hominem. But we knew this.

It’s tough to make firm conclusions from people writing anonymously in the comments, and even from a letter to the editor, but they seem to mirror a pattern that we see online: a lot of the rhetoric swirling around the issues of diversity and inclusion is confusing, probably because the logic is itself confused, and the statements from leaders are self-contradictory. Or, maybe they’re just hollow P.R., or virtue-signaling, or – best case – aspirational, with no intent of acting out right now.

The conclusion? Press onward, undeterred. You know, in the name of Truth, and the diversity of views. These things are important, I’m told.

Anonymously.

 

 

 

P. A. Jensen (@P_A_Jensen) lives in Minnesota with his wife and son.

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