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SI, AI, and the bleak future of sportswriting

Content, and its discontents

Some 40 years ago, a Sports Illustrated hoax made Sidd Finch a household name. Today’s fake writing revelations are something else, entirely.
| Courtesy of the hoaxers at Sports Illustrated

On April 1, 1985, readers of Sports Illustrated encountered an article by George Plimpton titled, “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch.” This legendary article detailed, a bit ridiculously, a tall and skinny Mets pitching prospect who could throw 168 miles an hour, was a practicing Buddhist monk, played the French horn, and seemed mostly unconcerned with baseball.

Obviously, this wasn’t real: It was an April Fool’s Day joke (though, it was pretty close to predicting Tim Lincecum). This was before every website started running witless “pranks,” and while the story was incredible Plimpton made it so lovingly real that people weren’t sure if it was a joke or not.

You can debate the ethics of prankery all you want, but it was a real story written by a real person. This is far removed from what The Futurist reported that the current iteration of Sports Illustrated has been doing: Producing AI-written articles and inventing completely fake human beings (with AI-generated hed shots!) to pretend to have authored the articles.

There was nothing in Drew Ortiz’s author biography at Sports Illustrated to suggest that he was anything other than human.

“Drew has spent much of his life outdoors, and is excited to guide you through his never-ending list of the best products to keep you from falling to the perils of nature,” it read. “Nowadays, there is rarely a weekend that goes by where Drew isn’t out camping, hiking, or just back on his parents’ farm.”

The only problem? Outside of Sports Illustrated, Drew Ortiz doesn’t seem to exist. He has no social media presence and no publishing history. And even more strangely, his profile photo on Sports Illustrated is for sale on a website that sells AI-generated headshots, where he’s described as “neutral white young-adult male with short brown hair and blue eyes.”

In case you are having trouble following that — not because it is complicated, but because it is so stupid, so cynical, and so post-human that your brain refuses to recognize it as real — SI has been churning out what are (most likely) AI-generated “articles” with AI-generated “authors” who have real-sounding biographies. Why? So that you, the reader, will think a human wrote it.

Why would SI do this? It’s pretty simple.

  1. AI-written articles are super-cheap to pump out and can be done with minimal human interference.
  2. This saves money!
  3. But the articles are bad, and what’s more, most readers know that an article “written” by AI is going to be unreadable and filled with errors.
  4. So instead of hiring writers to write articles that people want to read, let’s pretend that writers wrote them, and trick people into clicking on them!

As a quick aside, the reason that the articles are bad and filled with errors is that none of these programs actually “write” anything. They scour the internet for other articles and sources to answer a subject query, collate it, and do a decent job of making it sound human. But they also pick up mistakes, sloppy writing, and more. AI writing becomes uncanny, like a million marketers speaking all at once. Its attempts at being casual sound like in-house bloggers for a bogus nutrition supplement. (“Can I be honest with you? I love the sun.”) Eventually, there’s a feedback loop of errors and garbage. Even at this early stage you can tell what is human and what isn’t.

Now, given that, you might be asking: Are the SI articles terrible? Yes! And isn’t that hurting the reputation of Sports Illustrated, eroding reader trust? Also yes! And isn’t that a problem? Unfortunately, the answer is, “Nobody cares!”

See, as you probably know, Sports Illustrated no longer exists. The magazine that had the clout to have a talent like Plimpton screw around for them, published Faulkner, had Robert fucking Frost write about the 1956 All-Star Game, launched the careers of Frank DeFord, Ralph Wiley, Jackie MacMullan, Grant Wahl and so many others, is gone. And that’s sad. The escalating grossness of the swimsuit issue aside, this was a magazine that meant something. It is a place that treasured writing. I read it voraciously, for decades, finding back issues at the library. It was hugely influential on so many people here at South Side Sox, and across the country.

But SI is now owned by The Arena Group, private equity ghouls with the (apparently AI-penned) motto, “Where The Action Is.” Take a look at their mission statement, which they put on their own damn homepage:

The Arena Group is an innovative technology platform and media company with a proven cutting-edge playbook that transforms media brands. We aggregate content across a diverse portfolio of over 265 brands, reaching over 100 million users monthly.

“Brands” is used twice. “Aggregate content” is a phrase. “Diverse portfolio” is another. Also, “100 million users.”

Note that this doesn’t say “readers.” It doesn’t say “writing.” It doesn’t, like, empower authors to reach the most readers. It transforms media brands. It aggregates. It monetizes. And like all investors, it discards.

See, the plan for Sports Illustrated is not to keep building on its valorized reputation. It is to leverage that reputation for clicks. It’s to use the trust that SI has built to boost Arena stock in the short-term so that it can be sold, spun off, disassembled, and forgotten. And boosting profit in the short term is the best way to increase stock value. There are two ways to do this:

  1. The hard work of putting out a good product for which people will pay,
  2. Just make shit up and tell your writers to go to hell.

The latter is easier and cheaper; it is the private equity way. And the greatness of Sports Illustrated is discarded. It’s an afterthought, a line item that can be quickly and easily vetoed.

This is where we’re at in America. Technology is enabling the most bloodless ghouls in the world to cut the legs off of creativity to boost their stocks by a few percentage points, and in their destructive wake is left a wasteland.

Journalism is being undercut by algorithms and creators are being aced out by language learning models that have nothing to teach. Venture capital goons make more money off destruction than on building. If they can fool you into clicking on something, it doesn’t really matter if you’re angry. They did what they were supposed to: Aggregate. Monetize. Transform. Profit. Move on.

It’s not just sportswriting. It’s happening everywhere, with consequences for our democracy that are overwhelming to think about. But even if it is “just” sports — that means something. We’re all here because we love sports and because we love thinking about, writing about, and talking about it. Even if you hate the idiot who wrote this article, at least you know there is a flesh-and-blood dipshit typing these words.

We’re not here because we want to click on content. Not because we want to aggregate something. But that’s who they see us as. Consumers, not readers. Clickers, not people. Our fondness for what Sports Illustrated used to be makes us the perfect fools, and they’ll exploit that until fondness tastes like ash. And then they’ll ruin the next thing, until there’s nothing left to ruin.

And we’ll be left holding the bag. It’s the biggest prank they can pull.

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