Pardon the Interruption… But Did Sports Debate Shows Change the World? (Transcript)

Good Sport
Pardon the Interruption… But Did Sports Debate Shows Change the World?
February 15, 2023

[00:00:07] Jody Avirgan:
Katie, if I'm doing this, what should my body language be?

[00:00:12] Katie Nolan:
Aggressive, confident, engaging. Um, you, you wanna talk with your hands a lot.

[00:00:19] Jody Avirgan:
I called up my friend Katie Nolan recently to ask her to teach me how to fight.

[00:00:24] Katie Nolan:
If you're in the hotspot, if your, if your opponent is talking or your co-host or whatever, you can be an active listener by making faces at them.

[00:00:32] Jody Avirgan:
Katie is a sports commentator. She worked at Fox Sports and ESPN for many years. That's where we got to know each other, when I was at ESPN, too. Actually, when she signed onto the call, she was joining from an ESPN company laptop that she never returned.

[00:00:48] Katie Nolan:
They never asked for it, so it’s… I know.

[00:00:51] Jody Avirgan:
Wow. They're still, they're still like tracking every one of your, uh, keystrokes.

[00:00:53] Katie Nolan:
Yeah, probably. It's why I don't do anything real shady on here.

[00:00:55] Jody Avirgan:
And if we're confessing this microphone I'm using, it was also for my time at ESPN, but I digress. We are here to talk about arguing. There's a lot of arguing at ESPN, on ESPN. It's all around sports media. I'm talking about the sports debate guy. It's almost always a guy, the hot-take artist, and there's kind of a formula to the way that this guy fights.

[00:01:22] Katie Nolan:
As the speaker, while giving a hot take, you certainly don't want anything that indicates you aren't a hundred percent behind what it is that you're saying. You can't be shaky when you're take-y. That's good to remember.

[00:01:33] Jody Avirgan:
Did you just make that up?

[00:01:36] Katie Nolan:
Yeah. It just fell right out of my mouth and I'm very sorry.

[00:01:38] Jody Avirgan:
I'm, I couldn't be more pleased.

You can't be shaky when you're take-y. That should be the tagline for all these guys. You can find them on shows like Undisputed with Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe, Around the Horn, Get Up, and of course, First Take with Stephen A. Smith. I mean, there's a million of them sprinkled throughout sports media.

They've come to dominate the afternoon cable lineup, not to mention talk radio. And people tune in in droves. These programs get huge ratings. The hosts have big followings. Clips go viral. Here's the basic format. Two or more hosts share the screen for an hour or so of uninterrupted sports argument.

They're shouting. There's gesticulating. People dunk on each other. They stand up in disbelief and pace around the set to show their outrage. Sometimes, there's even name-calling. Yes, it's over the top, but it's also incredibly compelling. A pure distillation of modern debate. I'm right, you're an idiot.

[00:02:41] Katie Nolan:
And I think a, a lot of those shows run on antagonism, but also character. It's almost like they make an avatar of a person, and then that person's job is to continue to reaffirm everything about that avatar. So, I think a lot of it is even when two hosts agree with each other that sit across from each other, they still get three minutes to talk uninterrupted. And so they have to kind of find nuance within their take to show that it's different from the take you just heard. But also, there are things they disagree with about the take you just heard. Even if they didn’t.

[00:03:21] Jody Avirgan:
So, yeah, maybe you can tell I'm a little wary of these shows. I do think they're kind of gross on some level, but there's also something about them that's just so seductive, and occasionally, watching one of these shout-bro shows, I’ve wondered: Do I have this in me? Could I join the ranks of the debate show greats? I have friends who've made the jump and landed some pretty sweet contracts. I've put in my time in sports media. I know how this game works. I do have opinions, and you know, when I worked at ESPN making the 30 For 30 podcast, I even technically had the same title as Stephen A. Smith. I swear to God, if you looked at the org chart, we were both just listed as “Commentator”. Our salaries were very different.


[00:04:11] Jody Avirgan:
This is Good Sport from the TED Audio Collective. My name is Jody Avirgan. Today: a look at how we argue about sports and more, and an experiment. With the help of Katie Nolan, I’m going full Stephen A.

[00:04:26] Katie Nolan:
Let's do this.


[00:04:42] Jody Avirgan:
We're with my coach, Katie Nolan. Point of interest, she actually got her start in the world of sports, not as a commentator, but as a competitor, an elite competitor. Folks, she insisted we mentioned this.

[00:04:56] Katie Nolan:
You want me to talk about my Junior Olympic gold medal in rhythmic gymnastics?

[00:05:00] Jody Avirgan:

[00:05:00] Katie Nolan:
I usually don't start with that ‘cause I don't like to intimidate people. You know, I'm a real salt-of-the-earth type of gal. I want people to know I'm one of them. But yes, I did. I did win multiple Junior Olympic medals, one or two of which were gold in the sport of rhythmic gymnastics.

[00:05:16] Jody Avirgan:
For some reason, Katie had to eventually give up her rhythmic gymnastic dreams and get a real job, which brings us to her sports talk career. Her resume as a commentator is pretty amazing. She did her time at ESPN. She covered the Olympics for NBC. She had a web series for Fox Sports 1. Most recently, she’s co-hosted Friday night baseball on Apple TV+. Throughout, she’s always been super smart and engaging and never gone full hot-take artist.

But if I'm like five degrees removed from that world, Katie has stared directly into the abyss and laughed. Someone recently described her to me as the number one line stepper in all of sports. Perfectly willing to tell it like it is and poke fun. One of my favorite things she ever did was a segment where she parodied sports argument by debating herself.

[00:06:07] Katie Nolan:
So it's like, I don't have a co-host, but we're in sports TV, and I know you guys like to hear arguments, so I'm going to play both sides. And I wouldn't know the topic until the moment of, which was the twist. So that was what made it hard. But I would switch at the ring of a bell to arguing against myself. And for me, it was more like to kind of show that anyone can take any side of an argument.

[00:06:26] Jody Avirgan:
So, who better to teach me about sports arguments?

So far, I’ve got never waver; turn your opponent into an avatar and debate that, not the real person; body language, over the top. It kind of sounds like a lesson in being a used car salesman or a con man or something. Should I be wearing cheap cologne?

What kind of prep do I need to do?

[00:06:48] Katie Nolan:
Uh, minimal. I would say treetops. You need to hear what other people are saying about the story more than you need to know the story.

[00:06:57] Jody Avirgan:
How much does your actual argument matter when it comes to facts and statistics?

[00:07:02] Katie Nolan:
A famous saying: Numbers never lie. Was also the name of a show for a while. Numbers never lie. The thing is you can pick the numbers that tell the story you wanna tell, and you can ignore the numbers that really don't serve your point. That's gonna be up to your co-host then to bring those numbers and show you those receipts and be like, “What about this and this and this?” Let them worry about that.

Just pick the numbers that tell the story you wanna say and then memorize those. Or if you're me, write them on a post-it note and put 'em right next to your camera sSo that you can read them, ‘cause numbers are in and outta your brain.

[00:07:34] Jody Avirgan:
Should you actually listen to and engage with the argument the person sitting across from you is making?

[00:07:39] Katie Nolan:
I think a lot of the times, you're listening in little spurts. You're listening to remember the things you know you can dunk on later. You're listening to, to laugh at them about something, but you're not really, like, considering their argument the way you would if you were having an argument with a person in real life. You're just kind of letting them get it out. Holding onto a few things you can use against them for your rebuttal.

[00:08:03] Jody Avirgan:
What do you do if you're cornered?

[00:08:04] Katie Nolan:
Change the subject. Find a way to change the subject. Do something silly. You could, you know, if it's, if you're really stuck, just take a word and say it loudly three times in a row. So, preposterous, preposterous, preposterous!

Now you've bought yourself time and you'll know where to turn. It's also given space between the thing the person said that backed you into a corner and the next thing you're gonna say, and in that space, plenty of people watching TV have already forgotten what happened.

So now you can just kind of start talking about something else, and no one's gonna notice as long as you're passionate, you’re turning the emotion up a little bit more than you were before, ‘cause now you really gotta sell it, and you're throwing in a couple more numbers to back up whatever this other thing is that you're saying.

[00:08:50] Jody Avirgan:
I'll just say: everything that Katie is saying totally checks out. Turn on your TV or flip to your local sports talk radio station. This is what's really going on. Stephen A. really does say “preposterous, preposterous, preposterous”, like once per show, things of that nature. One final question for Katie before I give it a shot.

What does winning look like?

[00:09:14] Katie Nolan:
Oh, um, ratings, good ratings, I think. Um, winning an argument isn't necessarily about being correct or being crowned the winner. It’s “Did people tune out when I was talking or did our ratings go up?”

[00:09:34] Jody Avirgan:
So, now I've been trained, or it feels more like untrained since most of the tips are like, “Don't prep and cherry-pick numbers and don't listen to the other person.” Regardless, it's time for the final exam.

So look, let's say I wanted to have a hot take.

[00:09:49] Katie Nolan:
Ooh, I'm so ready. Okay.

[00:09:50] Jody Avirgan:
Would you help me kind of craft it and, and strategize?

[00:09:53] Katie Nolan:
Yes, a hundred percent. Okay. I appreciate it.

[00:09:54] Jody Avirgan:
So my take would be something like “The Allen Iverson's 2001 post-season was the greatest run in NBA history.” Maybe one of the greatest runs in NBA history.

[00:10:05] Katie Nolan:
Okay, so what? Give me three facts to support it.

[00:10:12] Jody Avirgan:
Well, for one, look at his supporting cast: Theo Ratliff, Eric Snow, George Lynch, and Tyrone Hill were starting forwards on that team. I mean, he had no, no help whatsoever, and he marched his way through the post-season. Um, you know, they did end up losing to the Lakers. Four to one maybe. I don't know, maybe I shouldn't bring that up.

[00:10:31] Katie Nolan:
That’s probably not, not number two at least. That’s not your number two supporting point, is that it didn’t end well.

[00:10:36] Jody Avirgan:
I remember, uh, watching that series, um, probably the greatest month of my life, if I’m being honest. Um, and uh, there was a graphic up on the screen that showed all of the injuries that Allen Iverson was dealing with. He was just in—riddled with injury, and was still fighting through it. So, you know, for someone, small and fighting through injury and carrying the team on his back.

And then you have the single most, see, I'm starting to even embrace it. You fired me up. The single most—I would never say something like that—

[00:11:03] Katie Nolan:
Single most.

[00:11:04] Jody Avirgan:
The single most iconic moment in NBA history. Allen Iverson stepping over Tyrone Lue. Incredible.

[00:11:10] Katie Nolan:
I mean, and you're not wrong. It's an iconic moment. And then you can, even, if you're feeling really confident, you can challenge someone to name another, because on the spot it's gonna be very hard for them to do. And then in the couple seconds it takes them to think of it, you'll be saying something else and we will be on to the next.

[00:11:23] Jody Avirgan:
Hey, name, name another postseason run that matches. You can't. You can't.

[00:11:29] Katie Nolan:
I could. I could if I prepped.

[00:11:31] Jody Avirgan:
Iconic. Iconic. See, I'm picking a word, repeating it. Iconic.

[00:11:35] Katie Nolan:
Okay, you’re right. It is… It’s perfect. That's a good take. It's also not that hot, to be honest.

[00:11:37] Jody Avirgan:
No, it’s not that hot. I know. I know.

[00:11:39] Katie Nolan:
It’s not that hot. And the fact that they lost to the Lakers makes it hot that you think that it's the greatest postseason run and it didn't end in a championship. So that is the, the heart of what makes that hot. But it's a decent…

[00:11:51] Jody Avirgan:

[00:11:52] Katie Nolan:
It’s a decent take. I could have used more screaming, but it was a good take.

[00:12:00] Jody Avirgan:
Okay. I appreciate it.

That's a very generous assessment of my take. I know. And I appreciate you too, listener, for enduring that. I guess I'm really not cut out for this sort of thing. I'm just so averse to the unimpeachable statement. I really like uncertainty. You know?

A couple other thoughts on why this world isn't for everyone. For one, for Katie. Let's just be honest here. It's a lot harder to do this as a woman than as a man. There's a lot of testosterone in those studios.

If you decided to go full Stephen A. Smith tomorrow.

[00:12:34] Katie Nolan:
Oof. Okay.

[00:12:34] Jody Avirgan:
You just woke up and said, “I'm gonna do this.” What would the reaction be?

[00:12:38] Katie Nolan:
Huh. I think I would get a lot more, uh, anger and vitriol, I think, and part of that, not all of it, but part of that's ‘cause I'm a woman. Um, when you start to kind of try to go in that direction, they are like, “Well, we give it to them. So we're giving it to you twice as hard.”

[00:12:57] Jody Avirgan:
Regardless, for Katie, this kind of fighting, it's just too much.

[00:13:03] Katie Nolan:
I don't know. I'd probably be too tired by the third day. The real answer to your question is if I woke up tomorrow and I was gonna be Steven A. by Friday, I'd be like this. I'm tired, and I would go back to being me.

[00:13:13] Jody Avirgan:
That's actually one of my biggest takeaways from all this too. It just seems exhausting: getting into character, preparing for battle, having to be dialed up to 11 all the time. What is it doing to people? What's it doing to us?

[00:13:28] Katie Nolan:
I don't know that humans are built to feel this passionately about six different things every day, because when you think about it, that's what it is. If you're filling up a show, you're gonna basically talk about five or six things every day, and you have to, you know, be emotional and, uh, invested in all of them. I know for me personally, that that's a lot of things to, to care about. I think it's, it, it wears on you to constantly have to have something to say.

[00:14:00] Jody Avirgan:
It wears on the people who have to do it. And here's the thing, it may also have a larger cost for all of us, because it sends a message.

[00:14:09] Katie Nolan:
If you take TV at face value, it tells you that you should be that fired up about things all the time.

[00:14:14] Jody Avirgan:

[00:14:14] Katie Nolan:
And that the best people who care the most about sports have opinions about every single thing, every day. So much so that they have to yell about it. And so it might make somebody think, “There has to be something that I'm really mad about all the time.” And it's like, that's not true. You can kind of sometimes just be like, “Yeah, I don't care about that.”

[00:14:32] Jody Avirgan:
And this isn't just in sports. Flip to a 24-hour news channel or hop on social. This idea that we have to be mad about everything everywhere, all the time. Hm. Now, it seems like maybe instead of trying to get myself into this headspace, we should be trying to get more people out of it.

[00:14:50] Katie Nolan:
And this could be one of those “which is the chicken, which is the egg”-type situations. But the way that sports fans interact with each other on the internet is very intensely and with a lot of emotion. A lot of times anger that seems unwarranted and unrelated to the topic at hand. And so you have these people with this emotion who like to yell at people for their dumb takes now yelling at people over things that are more important than that and truly matter to them. Um, that’s where it became more clear to me because it was like watching us talk about other things the way we talk about sports is a mess.

[00:15:33] Jody Avirgan:
Yeah, man. I feel that I've seen that. Before my time at ESPN, I covered politics. I covered the 2016 presidential election. Whew. Bad faith takes: they are everywhere.

Coming from everyone: on cable news, on politics podcasts, on Blue Wave Twitter and MAGA Twitter, and the incentives to behave this way are real. For a shout guy on tv, it's a big contract. For a keyboard warrior or a barstool blowhard, it’s more and more likes and shares. For a presidential candidate, it’s a few thousand votes in Wisconsin.

And that's got me worried. I'm worried. I think most people are rational and calm, but when we're in the wrong environment, the better angels of our nature take a backseat, especially when everything we see on TV or from our politicians is modeling the worst possible behavior. That's the environment we're in right now: full of cacophony and speed and meanness.

To me, it all just kind of feels like sports talk. And the thing is, there's a history here, an actual connection you can trace. The world of sports talk and the world of news and politics talk are deeply intertwined, especially over the last 40 years or so. We didn't get here by accident. As they say on TV, that’s after the break.


[00:17:05] Jody Avirgan:
So at this point, I want to understand more about this genre of sports media, where it came from, why it's so popular, and the relationship between this kind of argument and other debate formats that seem to be coarsening all around me.

[00:17:18] Jim Miller:
Look, I've been on a lot of talk radio shows, and, uh, sometimes you need to take a shower afterwards.

[00:17:23] Jody Avirgan:
James Andrew Miller, or as he introduced himself, Jim, is an expert on this kind of content.

[00:17:30] Jim Miller:
A lot of times it's very, very animated with words as opposed to statistics or theories or examinations of things.

[00:17:41] Jody Avirgan:
For many years, Jim worked in politics. Then he became a media executive, and now he's a journalist and a historian who hosts the Origins podcast and has literally written the book—several big books actually—on institutions like HBO, SNL, CAA, and ESPN. He likes acronyms, I guess. And JAM says the antagonism of these shows really is a core feature of public debate.

[00:18:06] Jim Miller:
You just feel like it, it's the deep end of the pool in the sense that there's just, there is no affection, there is no camaraderie, and if you wanna personally insult someone, that's even better.

[00:18:19] Jody Avirgan:

[00:18:20] Jim Miller:
You know, or, or remember the gesticulations, you know, and like throwing things on, like pounding the table or getting up and walking away, or pacing around the room. I mean, it is, uh, it's a three-ring circus sometimes.

[00:18:36] Jody Avirgan:
Jim says it wasn't always like this. In fact, back in the eighties, when ESPN was just getting off the ground, a commentator sharing their personal opinion, getting heated on air, it was not the norm. It was a tenor.

[00:18:49] Jim Miller:
It was a tenor. The DNA of it was not bombastic; it wasn't caustic. It was highly respectful. It may have become animated when people were disagreeing, but I think one of the other things that was a hallmark of early sports discussions was that these people were supposed to be agnostic. They were supposed to be objective. Basically, they were being capital-J Journalists covering things without a lot of subjectivity.

[00:19:20] Jody Avirgan:
So what happened? Well, a long time ago, in what feels like a universe very far, far away, TV shows could capture huge audiences pretty much just by being on air. In 1988, the most watched episode of TV ever was the series finale of MAS*H. 106 million viewers tuned in. But with the rise of cable TV in the 90s and early 2000s, the 24-hour content cycle fully established. The market was flooded with options.

Think about our modern-day equivalent to that MASH finale, Game of Thrones. It felt like everyone was tuning into that final episode in 2019. The numbers? Less than 20 million viewers, a fifth of the audience that MASH got. So if you are on TV with all these options and all this fracturing in the attention economy, all you can try and do is cut through the noise.

The absolute standard of this approach, this new era of programming, was CNN's Crossfire. You may have heard of it. Jon Stewart famously called it “partisan hackery” that was hurting America. But for now, let's just say that it featured two hosts, one conservative and one liberal, who sat down with a prominent guest and argued about the news for an hour every day. It was a hit.

[00:20:39] Jim Miller:
Yeah, I mean, look, CNN's Crossfire was popular, and it was, according to some, outta control.

[00:20:47] Jody Avirgan:
And it made others notice. Others, like Mark Shapiro, a producer at ESPN.

[00:20:53] Jim Miller:
Shapiro said, “Look, let's do a Crossfire of sports.” I mean, because in a way, sports is even more cut out for that kind of banter and that kind of, you know, arguing.

[00:21:04] Jody Avirgan:
Shapiro soon became ESPN's head of programming and production.

[00:21:08] Jim Miller:
And the first thing he did was he took Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon from the Washington Post. And Pardon the Interruption (PTI) was founded.

[00:21:18] Jody Avirgan:
Pardon the Interruption. PTI. Another acronym, one of my favorite shows. A show that almost needs no introduction, but here's a quick primer. Two sports commentators, Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon, sit at a desk and argue about sports for about half an hour every day. Just like Crossfire, PTI was a hit. And just like Crossfire, other networks took notice.

[00:21:42] Jim Miller:
We can't overstate how impactful PTI was. There are so many aspects of that show—the clock, the background, the nature of the banter and the way that all the imagery filled the screen—that was so truly revolutionary.

[00:21:59] Jody Avirgan:
The PTI set was over-the-top, colorful, and so were the characters that Tony and Mike brought to the stage each afternoon.

[00:22:06] Jim Miller:
I think PTI was a, a huge, huge kind of paradigm shift in, in terms of sports coverage.

[00:22:14] Jody Avirgan:
PTI was also one of the first shows to openly understand and cater to declining attention spans. One way was with the now-legendary rundown clock.

[00:22:26] Jim Miller:
One of the things that PTI did that was alarming at first, and people thought that this is ridiculous because one of the key concepts before was you don't want the screen to be distracting. Well, they put the menu of topics on the right-hand side and they had a freaking clock going.

And I think this is one of the big steps forward in terms of short-attention-span theater. What they realized is that it was comforting and attractive for them to see what was coming up. And if they're, they're all of a sudden they're talking about horse racing and you don't care about horse racing, guess what? You're not gonna tune away because you see that in 30 seconds with the clock, they're going to hockey, and you want that.

[00:23:15] Jody Avirgan:
And cable news took some cues from that, right?

[00:23:19] Jim Miller:
Absolutely. I mean, it didn't take long for that menu to show up on other shows, and I think it became very, very effective.

[00:23:31] Jody Avirgan:
I wanna be clear about something. PTI was the first of its kind. It has had a huge influence on debate shows, and it is also incredibly special. It is smart, it is light, it is real. If I could be Michael Wilbon or Tony Kornheiser, I would in an instant.

[00:23:47] Jim Miller:
Well, the beauty of Michael and Tony is that they were themselves. These guys were not trying to be TV stars. They were basically doing what they would always been doing. The only difference was there was a camera on them.

[00:24:00] Jody Avirgan:
Sum it up with one word: authenticity. Some shows manufacture conflict to fill a time slot or jack up ratings. Not PTI. And another thing that makes the show special: these guys, Tony and Mike, they really respect each other. You can tell when you watch the show.

[00:24:17] Jim Miller:
Well, I think that's a good point because look: in cable news and sports talk, you get the feeling that these people not only don't respect each other, they don't even like each other. It becomes personal. It becomes too caustic. There is a very fine line that you want when you're doing an opinionated show because you want there to be conflict, obviously, or at least a dis—you know, some sort of discussion that is going to show myriad opinions.

But at the same time, anybody watching PTI knows at the end of the day, as soon as the camera's off, these guys are gonna go for a drink or hug it out or anything. I mean, because they are colleagues, they are professionals, and they respect each other and genuinely like each other.

[00:25:04] Jody Avirgan:
Authenticity, respect, actual well-reasoned arguments. These ingredients make PTI great and a successful show right from the start. So it makes sense that people would try to imitate it, but the problem comes when the imitators just aren't as good, and they try to copy the style, not the substance. Things like respect and authenticity get lost along the way. Things like listening, maybe even changing your mind, they just aren't part of the equation. What you end up with is a coarsening, a carbon copy of a carbon copy of a carbon copy.

[00:25:41] Jim Miller:
And I think that what happens is if you watch some of these shows or you listen to some of these shows, you can almost hear in the back of the person's mind: “Oh, I gotta, I gotta step it up. Or I gotta, I gotta, you know, take this to another level to keep it going.” And uh, or you can imagine a producer looking through a window into the studio saying, “Come on guys, get more animated.” Or, “Let's fight it out.” Or, “Let’s take this to another level.” And, at that point, that's artificial. That’s not authentic. That is acting and acting is hard.

[00:26:16] Jody Avirgan:
It is hard. Like I learned with Katie. I just don't have that in me. Not when talking sports, not when I've talked politics, but plenty of people can find it in themselves to fight nasty, and what they find is that it pays off. Yell loud enough and you'll get more eyes on you.

Eyes, followers, ratings. That's what media executives are constantly searching for, to the point where the lines between the world of, say, sports and the world of politics can feel completely blurred. People like Keith Olbermann have floated between sports and politics because to ESPN and MSNBC, all that really matters is that this guy can get fired up about something, anything for 30 minutes once a day. Maybe it's LeBron, maybe it's gas prices, who cares? Sports hosts talk politics. Politics hosts talk sports. A hot take is a hot take is a hot take. ESPN once even had Rush Limbaugh doing football commentary for crying out loud.

Is it any surprise then the actual politicians are taking the same approach as the sports bros?

[00:27:25] Jim Miller:
A lot of politicians now, they're taking what happens in the sports world as their playbook for getting attention because we are far, far away from having people who basically, you know, their behavior and their speeches between the 40-yard lines. Now, there’s kind of benefits, particularly fundraising and having a big band of loyal followers to being in, you know, in those extremes. And so I think a lot of people in politics now are, are playing the sports talk game.

[00:28:02] Jody Avirgan:
Yell loud enough, and you might find yourself with a three-year contract or a shiny new office or in the White House.

[00:28:15] Jim Miller:
I mean, 20 years from now, when people sit down to really trace the pedigree of how things deteriorated so much, they're gonna also talk about what's lost when the focus is just being outlandish or crazy, or not paying attention.

[00:28:35] Jody Avirgan:
So, here we are when this style of debate seems to be all around us. I asked Jim Miller what he thinks the impact of this kind of debate has been, particularly in the world of politics.

[00:28:48] Jim Miller:
If you think about it, the shows on primetime and on Fox News and MSNBC, people are going to those shows for comfort, to hear people who have a set of orthodoxies or a view of the world that's in concert with their own. It's almost like going to church on a Sunday, and the great thing is if you watch those shows, you know what to say the next day to your colleagues at the water cooler.

[00:29:12] Jody Avirgan:
I started to notice this covering the 2016 election when I'd often hear voters talk about our team and the other team when they're talking about Republicans or Democrats. And it's only gotten worse in the years since. Partisanship is at an all-time high, and it's not based on policy preferences or values, but on picking a team and being against the other side no matter what.

[00:29:36] Jim Miller:
And so, I have to say, it's almost like watching SportsCenter, and it's almost like watching PTI, because you're rooting for your causes, you're rooting for your team. The candidates or the politicians are like the MVPs on your team, and it comforts us.

[00:29:58] Jody Avirgan:
It's worth returning to PTI for a moment because as influential as it was, there was one key part of that show that didn't get imitated: the fact check. At the end of each episode, Tony Reali, AKA Stat Boy, would come on and talk about all the things that Kornheiser and Wilbon got wrong.

[00:30:17] Jim Miller:
I think the fact that they decided to have Tony Reali, the fact check boy, there at the end was… It’s, it was just awesome. It was mind-clearing.

[00:30:27] Jody Avirgan:
To me, the fact check is about more than just getting the stats right. It's about humility and perspective, the kind of stuff that really isn't part of the equation in most modern shows.

[00:30:41] Jim Miller:
It was so comforting to see that a show wasn't afraid of the truth, and in fact wanted to almost kind of like shine the light on those guys and say, “Hey, wait a second. You know what? Uh, not real, not true. Not real.” And I can't tell you how many times people said to me, “Why can't they have like a fact-check boy on Meet the Press or, uh, a news interview show or cable news?” Well, sometimes it would mean that the fact checks would take as long as the show itself, because there were so many things that were wrong.

[00:31:12] Jody Avirgan:
But also the, the stance, right? I mean, could you imagine Tucker Carlson or Bill O'Reilly or Chuck Todd allowing a fact check, allowing someone to question their authority?

[00:31:22] Jim Miller:
Right. I think there's the ego part of it, but I also, now we get to the really sad part, which is, it doesn't even matter now. I think every single night, somebody on cable news says something that is either, I mean, forget about being morally repugnant, I just, in terms of facts, wrong, and the audience doesn't care. And so even if you were to have somebody come on and say, “Well, that's not true, actually,” people don't care.

[00:31:55] Jody Avirgan:
This is actually a place where Jim thinks there's still a big difference between sports and politics, and sadly, it's sports that he thinks is more anchored in reality. In sports, there's at least the shared reality of the score, the time on the clock in bounds or out of bounds.

[00:32:11] Jim Miller:
There's a ton, a ton of opinion, but then when we actually get down to playing the games, well, there it is right there. So, um, we don't have any of those things in politics and, uh, politics is, is a far, far more dangerous, divisive, destructive world than sports.

[00:32:35] Jody Avirgan:
I, of course, agree. It's okay to mouth off about sports, not my cup of tea, but fine. But politics is not a game. The stakes are different. Real people's lives are affected by what politicians say and how they say it. I'm all for the public square. Given this country's history of drowning out so many voices, it's good that more people have more ways to speak out.

But when our environment pushes us to argue for the sake of arguing, when it doesn't come from a place of experience or knowledge or authentic conviction, it's just noise: toxic, toxic noise.

So there you have it. We're all doomed. Thanks for listening.

No, I'm just kidding. We're not gonna end there. Look, there is a path out of this. Maybe. At the end of my talk with Katie, as we were reflecting on the lessons of Sports Talk Bootcamp, I mentioned to her this idea that sports argument was getting coarser, that a lot of the discourse outside of sports is going that way too. And I asked her if she was worried about that.

[00:33:46] Katie Nolan:
I worry about everything, Jody, to be honest. Um, I do think we are pretty deep in a swing towards extremes of, like, the anger and, um, misogyny’s making a run right now, which is pretty, pretty cool. Um, I think that we can get better and I choose to hope and think that we will.

Um, just because of how the universe works. Things always go like that. They swing back and forth, and I think it's almost time to swing back the other way where we just go back to being like, “Who cares this much?”

[00:34:18] Jody Avirgan:
I buy that. I do think these things tend to swing back and forth, but you can also do things to give that pendulum a little push. Katie, who is lucky enough to have a platform, is trying to help.

[00:34:33] Katie Nolan:
I feel like I, I worry, but I also, it's kind of what keeps me going and doing this job is I'm like, somebody has to just be the person they want to see on TV, on TV.

[00:34:46] Jody Avirgan:
Yeah. Somebody has to be the person they want to see on tv, on TV. Maybe that sounds simple, but it's also kind of brilliant, revelatory even, because in a world where all the incentives are pushing you one way, Katie and lots of other people I respect are saying, “No, let's find another path.”

There's a lot that's broken in our politics and media these days. The last several years have been a nightmare, and I gotta say, while I get upset about policies that I disagree with or hypocritical behavior, I also do keep coming back to how our leaders talk, what values they display when they talk. And it sucks to see the worst people in the world get rewarded. People who should know better.

Is it too much to ask that they try and demonstrate some modicum of virtue, honesty, decency? I really believe that makes a difference. And if you kind of believe the same, but maybe you don't have the platform that Katie Nolan does, here's my advice. Yes, the things we believe in are worth fighting for and sometimes even arguing about.

But ask yourself, do you really need to join that fight online? Do you really think progress happens on cable news? If you have a voice, if you're authentically fired up, remember: your energy, it’s a finite resource. Don't get exhausted. Instead, I'd say, do the work where you're already at. Slow down. Focus on the people around you, your family, your schools. Listen to your neighbors. Fight the good fights that you can in the real world. Maybe that's the answer. That's not that preposterous an idea. Preposterous, preposterous, right?

Next time on Good Sport, what in the world is the zone?

[00:36:41] Steph Curry:
There’s this synergy with everything that you're trying to do, and even your intentions have been validated by the atmosphere around you.

[00:36:48] Jody Avirgan:
And why do we obsess over it?

Good Sport is brought to you by the TED Audio Collective. It's hosted by me, Jody Avirgan. The show is produced by TED. This episode was written and produced by Isabel Carter. Our team includes Camille Peterson, Poncie Rutsch, Sarah Nics, Jimmy Gutierrez, Michelle Quint, BanBan Cheng, and Roxanne Hai Lash. Jake Gorski is our sound designer and mix engineer.

Fact-checking by Hannah Matsudaira. Special thanks to Pablo Torre, Brian Rosenwald, Sarah Sobieraj, and Nicole Hemmer. Their research and ideas were all really helpful as we were putting together this episode.

We want to hear from you. Questions, ideas, reactions. Our email is, or you can find me on social media and yell at me there, which was the whole point of this episode.

One last thing if you're game. If you like this episode, hit play in your podcast player and text it to a friend. Even better, text it to a friend who might not think that they're into sports. Who knows, they might be into this show. Thanks again for listening to Good Sport. My name is Jody Avirgan. See you soon.


[00:38:04] Jody Avirgan:
I wanna tell you one Stephen A. story. My Stephen A. story from, from ESPN.

[00:38:07] Katie Nolan:

[00:38:07] Jody Avirgan:
Which is when I got to ESPN, you know, they gave me my ID and my tour of the, of the radio studios on the west side, uh, in Manhattan. Uh, they were like showing me like, this is where they do Mike and Mike, or this is where they do whatever.

And they were really showing me different studios. And then we get to like, a closet, and it's like you open the door and it's just like a closet and there's a stool in the middle of the, of the closet. And they're like, “And this is where when Stephen A. isn't in Bristol and he needs to do First Take, he does it from in here. And you know, he sits here and there's like a pinhole camera and he just talks into there, and they green screen the background or whatever.”

And I was like, “So you're telling me that Stephen A. Smith just walks into this closet, closes the door, and just yells at a dot on the wall for like three hours?”

And they're like, “Yep.”

And I was like, “Actually that's probably like his version of heaven.” I'm like, no. I don't think there's ever been a person who's more in their perfect element what they were built to be doing than, than just the vision of that.

[00:39:03] Katie Nolan:
It’s his safe space.