The note The Athletic sent to a commenter who said he'd like more diversity on their panels.

At first, a commenting system that removes comments flagged by multiple users sounds positive; theoretically, you avoid a lot of problematic comments without having to invest resources in moderation. But there are problems there too; what if users just choose to flag something they disagree with, and what if there’s no human oversight to counteract that? That appears to be what happened with The Athletic Wednesday, where they had a rather public faceplant by removing a comment to their own request for feedback about their Q+A live panels, a comment that said the user would like to see more diverse panelists; more people of color, more women, and more women of color.

That’s a comment that’s somewhat critical of the site and who it has chosen to hire, but it’s really hard to picture that as violating the site’s code of conduct. And questions about The Athletic’s diversity have been raised many times before, both externally and internally. Nuking a comment questioning that (and not one just on a random article, but on one specifically asking for feedback about their live panels, where this is absolutely a relevant comment) isn’t a great look. For what it’s worth, the site eventually sent Smith an apology for removing his comment.

And in a response to a query from Awful Announcing, a spokesperson for The Athletic reiterated via email that this removal was automatic, that it was a mistake, and that they’ll look to overhaul their procedures in the future.

– Currently, user comments are automatically deleted after three users flag them. This policy usually helps The Athletic maintain its community standards in an efficient manner, but sometimes users will flag comments that are actually not in violation of our code of conduct. We’re currently evaluating the way comments are reviewed, but in the meantime welcome all user feedback, positive or negative. Users can also submit feedback at any time directly with our customer support team.

– The comment in question was not a violation of our code of conduct and was removed via the user flagging process (a process we are currently evaluating.)

– We have apologized directly to the user and are committed to improving our community management going forward.

– The Athletic remains committed to a diverse editorial workforce. We are also dedicated to making The Athletic the best place to work for the world-class team of more than 300 writers and editors who have decided to join The Athletic over the last three years.

This comment deletion coming from an automatic system rather than an on-staff moderator is less problematic than it would be if someone on-staff at The Athletic had actively deleted this, or if they had stood by that deletion after criticism. And maybe this will provide further incentive for them to look at changing that comment system. But it’s still not great for this to happen, especially at a company that has regularly bragged about its commenters and its comment section.

And while it’s better for The Athletic that it was its subscribers rather than its staffers shooting down discussions of diversity in hiring, that’s still not a great look, and one that doesn’t say good things about the subscribers who flagged this. And it goes to show that just relying on commenters to moderate comments carries its own perils.

[Kevin Smith on Twitter]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.