The Messenger, The Message and Jason Whitlock

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Jason Whitlock is easy to laugh at because he makes himself easy to laugh at. Any sportswriter with so outsized a sense of his own importance and courage is asking for as much. Further, one who discusses his “brand” in dead-serious terms will be laughed at by colleagues and readers and everyone else who knows that people who talk about their brand all deserve to have all the bad things happen to them.

Furthermore, anyone who works for Fox Sports and claims to “speak truth to power” needs to get laughed at. But, in the wake of Whitlock’s aggrieved wailing (in his old college newspaper, of all places) over being cruelly shut out of Pulitzer Prize consideration, again, laughing at Whitlock is maybe starting to become a problem. Even, and maybe especially, for those of us who rather enjoy laughing at Whitlock.

For the purposes of this piece, I’ll assume you are not a sportswriter who also happens to be a non-white male; for the purposes of clarity, I should tell you that I am both those things. There aren’t all that many of us; our perspectives are often not part of the greater discussions surrounding sports. We can ignore or quietly deal with this reality for the sake of not ruffling any feathers (white sports journalist types have feathers), or we can rail against that reality and recognize that doing so puts a steel ceiling on a writing career. I kinda-sorta chose the latter, which is not to say that it was some noble bit of self-sacrifice. Mostly, it was a by-product of the security that comes with having options outside sportswriting and also of being sort of a reckless jackass.

Whitlock, of course, is also a reckless jackass, and works sometimes as a non-white male sportswriter. We have some natural kinship, at least as far as those things are concerned. (I also like The Wire.) When Whitlock talks about the good-old boy hierarchy of sportswriting or the alienation that comes with writing from a minority perspective he is indeed “speaking truth to power” and that’s admirable. At least, it’s admirable until you put those high-minded ideals in the context of Whitlock.

Bringing up issues of race and gender in sports and sportswriting is great and important and brave and some other good things. Doing so in the context of a weirdly wounded, transparently absurd soliloquy bemoaning the empty spot on a mantle—for a fucking Pulitzer, for which you were never eligible in the first place—is the opposite of those good things. Beyond the hilarity of such a replacement level troll making such goofy claims, there’s the fact that it makes a jester out of the messenger and a joke out of the not-at-all-a-joke message. The message being the need for a long overdue discussion on race and gender privilege. That part of the message is far too important for Jason “Inches of Pain” Whitlock to be the most influential person disseminating it. That conversation, like most any other, wouldn’t really be improved by having Whitlock be a part of it.

For as foolish and bizarre as Whitlock’s “Plz Gimme Pulitzer Nao” piece was, there is a line in it that, read without context, will ring as lived-in and flat-out true to many, “It’s very difficult—perhaps impossible—for a person of color who writes from a minority perspective to be recognized as the best at anything in sportswriting.” That part is correct, painfully and more or less inarguably. It is doubly correct when the person in question is Jason F. Whitlock.

Earlier in the piece, Whitlock talks about the “delusional hope” he filled himself with while waiting to hear back from the Pulitzer committee. So that’s a glimmer of self-awareness, maybe. Either way, it’s probably delusional for me to hope that Whitlock will realize that he could be a better messenger for this message, especially if he were willing or able to have a conversation about anything beyond himself. Failing that, though, he’ll always be good for a laugh. Gallows humor is funny even when you’re sharing the same gallows.

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As I see it, Whitlock has three fairly distinct claims. 1: minorities are underrepresented in Pulitzer winners. 2: it's unfair that online-only writers are excluded from consideration. 3: his best work is behind him.

All three of these claims deserve better treatment than he gave them. As for the third, I have as much interest in and sympathy for writers-on-writing as any reader anywhere: it's one of my favorite genres. But when it turns into self-pitying scorekeeping along this model, even I can't care won't care. (It's also interesting that what he thinks may be his last great year is one of the years I read almost nothing that came out of him, having written him off as a not particularly talented troll.)

As for the first, that's an empirical argument, and an interesting one. Probably he's right, and that needs attention and revision. But when it comes to the second...*you knew you weren't eligible and you wrote about it in your cover letter*. Is it a dumb rule? Maybe. But throwing a tantrum about it isn't going to help, any more than throwing a tantrum is going to convince somebody that you should be able to use the baseball you brought to play in a softball game.