There’s this Sopranos episode I love, titled, “The Fleshy Part of the Thigh.” In it, Bobby “Bacala” Baccalieri, an affable soldier for the Soprano family, opportunistically advertises his peculiar services. Bacala is at the hospital because his boss, Tony Soprano, got shot. While there, Bobby runs into an up-and-coming rapper named Marvin, who’s also at the hospital to visit a wounded superior. Marvin’s boss, a rapper named Da Lux, is recovering in style, having significantly grown in fame and stature on account of getting hit by a few shells. Marvin feels left behind by the Da Lux fame train, so Bobby makes him an offer: How about Marvin trust a steady Italian gangster like Mr. Baccalieri to shoot him in a relatively harmless way? Done right, Marvin gains credibility while ending up little worse for wear. Ace shot Bobby Bacala knows how to fire into the ass, er, “fleshy part of the thigh” if you’re selling it to a status-conscious customer. Marvin pays the cost, both monetary and corporally, screaming, “He shot me in my ass!” after Bacala does the deed. In order to gain respect, Marvin, and to a certain extent earnings-desperate Bobby, debase themselves.
This episode was inspired by the meteoric rise of 50 Cent in the mid-aughts, whose “got shot nine times” biography was part of his path to prominence. Those were simpler days. We weren’t inundated with a constant stream of information, so people retained the ability to be shocked and impressed by a newcomer’s biographical detail. Also, apparently, a newcomer could demonstrate bonafides as a fascinating desperado by suffering real costs in the real world from a real enemy, who was also risking a lot by taking the shot. As 50 Cent rapped in “Many Men (Wish Death)” about his since-deceased would-be assassin, “Now it's clear that I'm here, for a real reason, 'cause he got hit like I got hit, but he ain't fucking breathing.”
The path to wounded notoriety is much softer these days, at least physically. As I mulled the difficult decision of whether to leave The Athletic, more than a few people told me I should become the victim of a metaphorical hit. “You should get fired,” was the advice I’d get from peers and mentors. It would start off as half-kidding, and then ramp up to, “No, seriously. You should get fired. Do it.”
The idea was simple, really. Give a controversial take, either internally or externally, get booted and disavowed, profit off the attention as an independent creator. Play it perfect and reap what I’ll call the Outlaw’s Publicity.
But wait. This is insane, both the plan and the world in which the plan makes sense. What rip in the time-space continuum made such an absurd play even viable? What’s going on in journalism where it’s theoretically a) trivially easy to get fired for voicing an opinion and b) also easy to gain profitable notoriety from the result.
Juxtapose the gothic stakes of “Many Men” against what gains you the outlaw’s publicity today, and it’s just funny what passes for publicly risky. These days, an aspiring famous person’s name recognition likely sees a far bigger bump from cancellation than from literally getting shot. Back in the aughts, celebrities got cancelled on occasion — Janet Jackson and the Dixie Chicks come to mind — but it wasn’t a constant news cycle category and it certainly wasn’t a fate for the relatively obscure. Small sample data point, but my wife’s a teacher and had never heard of DaBaby until kids on the playground were arguing over his cancellation. While DaBaby’s short-term fame has increased, I doubt he likes the result, seeing as shows of his have been literally cancelled. Metaphorically, DaBaby did not get shot in the fleshy part of the thigh. If he’s leaving the reputational hospital, it might not be under his own power.
Sometimes bones get hit, and sometimes organs. Your capacity for recovery and rehabilitation also matters. Are you J.K. Rowling? That can be helpful. But it’s always painful. Shame is abstract to the observer, but searingly real to the shamed. To quote Aaron Sorkin’s take on bad publicity, “It’s like seasickness. You think you’re gonna die, and everyone else just thinks it’s funny.” It’s why people are terrified into opinion compliance without some enforcer threatening to fire a shot. Few want the penalties for going against the conventional wisdom of the moment, even if the cost is bloodless.
Most normal people intuit that the psychological cost of stepping out of bounds simply isn’t worth it. We’ve evolved this exquisite sensitivity to a mob’s rage. That was useful in an ancient village setting because you needed to know when the other villagers might throw an actual rock at your head. Now, the digital mob inspires those powerful, evolutionarily acquired sensations, even if none of them are within 10 miles of your person. You can attempt imperviousness, like overconfident celebrities believing they can withstand the spicy chicken challenge of that Hot Ones interview show, but cancellation brings intense pain as reliably as capsaicin.
And yet, the people who told me to get fired over some controversy weren’t wrong, in terms of pure strategy. Martyrdom can be profitable in the pundit world, especially on this platform, provided you get hit in the fleshy part and you’ve enough hide to take the hit. You’ve seen the stories. Matthew Yglesias had some turbulence at Vox, finds massive success on Substack. Similar trajectory with Andrew Sullivan exiting New York Magazine. Bari Weiss got hounded out of the New York Times by all these young Slackobins. Now she’s on Substack, raking it in. Antonio García Martínez’s hot new Substack has built in publicity from his having been cancelled out of Apple.
Was I persecuted like the writers mentioned in the above paragraph? The answer is an emphatic “no.” Unfortunately, people were nice to me at The Athletic. To my great chagrin, I was treated with respect, probably more than I deserved. While it was fun to mull just how I might transgress in such a way that I a) got fired and b) maintained enough standing to cash in on the controversy, I couldn’t imagine actually orchestrating my own demise at an institution that had done well by me.
So, I shrugged my shoulders and asked out of a multiyear contract. In other words, I’ve now shot myself in the ass, in plain view of God and everybody, against all common sense. There is no outlaw’s publicity to be had, because I wasn’t a victim of anything. I did it to myself, for reasons that were initially beyond my own understanding.
So why did I do this?
I did it for the same reason that so many of you are doing it or at least considering some version of this move. I’ve read terms like “the great resignation” and seen enough anecdotal evidence to conclude that this isn’t some fake trend dreamed up by a few millennial bluechecks. The pandemic shook loose any lingering illusion of assured societal improvement. It turns out that we live within increasingly ill-managed chaos. For some of us, that realization has led to a hunger for some form of control if not total autonomy.
I know a guy who’s giving up his high-level management job at one of the major tech companies to become a programmer for a small aerospace firm. To my ears, both jobs sound fancy and beyond my understanding, but apparently this is a huge step down in status. “Everyone thinks I’m crazy,” he says, shaking his head in half-amazement at becoming his own usurper. I think he’s being remarkably sane in an insane time, but does that hold true for me?
Maybe. I just believed I had to do this. Principally, I felt myself getting worse at my job if I lingered. Basketball writing might be a low stakes field, but it’s also an intensely competitive field. The people who make a decent living off it could probably fit in one auditorium. And if you’re not 100% engaged, you’re speaking to an audience that is, on average, more engaged than you are. Fans are passionate, plus they’re constantly pooling their collective knowledge on NBA Reddit and other social media sites. These fans expect you to not only match but exceed their engagement level and that’s not an unreasonable expectation. They do this in their spare time; you do this for a living.
Over the pandemic, I felt my own engagement level slip. Once the high stakes of life became clearer, it just got harder to lock in. Civilization is melting down and I’m ignoring my son in the evenings to watch … something called the “NBA Bubble”? What was the point of this?
That’s how I responded at least. Maybe you responded differently. Somewhere out yonder, there’s a population of people who watch even more sports now than they did in 2019, just because they’re relieved to see markers of normalcy return. Me? I just couldn’t leave the realization of how little I really cared when life was in variance. I still like sports. They’re fun to watch and talk about. I enjoyed checking in on the Warriors’ Summer League games. But do I want to commit my life to writing about why a team won or lost? Lemme tell ya, after watching a Finals game half drunk in my neighbor’s garage, I’ve decided that I’d rather experience sports that way, if at all, and save the postgame analysis for someone else. Essentially, I yearn to live like my readers.
Am I being a diva?
Yeah maybe. Why couldn’t I just keep writing about the Warriors and some other NBA stuff for a decent salary? It’s a more-than-fair question. Every other guy I ever met at a wedding wanted to have my job. Nonfiction superstar Michael Lewis once showed up at a Warriors practice, and, while Steph Curry was in the process of yet another robotically accurate shooting routine, turned to me and exclaimed, “You have the best job in the world.” I and current Athletic star Marcus Thompson found this hilarious, as we figured that Michael Lewis had the best job in all of letters.
Yet, a couple years later, I was … quitting? What sort of asshole does that? As I nudged closer and closer to the exit, the inner monologue went something like this:
Do you know how many people would kill for that job? Do you know just how terrible most jobs are? You’ve worked a few of them and could barely function. Why do you think you’re so special that you must actually feel “inspired” or whatever millennial term for a magical reality where expending effort actually feels good? Oh, are you not happy at work? It’s work! Your kid eating solid meals isn’t good enough for you? You need to feel like a fancy auteur? Tough shit. Your grandfather sold insurance and your great-grandfather toiled away on a farm in Hungary. Do you think they loved their jobs? You get paid to watch basketball for a living. If that’s not good enough for you, then nothing is and ever will be. Pussy.
Perhaps valid, but here’s the issue. A “lack of inspiration” isn’t just some millennial demand for unearned fulfillment, though it can be that. In this business, you eventually pay for your lack of inspiration. My fear was that by sticking around, I’d become complacent, riding out my contract while getting progressively worse, and to what end really? Maybe I’d find one more paycheck, but that lasts only so long. There is no hiding. People will sense it if you barely gave a shit. Readers will move on. I’ve seen it happen to others. I’ve seen them rot in the media room at games, showing up just to show up.
For years, I’ve lived according to one simple business model: If I’m interested in something, I can get other people interested in it. If I’m interested in advance scouting, I can get readers to join me. If I’m interested in sneaker company machinations, I can get readers to join me. If I’m interested in why a bench player walked onto the court mid-play back in 1993, I can get readers to join me. Theoretically, at least.
But if I’m not interested in what I’m saying? I’ve got no shot. Drawing dead. The alchemy of what comprises a hit article remains unpredictable, but it’s easy to guess which article will tank: The one you didn’t feel like writing. So I’ve decided to write what I’m interested in, in hopes that I gain and maintain your interest. Let’s go.
So what am I doing?
Possibly destroying my career.
That part makes it exciting, at least. I crave the juice, that sense of impending doom that you have to outrun. I’m Indiana Jones, taking the leap of faith in hopes of landing on a bridge of newly materialized subscribers. I apologize to my presently soaked subscribers for shitting my pants mid-flight.
In all seriousness, I am up to something beyond taking a challenge. While my interest in writing about games has waned, my obsession with what surrounds sports has only accelerated. We are in a turbulent moment and sports is one of the most reliable mirrors of that moment. I just see endless angles, some obvious, and some a little more hidden, that seem difficult for most large-scale sports media operations to digest.
Yes, the Overton window on cultural issues is insanely narrow in sports media, but it’s not just that. Sports media is also intensely corrupt. I say that more as a description than a condemnation, and I say it while remaining thoroughly impressed with so many people in the industry. It’s a tough racket.
It doesn’t make me seethe with righteous indignation that the sports media is corrupt. Indeed, I believe one of its reasons for corruption is that no one takes the field seriously enough to cleanse it. It’s sports, “the toy department of human affairs,” as Pat Riley once called his profession. There is no sober lawman riding in to restore order. Eliot Ness is not walking through that door.
Even if I don’t take it as seriously as malfeasance in our politics or financial institutions, sports corruption still has an impact on coverage, and I dislike how much of the game behind the game is shielded from readers. For example, Creative Artists Agency (CAA) happens to represent key media personalities at ESPN NBA, which was by design, and accomplished with the subtlety and tact of the Red Wedding. When you combine that nugget with knowledge of CAA’s influence over the New York Knicks (GM Leon Rose is a former CAA superagent, coach Tom Thibodeau is a CAA client), ESPN’s reports of Zion Williamson (CAA client) having an interest in joining the Knicks gets put in a different light. The way it’s presented to the consumer is the mere reporting on a rising star in New Orleans wanting to play in New York. You’re not supposed to know that ESPN wants this to happen because ESPN is CAA and CAA is ESPN, which means that CAA is the Knicks, meaning that the Knicks are ESPN. You’re not supposed to know that this factors heavily into why New Orleans is shit out of luck, gumbo and jazz music be damned. In many ways, the agencies run the NBA. The media that they use to execute their messaging is making the principals seem peripheral. So often, the story of a trade or free agency signing is told absent mention of its true author.
Again, all by design. You are not meant to know when a reporter and player he’s reporting on work for the same agency, even when and especially if it’s completely obvious that the two are on the same team, working together. I’ve already argued that the sneaker brand is the main employer for a few players at the top of the heap. I could make the same argument with superstar reporters and their agencies. And if that’s the case, then perhaps the public is not getting the right frame when information is presented.
That’s only one facet of corruption, which has now gone global. Was there any expectation that ESPN reporters would criticize the completely insane Chinese government ban on the NBA, following Daryl Morey’s meme tweet in defense of Hong Kong? I mean, Xi Jinping was clearly acting like a fucking maniac there, but nobody on camera could say so. And we all knew why. Almost every major media company is compromised on China, due to the economic power it wields.
At House of Strauss, I want no compromises. I also want this to be a space where we not only say what can’t be said, but also get into why it’s happening. The former is mostly for the catharsis, if not just the sanity validation. The latter is where it gets interesting. Why can’t we notice out loud? What is stopping that?
One final thought about The Fleshy Part of the Thigh. We never know what happens to Marvin. Did he make it big? Or did he scar up his ass for no reason at all? I like to think it helped him, not necessarily to get famous on the level of a 50 Cent but enough to keep comfortably rapping.
And that’s what I hope you can provide me. If enough of you subscribe, I can keep handing over honest critiques in the sports media space, plus cover other pertinent issues that aren’t getting mainstream attention. That’s why I did this. I wanted to be free, not from responsibility, but of constraint while pursuing what I see as my responsibility: Public honesty. Though we are inundated with opinions, I suspect that few of them are wholly honest anymore, thanks to the paranoia induced by the Internet being forever and watching always. My hope is to restore some small piece of reality, from this humble Substack bunker. Oh, and to entertain you guys as well. Let’s go.