Some thoughts about the catfish baseball writer

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A few days ago, some people I follow on Twitter started talking about someone who was not, it turned out, what they seemed to be. The person in question was “Ryan Schultz” a White Sox fan and, in the past year or two, a baseball writer for Baseball Prospectus’ White Sox and Cubs team sites and a contributor to SB Nation’s “Beyond the Box Score” site.

Ryan Schultz was not — as he claimed — Ryan Schultz, married late-20-something father of two, putting himself through pharmacy school. Ryan Schultz was actually Becca Schultz, a 21-year-old woman who adopted the name Ryan on Twitter back when she was 13, and for the past eight years has pretended to be a man. Schultz was very active on baseball Twitter. Some of you likely interacted with “him” over the years. I looked back at our archive and couldn’t find him as a commenter or anyone whose work we linked, but “Ryan” did submit a question to Bill in a Q&A back in July.

As Lindsey Adler of Deadspin writes in her detailed story on the controversy, however, it was not a benign fraud. Schultz cultivated deep, personal relationships with multiple women on Twitter which eventually turned abusive. Schultz would harass women and manipulate them emotionally. It was pretty ugly. Adler spoke at length to the women Schultz harassed and then spoke to Schultz as well. The portrait the story paints is an ugly and disturbing one, but one which is a necessary read for anyone who has cultivated relationships which exist largely or exclusively online. Which, I suspect, is most of us.

The fraud, abuse and manipulation is, obviously, the reason this story is relevant, and to that end, I cannot stress enough how important Adler’s article is. But there is a sidebar topic to this which Adler mentions that I find to be significant as well, and I’d like to talk a bit about it:

Schultz’s story is interesting for reasons far beyond its sheer shock value. It’s entirely reasonable that at the time she created the Ryan persona, she might not have thought she could easily have a career writing about baseball as a woman. She’s also drawn a big red arrow sign pointing toward the exploitative ecosystem of online sportswriting, which created the conditions for her to get her enviable opportunities without much interrogation from editors who have a lot to do and few resources with which to do it.

Schultz need not have gotten work writing for reputable websites like Baseball Prospectus and SB Nation in order for her fraud to be bad. Indeed, for around six years she played the role of “Ryan” without being connected to any sort of baseball writing job, and the damage done to baseball publishing out of this pales compared to the human toll she inflicted on the women whom she abused. But it’s certainly the case that the imprimatur of those sites on “his” identity bolstered the fraud and enabled it further. You’re far less likely to be suspicious of a person with ill intent if they are associated with entities which you trust or towards which you have goodwill.

I don’t blame any person at Baseball Prospectus of SB Nation for this — they were duped too — but it’s worth noting that they were able to be duped because of the nature of the online sports media business. Or at least the nature of most of it.

A lot of the people who write about sports online are doing it on the side, for little or no money, because it’s a passion. I started out that way myself, as did Mike Florio over at PFT, as did Bill Baer here, as did our old friend Aaron Gleeman and as did most people whose work you read online who did not come up through newspapers and traditional media outlets. Some of us — Mike, Bill, Aaron, me are good examples — were able to turn our passion into real full-time jobs. We did so because (corporate brown nosing alert!) companies like NBC thought it worth the money and effort to make us employees with real wages and benefits and stuff, with the thinking that (a) you get what you pay for; and (b) if you want a professional product, you hire professionals. I wrote about this dynamic a couple of years ago over at my personal website.

Not every site out there approaches things the same way. It’s not necessarily because they’re cheap or because they want to exploit people, of course. Some may, but the fact is that not every outlet is part of a giant media company like this site is. And God knows, it’s a challenge to make money in the ever-changing world of online media. This site, standing alone, without the backing of NBC, may not have lasted nearly nine years as a commercial entity and a lot of sites without that sort of backing may never have come into being. But whatever the reasons behind it, good, bad or neutral, many online sports outlets rely on eager volunteers or low-paid part-timers to create content.

On a supply-demand basis, it makes some sense. There are a lot of people willing to work cheaply or for free because, man, writing about sports is cool! I did it for free for years and even if I never got this job, I’d likely still be doing it in some capacity. Many have made strong philosophical arguments that writers should never write for free or on the cheap out of principle, but when you’re a writer, and someone is offering to publish your stuff, those principles seem rather quaint. It is totally understandable when someone takes up a company’s offer to write for free. In the end, it’s an emotional decision by a writer and a simple matter of economics for a lot of companies. The net result is a lot of cheap sports writing labor out there, looking for places to write.

When the labor comes cheaply, you don’t have a strong incentive to vet that labor very thoroughly, and that seems to be the case with Schultz and the jobs she landed. Yes, Schultz misrepresented herself to Baseball Prospectus and SB Nation, but it’s not the sort of misrepresentation that could’ve stood up very long had they been seeking to hire her for a real full time or paid part time job. This business lends itself to people working remotely and interacting online — fun fact: I’ve never actually met Bill or Ashley in person — but there is a level of scrutiny that comes when you’re investing in workers as opposed to merely getting whatever you can get cheaply.

Again, I’m not offering any of this to slag on Baseball Prospectus or SB Nation. I have been a devotee of those sites for years, I have many friends at both places and I read excellent work on those sites every day. Moreover, I am not saying that the sort of fraud Schultz perpetrated is some common danger that they could have reasonably expected or that we should worry about happening over and over again at the websites we like to read. This is unique case, to be sure, and as I said above, they were duped here like everyone else.

But it is worth asking, in a general sense, what the nature of the online media business environment means for the product and for its readers. It’s worth wondering what sort of product a model that, at present, encourages publishers to get the cheapest talent possible in order to keep costs down while pursing the most page views possible, produces. Whether there isn’t a way for a better product to flourish more thoroughly than it currently does.

I don’t have any great answers to those questions, but they’re questions I’ve been asking for years and which we as sports fans should all be asking.