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Ethan Strauss on why he joined Substack and the NBA’s Twitter problem

Podcast & Video

In this Hub Dialogue, The Hub’s deputy editor L. Graeme Smith speaks with author, podcaster, and former NBA beat writer Ethan Strauss about his recent move to Substack, the changing media landscape, and why social media is making sports worse and people more annoying.

This conversation has been revised and edited for length and clarity.

L. GRAEME SMITH: You’ve recently decided to break away from a stable position covering the NBA at The Athletic to start your own project, The House of Strauss Substack. First of all, how is it going so far in the early days, and what was the impetus behind going independent right now?

ETHAN STRAUSS: There is a scary realization early on that you’re your own business now. There’s always something that you could potentially be doing. It’s very different from when you’re just you. It’s difficult either way, but I love it. I’m having a great time. I’m not getting a tremendous amount of sleep. 

But for the broader question that you’re asking, I felt like I had to do it in part because it was becoming such a trend. It felt as though if I waited any longer, then the moment would pass and this was a moment that really intrigued me. I wanted to be a part of it. I don’t know where it’s headed. It seems like there are these moments of contraction and expansion where people are doing things independently, and it’s decentralized, and then there’s power in numbers so people band together. I needed to see if I could do it on my own, because there was that doubt. It’s been a gratifying process so far.

L. GRAEME SMITH: Going independent is an uncertain prospect, all the more so in the midst of a pandemic. How did the general state of things right now inform your decision to start your own venture? 

ETHAN STRAUSS: At some point in my 20s I was unemployed, and I was just bobbing around and blogging about the [Golden State] Warriors. I’m not trying to be too pollyannaish about it, because I don’t think we’re living in a particularly good era, but there are sometimes opportunities and silver linings in the misery. If I had not graduated into the financial collapse of 2008-09, I would probably have some sort of office job that I hate, just because there would have been a conveyor belt to get on. But there was none. So I was just unemployed and in my pajamas and blogging about the Warriors. I ended up fortunate enough to have a more interesting career. I’m not trying to give a pep talk, I’m just saying that sometimes there could be unforeseen upsides to these circumstances.

L. GRAEME SMITH: How would you characterize the current media landscape? Do you think it is better or worse for people who are just starting out in this business? Everyone talks about the opportunity that exists in a more fractured and flattened landscape with fewer gatekeepers, but sometimes I think that that primarily benefits those big names with already prominent profiles and pre-existing audiences who are well-positioned to take advantage of the emerging moment. Or is it still the case that this is a free market where the cream will just rise to the top? 

ETHAN STRAUSS: I guess it might depend a little bit on what sphere you’re in, but I think it’s harder right now than it was, especially if I’m just looking at it through the prism of basketball writing. When I started, there was this process that still existed by which you could rise through the ranks of a newspaper and become a beat writer. You’d cover high school football and then you’d cover this and you’d cover that. Then you’d cover a basketball team. That still existed. There was also a blog network called TrueHoop and you could blog there and then rise through the ranks that way. I don’t see any ladder right now. I often wonder where it is, because they’ve got to generate these new people somehow, but I don’t really see it. I think it’s hard to get noticed. 

I also think that social media is less of a creative place now than it was, say, five or eight years ago. But it’s collectively set in, the sense that everything is permanent and you can ruin your life if you say the wrong thing. There’s this widespread denial of the incredible power of that collective realization. I think that makes it harder to break in. At the same time, I wouldn’t be defeatist about it. If you have something legitimate to say there are ways to break through. It can be to your advantage that so many aspects of media are such a monoculture. You could ride a new wave, conceivably. 

L. GRAEME SMITH: What ultimately motivates you with this project? Are you looking to engage with that monoculture, that Capital C conversation, or are you more intent on digging deeper into the topics that interest you and building a sustainable audience that way? Do you strategically assess these things, or just see what resonates and calibrate as you go? 

ETHAN STRAUSS: I’m not smart enough to make those calculations. My writing tends to be better when I’m interested in something. And when I’m interested in something, there’s a good shot at making other people interested in it. But I like asking readers for different ideas, because sometimes the suggestion clicks with me, and I go, “Okay, that’s a good avenue to go down.”

I just like making things, overall. Maybe I am fortunate to have a good enough career where you and I can have a conversation and lie about what it was about, and come up with something that sounds more profound than what it was. Maybe that’s the thing that I would want to happen in the end because I don’t think that it’s that deep. I like writing. I like thinking out loud. I want to know that I can do it to the degree of being self-sufficient, and not reliant on a major institution to do it. That’s just the level of independence that really intrigued me and speaks to something I didn’t think I’d ever be able to accomplish. So that’s the goal right now, I don’t know if that will be the goal forever. But that’s the current goal.

I know I have an audience cohort really into sports, and the NBA especially. I also know that I have a cohort of people who were drawn to some of the first articles I wrote, which were more cultural commentary pieces, and they came to my Substack when people like Andrew Sullivan tweeted it out. Or when I did an interview with Freddie de Boer. There is a bit of a strange balancing act. I don’t worry as much about audience capture. Just audience patience.

“But it’s collectively set in, the sense that everything is permanent and you can ruin your life if you say the wrong thing.”

L. GRAEME SMITH: You’ve mentioned not wanting to be reliant on an institution. With the Substack trend seeing more and more writers decoupling themselves from traditional institutions, what does this say about where media is headed? 

ETHAN STRAUSS: I think some of it is just how constraining the social media sphere is. It’s almost less about how onerous an institution is. It’s more that the institution has to be responsive at some level to what’s going on in the social media space. I don’t think my thoughts are that controversial. Maybe I’m naive to think that. Yet it does seem that there are some times that they are, and it causes some sort of issue. It’s not that I resent the institutions I used to work at for not having my back. It’s more that I don’t want to worry about ruining somebody else’s day by putting more work on their desk. When you’re connected to other people in that way, they have to answer for what you’re doing. I can’t feel fully free if there’s a sense of guilt at some level that I’m causing issues for somebody else. 

I think a lot of that is coming from how incredibly narrow the Overton window has been shrunk on the social media platforms, and how there’s almost a hive mind mentality on every issue. And it’s arrived at immediately. It’s so easy to cause a storm. What was appealing to me is that I can get crushed in some publication for my newsletter and it’s not an issue for anybody but me, and I don’t have to make it an issue. Nobody’s getting grilled about it. Nobody’s pressuring my boss to fire me over it. It’s just an issue for myself to deal with. It’s far more manageable.

L. GRAEME SMITH: I think everyone is more clear-eyed about the implications of social media now. Are we stuck with social media mobs dictating the terms of public debate? How do you see this dynamic playing out? 

ETHAN STRAUSS: I can’t predict the future. But I remember Wesley Yang had an interesting Tweet that, I’m paraphrasing, but in the first silent movies people didn’t know how to react to them. When a train came on the screen, people jumped out of their seats and started running away. They hadn’t adjusted to the fact that the train wasn’t going to jump out of the screen and run them over. Maybe these corporations haven’t made that adjustment when it comes to Twitter mobs, for instance. But there is this game theory aspect to it that I don’t think really applies in the same way to the train, which is that it’s real if everybody accepts the premise that it’s real. So it needs to be reacted to. 

I’ve never been in a legitimate viral controversy. But I’ve been around some people when they were in it, and it’s terrifying to their institution because nobody knows the theoretical scale of it. There’s a fear that, okay, this might fizzle out tomorrow, or it will be tomorrow’s big news. I just think that that fear is not going to go away anytime soon, that uncertainty and the way companies react to it. So I do think it’s going to be a constrained conversation for a while. I don’t know what loosens it. I hope Substack loosens it to a degree. The public conversation has become very boring, at least from my perspective.

L. GRAEME SMITH: Speaking of the public conversation, you’ve written on the rise of woke capital at places like Nike, and also in the context of the NBA, a league which has been particularly prominent in giving their players a voice and the space to speak on social and political movements. 

This was especially so during the NBA bubble in the summer of 2020. Yet the league seems to be grappling with the fallout of this expanded freedom now that several players, most prominently Kyrie Irving, are using their platforms to speak out against the COVID-19 vaccines, or at least voicing their concerns about the requirement of them. What do you make of the tricky situation the league finds itself in? 

ETHAN STRAUSS: The funny thing about where the NBA is at now is that they did not do all this, going whole hog into Twitter and elevating the visibility of activism, out of charity. They thought that this was their path to power. Look at the articles from 2016 and so much of what [NBA Commissioner] Adam Silver said in interviews, they really thought that they were on their way to conquer the world because they were on the vanguard, and they were young, and these other leagues didn’t have a pipeline to Twitter like they did. 

It was a techno-utopianism that reminded a little bit of the way the media regarded the Arab Spring. I mean, far lower stakes, and less serious, but if you remember back then it was a sense of, Twitter’s gonna democratize the world, it’s gonna improve everything. You’d see these articles with sentiments like, This is why the NBA is going to overtake the NFL in America, which, I mean, you should have your American citizenship revoked if you thought that. You just fundamentally do not understand the country that you grew up in or now live in if you say anything like that. 

Obviously, I’m kidding. But that’s the level of absurdity it got to. I think what we’ve learned in the last five years is that these mediums that compel people towards activism, for better or for worse, can run at cross-purposes, perhaps, to an institution’s health, or to the goal of promoting a sport. So it seems like the NBA might have bitten off more than they can chew. 

These things are so challenging to talk about because I have sympathy for it. I mean, the summer of 2020 was an especially crazy time. Nobody knew what to do. People were terrified. They don’t admit that they were terrified, but people were terrified. They didn’t want to do the wrong thing. They didn’t want to get fired. And then there were other people who were full of righteous anger and wanted to do something positive and productive. The [NBA bubble] was one of the few live shows going. So it felt like there was this sort of neurosis, this idea of “I need to use this platform to some sort of end.” 

So I don’t look at it with a harsh critique then, necessarily. I look at it with a harsh critique in 2015, when the NBA is convincing itself that it’s going to be popular because it’s so virtuous, and it’s using the right technology. It’s easy to mock that kind of arrogance. But by 2020, it just seemed like much of the country had gone off the rails. The people in the spotlight, the entertainers in this pandemic setting, were just grasping for things to do. 

But the NBA definitely pulled back from their activism since, and tried to quiet things down from the top. Silver said he didn’t want the [social justice] slogans anymore. The reason for that is very simple. It’s because there was a staggering drop in audience. And the media mostly avoided this subject. 

I love my colleagues, or maybe I should say former colleagues, but they’ve elected to just not talk about this. But I’m sorry, sports leagues don’t lose half their audience within five years. That’s not something that happens very often. So I think that, you know, regardless of whether sports media people wanted to address the story, it scared people at the NBA. To go from NBA Finals matchups which, one after the other, have over 20 million people viewing them, to now like a third of that audience—and yeah, you can say it was in October and everything else, but they didn’t think it would be that. So they’ve tried to scale back some of their activism, the branding, since that point. 

But the brand is stuck, and now the dynamic they’re trapped in is that the media then has the moral authority to hold them to that standard, and to say, “Wait a second, you say you’re this, but your players are doing that.” And you know the dirty secret of it all? It’s that on certain issues of race, players will be completely aligned with the progressive ethos of the day. Many of them will be. But on other issues they most certainly will not be. So it’s very difficult just to maintain that particular front as part of your brand and hold it all together. I think that they put themselves in a very tricky spot by trying to be that. 

“The public conversation has become very boring, at least from my perspective.”

I’ll give you a quick example I’ve never seen anybody bring up. The so-called “bathroom bill”, where the NBA says that they weren’t going to have the All Star Game in Charlotte. I’m not going to say that I know the ins and outs of that state bill, I do not. But there is something interesting about watching the media coverage of the NBA who was getting applauded for punishing North Carolina over its law until they changed it.

Meanwhile, was there any curiosity for what the players would say about the bill? It was a very strange thing where the players have all the power in this league, and that’s a good thing. Oh, and it’s great that the NBA doesn’t want to have the All Star Game in North Carolina over transgender rights. And let’s not ask the players what they think of trans rights. We’re just going to avoid that. I think there is a sense of don’t go there, that’s dangerous territory, because the players, if you ask them, I don’t think would have responses that would be in keeping with the progressive cause that the league was attempting to fulfill at that moment.

L. GRAEME SMITH: Is this a problem of not keeping the main thing the main thing? As in, it seems that to an increasing number of people everything—sports, entertainment, art, etc.—now stands in as a proxy for politics and, exacerbated by social media, just becomes another arena to contest (particularly American) political issues. 

ETHAN STRAUSS: The worst aspect of it is the way in which [social media] enlists people as voluntary PR people. I deal with PR people all the time. I don’t want to dump on them too much, but they are annoying professionally, as a requirement. You see these people, our friends or colleagues, and they’re exhorting you on Facebook to go do something or go believe something, shrieking at you, and it’s not even with a sense of humor. They’re not paid to do it. I mean, at least get paid for that kind of thing.

But they feel as though, it’s a combination sometimes, that this is a moral responsibility, or that this is a high status thing to do. What they don’t understand is that so many people are looking at them and going, “This is annoying, why are you doing this? Just show me a picture of your dog, show me a picture of your kid. Stop lecturing me.” 

Look at the situation playing out with the NBA and vaccines. I think vaccines seem to be a pretty good deal on COVID, good at preventing hospitalization. But when we have these players saying, “Hey, I got COVID, so I don’t want the shot”, I don’t see many people saying, “Yeah, I guess if you got COVID, you know, getting a shot isn’t as much of a necessity.” 

That’s just a very easy thing to acknowledge before you then make your case for why they should still get the shot. Which is, “Look, we’re trying to prevent virus replication here. So this is mostly about you not spreading it to people. But you, as an athlete in your mid-20s with like zero percent body fat, are probably not at mortal risk like an obese ninety-year-old might be. We just want you to take one for the team, or you should get it for the following reasons…” 

That’s something that seems fairly obvious to me as a message where you’re at least conceding that no, they aren’t really at a mortal risk, most likely. I guess anything can happen.

But these things are not getting brought up because everybody’s functioning as a PR person. We just need to pound one message, which is: “This disease is bad, and you need to get the shot, and you’re being stupid, and shut up.”

That’s PR messaging. That’s not how you would actually talk through this particular issue if you were one-on-one and being honest from the perspective of wanting people to get shots. 

I don’t want to get derailed into the vaccine issue which people feel very emotional about, but I look at that as an example of how the dominant response is one of a PR person and not one of somebody who’s thinking critically in public.

L. GRAEME SMITH: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with The Hub, Ethan. And if thinking critically in public is something you’d like to see more of, you can check out Ethan’s Substack, The House of Strauss, here