Blogs With Balls 6 in Chicago Wednesday was one of the most impressive editions of the conference overall, and certainly one of the most memorable. The conference’s closing panel on athletes and social activism in particular (my full notes on it are available here) delivered some fireworks, with a heated conversation that was further stirred up with interruptions from Deadspin editor Tim Marchman. It’s not unusual for BWB panels to see some forceful debate (this year’s Chicago panel had some of that, particularly about Barstool Sports, and previous years’ conferences had seen debate over everything from Deadspin to Bleacher Report to the NHL media), and it’s not even that unusual for audience members to start some of that debate (past examples include Spencer Hall and Brian Cook filibustering Jason McIntyre and Cam Charron going after the Pro Hockey Talk guys at BWB5), but the combination here was on a new level. The panel produced some fascinating conversations and was valuable overall, but the way it played out may prompt some changes the next time around.

Why was this so controversial? Well, a panel of on athletes and social activism would have fireworks potential regardless of who was involved, but this particular panel’s composition seemed to create a confrontational atmosphere on its own. The logical choices for it were Chris Kluwe (the former NFL punter and current writer), Cyd Zeigler (Outsports.com), Greg Howard (Deadspin), and Julie DiCaro (Chicago’s 670 The Score), plus Kevin Blackistone (ESPN/University of Maryland) as moderator; all have substantial experience writing about the social issues around sport. The unusual choice was Aaron Harison of the Washington Free Beacon, a paper he said he started to cover Democrats the same way the New York Times and The Washington Post cover Republicans. (And he didn’t mean with journalistic fairness.) Harison made it very clear he was largely against the others’ positions on athletes expressing themselves, arguing “sports should be sports.”

While having a dissenting view can be valuable, Harison’s position was so hardline (and not particularly well-supported) that it not only limited what he brought to the table, it meant the others spent much of their time trying to refute his straw men instead of having a more nuanced discussion about the differences between their own views. This wasn’t aided by Marchman’s repeated interruptions from the floor to troll Harison, but the rest of the panel eventually convinced him to wait for the question and answer period at the end. The panel could have benefited from either having someone (or two people so one wasn’t ganged up on) with a smarter and more nuanced take on why athlete activism isn’t all good, or from not representing that extreme side at all and allowing the other participants to explore the specific areas where they don’t agree. Tabbing Harison felt like a straw man itself, providing someone who was so easy to disagree with that the nuance was lost. There may be an argument to be made for the downsides of having athletes be activists, but he wasn’t the guy to make it.

Despite that panel composition issue, there were still some excellent points made. Early on, Harison tried to make the case that Jackie Robinson accomplished activism solely with on-field play and that others should follow his example, saying  “He wasn’t out there doing the Michael Sam reality show. You let your actions speak for your words.” Howard nicely refuted that, pointing out that it’s not just about incredibly talented players like Robinson, but also those more on the margins. He also noted that telling athletes to shut up is declaring them to be less-valuable humans. “Athletes are people too. They can have political opinions too.” Ziegler also later specifically refuted Harison’s assertions about Sam, calling him out for the kind of “lazy opinion” he’d criticized elsewhere.

Kluwe may have been the star of the panel, as he made a compelling case for a view not often discussed in this context, arguing that athletes who say nothing on societal issues are still having a political impact, but just one that supports the entrenched power structures and the status quo. Harison said boycotting Chik-Fil-A over the owners’ support of anti-gay marriage causes was dumb, saying “It’s a shitty way to live your life if you’re judging your chicken sandwiches based on the owners’ position.” Kluwe’s response was a smart takedown of Harison’s firm anti-boycott stance, saying “The society we live in is shaped by those people. If you’re saying other people should not politically oppose that, you’re giving the power to the status quo.”

This did show the perils with Harison as a panelist, though. There’s not much of a discussion to have with someone who thinks all boycotts based on owners’ politics are always totally wrong, but there could have been a more interesting discussion about “Where do you draw that line?” given that many corporations’ activities are problematic to some. Ziegler did later make the valuable point that not everyone fully aligns their fandom with their stance on social issues, saying that Tony Dungy’s fundraising for anti-gay organizations didn’t cause all gay people to abandon the Colts. “My business partner at Outsports is a gay man who loves the Colts. He didn’t change his team. Fandom is irrational.” If Harison had been interested in a more nuanced discussion along those lines, he would have made a better panelist.

Kluwe also made a passionate case for letting athletes speak out, saying  “We are human beings as well. We would like to use that voice the way everyone else gets to use that voice. We’re gladiators. Go forth and bleed in the arena. And then shut your f**king mouth. That’s bullshit.” Harison responded by saying Kluwe being cut by the Vikings was his own fault for being such an activist. “You did create a circus around yourself and played a position that’s replaceable.” (It’s notable that Kluwe also said later he believes he was cut for his views, saying “”If you speak up, and you’re not a Tom Brady or a LeBron James, teams can find reasons to replace you.” His interpretation of the “circus” is rather different, though.) Kluwe then brought this around to Floyd Mayweather, saying that Harison’s “sports should be sports” stance would completely ignore Mayweather’s domestic abuse record. “You’re saying that we don’t have to care that Floyd Mayweather is a serial abuser of women because he can box really well.” He followed that up with perhaps the line of the day, blasting noted Mayweather enabler Stephen A. Smith: “First Take is huge, it makes a ton of money, it’s dragging us straight towards Idiocracy.”

Another notable discussion on the panel was when the conversation turned to Jameis Winston. DiCaro took exception with media like Pro Football Talk reporting and not challenging Lovie Smith’s comments that Winston had been cleared, saying “He has not been exonerated by the court system.” Harison complained that “He hasn’t been convicted,” DiCaro shot back that “Most rapists aren’t convicted. Most domestic abusers are not convicted,” and Harison made perhaps his best comment of the day, asking DiCaro “What’s your alternative?” That led to a good, nuanced discussion of the court system, the extrajudicial review process the NFL has brought in (which DiCaro said has promise), and whether there’s a right to play in the NFL. DiCaro said “This idea that there’s some kind of right to play in the NFL, that’s not true at all. Teams can choose who they want to be associated with.” That’s true, and it probably deserved more discussion; what exactly should get a player completely barred from a league? For example, the CFL’s done that with Ray Rice  and probably should have done that with Lawrence Phillips. Are there other cases where it’s justified, and where’s the line?

Blackistone did a good job of moderating throughout, asking intriguing questions, and one particularly interesting one he came up with was if NFL players are being made scapegoats for domestic violence, something with few consequences in wider society (especially for the well-off; he brought up the case of former Radium One CEO Gurbaksh Chahal, who was fired after pleading guilty to domestic battery, but is still involved in the corporate world and hasn’t seen nearly the firestorm of criticism some NFL players have.) Howard said the issue isn’t that NFL players get too much attention for it, it’s that others get too little. “Anyone who gets trashed or thrown in a hole for hitting a woman in the face deserves it,” he said. “It should probably be mirrored in the real world, especially for how easy it is for those with means to get away with it.” Ziegler said media coverage and NFL punishments are dictated by public pressure, and Kluwe said with so many NFL players being accused of domestic violence, the focus should be not just on their individual cases, but on the circumstances that led them there; their socioeconomic background, their family experience, their high school and college experiences, their interactions with law enforcement and more. “If you only focus on curing the symptoms, you’re never going to cure the underlying disease and things will never change.”

A valuable point Howard made was that while it’s important to allow athletes the freedom to be activists and be political, we shouldn’t expect every one of them to be passionate about causes. “If you don’t have anything to say, that’s okay too,” he said. “If you recognize the humanity in athletes, it’s a lot easier for you to not look up at them as freedom fighters. They’re mostly guys in their 20s like me who don’t know shit about shit.”

The panel ended with a discussion of what the panelists thought of sports media’s coverage of social issues. Harison unsurprisingly criticized it, saying “I think a lot of the media’s very lazy,” with one guy writing about something and everyone following suit, and calling it “superficial analysis.” DiCaro said she thought the coverage has been good, with the expansion of media in general and blogs in particular adding to the discussion. “I think the blogs are doing a much better job than mainstream media on some issues. And that’s because you don’t have as many people to go through.” Howard called for increased diversity in the media ranks to expand perspectives, and he and DiCaro both said it’s problematic how many seem to view video (whether of police brutality or domestic abuse) as necessary for a conviction or punishment from a team or league.

Harison went on to say that proper investigative journalism is expensive, which Marchman took issue with in a filibustered question that was more of a commentary that “Anyone can do investigative journalism!” He’s right, but only for certain kinds of investigative journalism. Deadspin’s accomplished some remarkable stories over the years, such as the Manti Te’o scoop, largely through primarily-online digging, but that doesn’t work in all cases. Harison’s response that “It can be very expensive to do an investigation the right way” is also correct in some cases.

At the end of the panel, Blogs With Balls co-founder and organizer Don Povia took the stage to wrap up the conference, saying that the panel provided a good discussion while expressing discontent with some of the incivility, but also concluding “This is why we do this, to have conversations like this.” On one level, absolutely. This was an important and extremely relevant current topic, and the panel covered a lot of valuable ground, from athlete advocacy to LGBT issues to athletes who get in trouble with the law to protests against police to sports media’s coverage of social issues. There were a lot of important points made, and most of the panelists offered useful insights.

Harison’s inclusion lowered the tone and value of the discussion, though, leading to lots of debate of strawman issues rather than actual nuance, and Marchman’s repeated interruptions made the panel unnecessarily disruptive and combative. The latter is far from the organizers’ fault, but there are some measures they could take to reduce that at future events; they could emphasize further that there will be time for audience questions at the end (and expand that allotted time for controversial panels likely to produce questions; the audience questions are often the best parts of these panels, but they don’t always get enough time), and they could publicly discourage mid-panel interruptions.

As per putting people like Harison on panels, that’s something that’s definitely within the organizers’ power to address. By and large, they did a fantastic job of finding panelists this year; everyone had something to offer, and no one other than Harison really stood out as an odd choice, which hasn’t always been the case at past events. This shouldn’t discourage Blogs With Balls from taking on controversial topics; there’s substantial value to be had here, and this was one of the most interesting panels of the day. If they’re going to include a dissenting viewpoint, though, that viewpoint should be more eloquent and nuanced and less strictly in opposition to what everyone else on the panel believes. This panel was good overall, but it could have been improved either by leaving Harison off (and having the other side come through the questions posed by Blackistone, which it somewhat did) and focusing on where these panelists differed, or by finding someone who could articulate the other side’s views in a more thoughtful and nuanced way. This was an interesting discussion, but it could have been even better with a slightly different panel.

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz is a staff writer for Awful Announcing.