By Ryan Bukowiecki (@ryanbski)
So you want to get into the sports media game, huh?
You likely don’t have an obvious way in. No natural connections such as a parent or other relative who has spent time as a writer, editor or publisher. Not much schooling, or you’re not done schooling or the school that you’ve gone to isn’t one of those that jump off a resume and slaps a hiring manager in the face.
Maybe you’ve had a chance already at this kind of work and you didn’t set the world on fire or you wound up the victim of layoffs or some other such betrayal of leadership that leads to the least connected and the least experienced feeling the brunt of corporate malfeasance and neglect.
Now you’re lacking constant work. But you still love to write or talk or edit and you’d love any chance to do so, even if you have to work for little or nothing, you just want to get yourself back out there — you don’t want to ignore your passion, you don’t want to ignore this thing that you really feel that you do well, this thing that really showcases your natural gifts.
You look around the internet, scan social media platforms, there are a few names or brands that stand out to you. You see them often, they are retweeted often, when pressing discussions arise they are always in the mix with a post that gets attention or personalities attached to them become go-to sources for info and opinion. They are setting themselves up for stardom, you want to get to where they are.
Now it’s time to grind — you put together your free WordPress site, show off the stuff you’ve done that you can stand for others to see and do more — more blogging, more tweeting, more IG live, more Tik Toking even, whatever it takes.
An audience, or even better “a following,” or wait, even better, “a community” forms around you and you know you’re getting attention, you’re even getting attention from these burgeoning influencers who have long inspired you. Some of these folks are following you online, you exchange snarky comments and jokes when more famous people bring such things upon themselves, you’re never ratioed, your hit rate is high.
Suddenly, one of those from the “cool table” reaches out, confirmation that your hustle and clever content is indeed respected. A chance to contribute is offered. There’s no salary to speak of but you know thousands of more people will see your byline than ever before, plus there’s the natural association that comes with working with a trending, independent media star, which in many ways makes you one as well as long as you stay down with them.
The opportunity to cover large events arises, you see how easy it actually is to get into pro sports events as long as you’re attached to the right website. Publicists and public relations staffers see that you put out posts that get good views and they offer you exclusive interview opportunities and access to media-only and VIP-exclusive functions where free gifts are flung about and prime networking makes you finally seem like some sort of deal.
Sure, there are some set-backs: to get to a lot of these things, you have to pay your own way, you may have to even do more work ingratiating yourself with these other media professionals than you ever expected working with a person you assumed had connections.
Meanwhile, the guy who sort-of put you on is kind of taking more liberties with you than you’d like. It’s all in private, so you don’t necessarily feel embarrassed. You know this game brings about all kinds of personalities, some are more brusque, blunt or edgy than you’re used to but they aren’t doing much that’s different than what they present to the public, both in their own words and through their content. This is how they’ve gotten to stand out, to separate themselves from others. That’s what you want too, right?
So, you go with the flow. When in Rome and all that. Intra-staff chats broach the topics of race or sex and you see how painfully shallow and straight up offensive these previously admirable online friends and colleagues of yours actually are. Your network expands and you meet new writers and editors, maybe some educators and creators of other sorts — righteous folks in their own right. They come to like you but when the topic of your mentor, boss, or “overseer,” comes up they don’t have much good to say. “Watch yourself with him,” they may say. “I’ve heard some things,” or “I really don’t like how they get down, you may want to look at some other opportunities…”
Nothing’s happened to make you want to straight up disassociate from this person yet. You may have noticed some colleagues you’ve liked come and go but everyone has their reasons to move from one platform to another. Overall, you’re getting what you want from this partnership, even if at times you question how much of a partnership it is.
Eventually, a chance comes up to actually meet this person you’ve invested so much time and work for from afar. They’d like you to come along with them to cover a big national event — you still got to put down cash to even get there, but they got all the access-based stuff set up. Once you’re there you just got to worry about work and as an assumed-to-be respected co-worker you foresee a chance to express concerns to your assumed-to-be friend in order to make your working relationship better.
But that’s not the element of your relationship he’s interested in deepening. Previously cryptic texts and inboxes give way to more obvious and desperate attempts to get you alone in a city far from home.
“We’re in a hotel after all…each evening is going to be about having fun, unwinding after our hard work…we might as well have fun together…”
The red lights flash as never before and you know what you got to do. You make your move away from this person, the trip is off and you step up your submissions to others, all the while being dumbfounded that this fool thought his lame game would ever work. Has it ever worked? Is that why that other girl who was so nice and personable when I first joined the team became so distant before suddenly leaving? Is that why she hasn’t responded to the last few messages I’ve sent her?
Existing in the field of independent media is thankless, it is full of setbacks and moments that range from disheartening to demeaning and beyond. Over time, moments that are the opposite — affirming, motivating, emboldening — stand out, if you can find a way to hold on.
Examples of success and ingenuity from outside of yourself are needed to hold on to your dreams and ambitions. For me I could honestly once say that simply standing next to Robert Littal, the founder of Black Sports Online, and sharing drinks and talking shop with him at a Wrigleyville bar was one of those moments.
Having happened several years ago, it was at a time when I was still early in transitioning into what I’m doing now. Littal was personable with me and open, maybe most of that was due to me being among the handful of Black males with him in what was a gathering of mostly independent writers and broadcasters.
I could only imagine how different the tone and context of our conversations that day — and later when I booked him for the first of multiple appearances on “The D & Davis Show” — could have been if I was an attractive woman.
That time we we met, though, we were among a group of young professionals getting by on pluck and passion, and that’s important to knowing the origins of the BSO movement, which used catch terms like “dollarnaire” to wrap Littal up in a persona as a scrappy new voice in media, a disruptor, a capital-B “Black” source of information from the bottom up who could play the game the big, established boys play to the point of rubbing elbows with them at NBA Finals and Super Bowl press conferences and butting in on an international platform like TMZ to be its resident “Black” sports talking head.
Unfortunately, we didn’t know to what extent he was playing those big boy games, which include alienation, gaslighting and straight up harassment — along with already evident uses of cheap production value and undercutting talent monetarily — tools of oppressive gatekeepers across an industry that saw Littal as less-than from a time well before he had the idea to present himself as some kind of cultural savior.
Reading the stories from former female BSO staffers such as Tamantha Gunn and Sheena Quick was harrowing. They and the others who have spoken up under the hashtag #survivingBSO on Twitter should be commended for creating this moment that builds on the momentum of the larger #MeToo and #speakingout movements and which unfortunately gets at the heart of inter-gender issues among Black folks, specifically the lack of earnest support and unconditional protection afforded to Black women from Black men.
Too often Black women are either exploited for their tireless work for the betterment of all people and if they simply want to benefit themselves from things they want to do so often they are expected to give of themselves sexually or otherwise in order to be allowed to play with the guys, most of whom aren’t anywhere in their league.
It shouldn’t be so surprising from Littal given the limited scope and debasing firmament most of BSO’s content is built upon. Exposing and exploiting women without consent and shame has long been a part of Littal’s game, he used it to get a rabid, mostly male following to which more than a few women writers wanted to get access to in order to further themselves and their careers.
The thing about that is that so many who find themselves in the position of a person like Littal have a limited view of the role women should play in the sports media landscape. They think that because a women is willing to work with a person like them then they are already “ready to go” in some way and that they are merely one overnight stay and a jump shot from 40 away from being feasted on.
It’s a shameful way of thinking and it gets to the heart of so much that’s wrong with media in general and sports media in particular, which like so many industries still does not know how to deal with Black talent and especially Black female talent, to the point where constant marginalization is still the order of the day.
In the corporate media environment its nothing to see potential Black leadership squeezed for all its passion and ambition to the point of leaving the industry before making an impact or poisoned ethically while rising up the ladder of responsibility while passing on bad habits and troublesome worldviews — sure they may be down to lift as they climb, just as long as they can cop a little feel as they raise you.
In Littal we now have a textbook example of that same embarrassing behavior for independent media. In a business where it is already so hard to find things to keep you going, it hurts to see previous examples that while far from perfect could be seen overall as positive just turn into complete fiery trash.
We need to leave examples like Littal’s in the past — this is a new moment we’re building on and the only way we’ll have substantive change in media and elsewhere will be if women, especially Black women, are given the space to lead, promote and innovate while lames like Littal are left in the dark to play with themselves.
Ryan Bukowiecki covers the Chicago Bears and professional football for WARR