Some back and forth between a football coach and a sports talk show host this week unintentionally illuminated one of our modern culture’s most dangerous condition.
We value entertainment and opinions much more than we do information and truth.
Who’s the real fraud?
The Clemson Tigers defeated perennial power Alabama to win the national championship. This gave head coach Dabo Swinney the chance to fire back at many of his team’s critics, especially one in particular.
— Josh Sánchez (@jnsanchez) January 10, 2017
Of course, Colin Cowherd responded on his daily sports show.
— Herd w/Colin Cowherd (@TheHerd) January 10, 2017
Much of this is overblown. Swinney shouldn’t care one bit about what a talking head says about his team. But he smartly used the media “disrespect” as motivation for his team to play inspired football.
Cowherd’s response, however, is interesting. Notice he doesn’t apologize for being wrong or even admit he was wrong about Clemson.
His defense is essentially, “Being entertaining matters more than being right.”
In a business dominated by ratings, Cowherd says he draws ratings when he gives strong opinions, regardless of whether they end up being right or not.
From his perspective, his audience only “punishes” him—presumably by turning the channel—when he is uninteresting and when he chooses topics listeners don’t care about.
The only validation he needs is that he has viewers and listeners. As long as they tune in, it doesn’t matter if he’s right or wrong; it matters if he is interesting and entertaining. He is defending the “hot take.”
Hot takes take over sports
Cowherd could have simply said Clemson struggled against inferior opponents and that caused him to doubt they could win two straight games against the best teams in the country.
That would have been a nuanced and honest evaluation of the Tigers’ season and chances in the college football playoff. But no one would have remembered it.
Instead, he called the team “frauds.” That grabs your attention. You stop and ask yourself, “Did he really just say that?” That’s a hot take.
For those unaware, a hot take is “a piece of commentary, typically produced quickly in response to a recent event, whose primary purpose is to attract attention.”
The phrase (and practice) originated in sports writing. Like carnival barkers of old, sports commentators recognized you could draw a crowd just by yelling exciting things.
Cowherd is far from the first (or the last) to offer up a bombastic opinion on a team or player that is proven wrong. There are entire shows on ESPN and other sports networks designed to offer up nothing but hot takes to stir controversy and generate ratings.
But while the practice of giving poorly reasoned, but passionate commentary may have started in sports, it has not stayed there.
Hot takes or cold truth?
Cowherd noted how politicians can learn from him and his fellow sports commentators. And that’s my worry. They already have and so have the rest of America.
Obviously, as politics has become more partisan, it has taken on the feel of sports. We treat political parties as if they are teams to root for, not places to represent and express our values and principles.
The sports talker’s advice to politicians is simply to talk about what people are interested in. In some instances, that is solid advice, but it cannot be a universal truth.
Sometimes, our political leaders have to deliver bad news and not simply about the “other side.” Our leaders should challenge us as a people to be concerned about more than what may be popular at the moment.
We want hot, scorching takes, but we need the cold, hard truth.
However, in the highly competitive internet age, everyone—be it the presidential candidate, the sports hosts or the blogger—is trying to find an edge to attract voters, readers, listeners and viewers.
Why read a thought out (long) piece explaining both sides of an issue or even one giving you reasoned support for your beliefs when you can read a (quick) post that basically calls the other side idiots or evil?
It’s more affirming when you read or hear something that simply dismisses everyone who disagrees with you as mentally or morally inferior. And it’s more infuriating to read someone who does that to you and your side.
In both instances, our passions and emotions are inflamed (it is a hot take after all) and we are more likely to share or talk about it.
And when you share an article or video on social media, even if you talk about how horrible it is, you give the other person what they want—attention. So they serve up more takes and the cycle continues.
And that’s what hot takes do. They draw people in.
But what are we drawing people in to? Most of these passionate opinions distract us from important, but perhaps not as flashy truths.
We need the cold shower of the truth to wake us up from the slumber brought on by cozy hot takes.
In the story of the boy who cried wolf, he was the only one who suffered for his dishonesty. That will not be the case for us, when our entire culture trades truth for passion and honesty for entertainment.
When everyone is constantly crying wolf to get attention, no one notices the wolves casually strolling around. And the most dangerous thing is, as Cowherd demonstrates, no one seems to care.