LeBron James is everything that’s wrong with basketball. Derek Jeter is everything that’s right with baseball. Athletes who hold out for bigger contracts are selfish crybabies, and billionaire sports franchise owners aren’t. The most valuable players are gutsy and gritty, not naturally-talented and flashy.
Any given sports fan has spent hours of their life sifting through opinions like these. There’s something that drives certain sport writers to offer moralizing, sanctimonious takes at every possible opportunity. “Good” athletes are tough guys who make the most of their talent. They’re leaders and they never stop hustling. “Bad” athletes are showboating malcontents. When things start to go south for the team, these guys only look out for themselves.
None of this is wrong, in and of itself, it’s just that these attributes are assigned quite arbitrarily. That’s the fallacy of it all: For whatever reason, short, overachieving white guys are often more celebrated than their superstar teammates that win games.
Fortunately, there have long-existed people who call out these “hot takes,” as they’re now known.
In 2005, a group of baseball-obsessed friends started FireJoeMorgan.com, a blog with the tagline “Where Bad Sports Journalists Come to Die.” Using pseudonyms, the writers of FJM hilariously skewered sports media members who put forth obnoxious arguments without facts to back them up. The site was so influential that bloggers today still partake in “FJMing”—that is, destroying bad columns in FJM’s signature style. The site went dark in 2008.
Fear not, though. Today’s internet is better than ever at calling out bad sports writing of all kinds. @PFTCommenter, a Twitter personality and writer at NFL humor website KissingSuzyKolber.com, is an elaborate satire of the toughness-obsessed, lib-hating goons that wage war in internet comment sections.
A @PFTCommenter tweet from March 4 regarding 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s contract negotiations should give you an idea of his shtick: “only thing more backwords then Crapernicks contract demands is his hat folks,” he wrote. While @PFTCommenter’s signature misspellings and race baiting are often laugh-out-loud funny, his outlandish diatribes are scarily similar to those of many NFL superfans.
On the other end of the hot take spectrum is Gregg Easterbrook, a well-credentialed writer who writes a weekly ESPN column during the NFL season. Easterbrook is something of a snob, and he’s quick to proclaim his intellectual and moral superiority over, well, anyone who isn’t him.
Deadspin’s Drew Magary pokes fun at Easterbrook in his weekly NFL feature in a segment called “Gregg Easterbrook is a Haughty Dipshit.” Easterbrook is an easy target—his writing begs to be mocked and he’s not exactly strapped for cash—but I asked Magary if he ever felt bad for the relentless teasing, anyway.
“Oh sure, sometimes,” Magary told me in an email. “I try my best to balance the karma by ripping myself and leaving myself open for goofing. I’ve gone too far in the past and I do my best now to rein it in so I don’t become utterly repellent. People tend to have good moral radars and will let you know if you’ve overstepped your bounds.”
Today’s most prominent purveyor of tongue-in-cheek hot takes is Grantland’s Andrew Sharp, whose parodic #HotSportsTakes column reads like a hacky sports writer’s greatest hits. He first wrote the column—then called Troll Tuesdays—for SB Nation in 2012.
“We saw a lot of columns that were clearly just thrown out there to get people all pissed off,” Sharp told me in an email. “So one day my editor, Spencer Hall, came up with the idea that we’d start writing stuff that was openly trolling readers, just to see what happens. He asked me to write the first one, and for some reason I decided to write it in the voice of a ’70s sports writer, so then that became part of the series, too. And it just sort of took off from there.”
Sharp’s Troll Tuesday columns celebrated Notre Dame football and Lance Armstrong, and derided March Madness Cinderellas and even Santa Claus. Since he moved to Grantland last year, Sharp’s #HotSportsTakes have questioned whether Richard Sherman should’ve been allowed to play in the Super Bowl and suggested that the Broncos dump Peyton Manning.
One particularly smoldering take that praised Duke University’s much slobbered-over head coach Mike Krzyzewski was so convincing that it got posted to Coach K’s official Facebook page. Oops.
I asked Sharp for a sure-fire formula that would produce only the hottest of takes.
“Some feigned concern for the future of America and sports fans, that would be number one,” he wrote. “Horrible puns and jokes are key. Some completely tone deaf celebration of scrappy athletes as icons, and most importantly, some dehumanizing commentary on star athletes who screw up.
“Like if guys make a mistake or lose a big game or do anything controversial, the hot take move is to question the entire character or soul, and then tie it to some generational decline and get all paternalistic, lecturing grown men about values.”
I’d add that hot takes usually include a few scorching, single-sentence paragraphs.
Such takedowns of bad writing are now so ubiquitous that some are wondering if they’re becoming more common than the pieces they mock.
“I think that most sports writers are so primed now for the backlash to their HOT SPROTS TAKES that they don’t even bother to write the hot take to begin with,” Magary wrote on Deadspin a few weeks back. “We’re basically writing Richard Sherman columns in response to a backlash that never actually arrives.... The strong take well is drying up.”
“Drew and I actually talked about that a few months ago,” Sharp told me. “I definitely think we’ve seen a drop-off, at least at the national level. At this point, I’m parodying columns that don’t totally exist anymore, but it’s too fun to come up with awful puns, so I’ll keep it going a little longer.”
Now that Twitter and blogs have been in the mainstream public consciousness for years, it’s certainly possible that writers are listening to internet criticism. Pardon the usage of a quintessential hot take phrase, but it begs the question: Have the internet crusades against bad sports writing successfully eliminated their target?
“To a certain extent it probably has helped shitty sports writers be more aware of their shittiness. I dunno that it stops them,” said Magary. “It’s really more for personal entertainment. I can’t justify it as a civil service, honestly.”
“Whether it’s improved sports writing by shaming people? I don’t think so, but it’s been fun to screw around,” said Sharp. “The only reason I have kept doing it is because it’s fun.
“I will say it’s improved my sports writing, because I’m more conscious of not being a lazy hack with things. Regardless, sports writing in 2014 is great or horrible depending on who you read, and I’m pretty sure that’s always been true.”