Nick Kyrgios shook his head virtually this past weekend, in reference to New York Times tennis writer Ben Rothenberg:
In the usual style of the medium, the Tweet provided no context for readers who might have been unaware of Rothenberg’s opinion piece from earlier in the day. Rothenberg contented that Australian Davis Cup Captain Lleyton Hewitt should “keep himself on the sidelines” and ensure that Sam Groth played in the final rubber of Australia’s tie against the US if it were to come down to a deciding match.
By criticising a journalist, Kyrgios followed in the footsteps of many an athlete. Indeed, he even referred to Rothenberg in a now deleted tweet that could have been straight from the mouth of athletes of yesteryear, implying that a journalist is an inferior human being to an athlete, only writing about the sport because they’re not good enough to play it themselves: “Guy could possibly be the furthest thing away from an athlete and the closest thing to a peanut #Ben”
But this isn’t another Kyrgios think-piece ruminating on Kyrgios’ lack of nuance and disregard for the opinions of others. Similarly, this isn’t a piece bringing more attention to the irony of Kyrgios’ head shake, it only briefly preceding the sniping between the country’s two best male players in Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic which left the Australian tennis community shaking its collective head.
Rather, this is a piece about the Ben Rothenbergs of the world, and the different ways in which consumers of the media interact with journalists circa 2016.
Rothenberg began his career as a tennis writer at SB Nation in 2009 and has been at The New York Times for the best part of 5 years. He’s become a well-known tennis writer with over 40,000 followers on Twitter and has been approached by those associated with the world of match-fixing in an attempt to promote their story to the world.
In 2012, Rothenberg and Courtney Nguyen – formerly of Sports Illustrated and now of WTA Insider – began the No Challenges Remaining podcast. This past January, they began a Kickstarter to help crowdfund the podcast for the 2016 tennis season, with 596 people pitching in $22,050.
It’s this final point that’s perhaps most instructive. Random fans of Rothenberg and Nguyen are passionate enough about their contribution to the tennis community to fund it themselves. As a rule, regular podcast listeners feel personally connected with their hosts, referring to them by their first names and inviting the hosts’ voices into their ears so often that they begin to provide a sense of place, joy or comfort. These fans can interact with writers on Twitter and Facebook, occasionally receiving immediate replies; they can ask questions when writers host q&a’s on Periscope as Rothenberg and Nguyen did during the Australian Open; and fans can even find themselves doing some “major fangirling”, posing for photos with journalists at tournaments.
As such, regardless of what one thinks of Kyrgios’ opinion of Rothenberg, it’s interesting to consider the impact of the tweet on the relationship between Rothenberg’s fans and Kyrgios. While Kyrgios wouldn’t care in the least, of course, it’s interesting to wonder if in the modern tennis (sports?) world, if you swear at a journalist using the kind of phrasing that is usually the domain of schoolyard bullies, then you’ll find yourself being disliked in some corners in a more personal, long-lasting way that perhaps wasn’t as likely a decade or two ago.
For, one would suspect, had a player sworn at the New York Times tennis writer in the 90s, even the journalist’s most fervent readers would not have felt as personally connected to the writer as one can in 2016. Last weekend, Kyrgios may have irreparably damaged his potential to obtain the support of Rothenberg’s fans, followers and funders. A personal attack on a journalist is more than just a throwaway line to some.
Of course, it can work both ways. Journalists themselves can reveal opinions on their own Twitter feeds that can damage their relationship with their own fans. On Wednesday, Rothenberg criticised John Oliver and his recent sketch on Donald Trump, referring to it as xenophobic. One can but wonder how such a comment might irreparably damage the relationship between Oliver’s fans and Rothenberg, if any people are both passionate listeners of No Challenges Remaining and passionate viewers of Last Week Tonight.