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Opinion: What the Sports Illustrated AI debacle is telling us

Opinion by Will Leitch

(CNN) — During my downtime, I like to take a break and play a baseball simulation game called Out of the Park Baseball, or OOTP. I would happily bore you for hours explaining this game, but in lieu of that, I will simply say that you construct a roster of MLB players and then play it against other teams in simulations. At the end of each game, OOTP produces a box score and statistics, but it also adds a feature that always tickles me: It writes up a game story.

Technically, the details of that writeup are true. But of course none of it actually happened, no actual baseball was played and no human was hired to write a story about it. The “game story” is entirely AI-generated. And you know what? It’s fine. If you asked me, a professional sports writer for nearly two decades, to write a three-paragraph story on these simulated games, it might look similar. Though I’d like to think I’d get better quotes.

The point is: The conventions of sports writing—the who, what, when, where and how—are so established at this point that they are unusually easy to emulate by a robot, to the point that a silly baseball simulation game can, in certain contexts, do it as well as I can. Which is why it wasn’t particularly surprising to learn this week, in a fantastic scoop from Futurism, that Sports Illustrated has been running fake, AI-generated articles—“written” by non-existent humans with AI-generated images and bios—for months now.

The magazine—it’s probably not accurate to call Sports Illustrated a “magazine” at this point after the draconian cuts that have been made to its staff, but I’m honestly not sure what else to call it—immediately deleted the articles when Futurism called attention to them, which, as a human writer, I can confirm upsets the author a lot less when the author is a robot. The blowback has been overwhelming, from a full-on (human) staff revolt to an industry-wide lament of just what the once-revered institution, one that once published William Faulkner, Robert Frost and John Steinbeck, had become. How could Sports Illustrated have come to this?

After Futurism published its report, a spokesperson for The Arena Group, which has owned and operated Sports Illustrated since 2019, told CNN that the now-deleted articles were created by a third-party company. “We have learned that AdVon had writers use a pen or pseudo name in certain articles to protect author privacy — actions we don’t condone — and we are removing the content while our internal investigation continues and have since ended the partnership,” the spokesperson said. AdVon did not respond to CNN requests for comment.

It shouldn’t be that surprising that Sports Illustrated has found itself under fire; the publication’s struggles under owner The Arena Group (formerly Maven) have been well-documented. There are still many terrific journalists therefrom young stars like Richard Johnson to Emma Baccellieri to established vets like Pat Forde and Tom Verducci, but all you’ve had to do is visit at any time in the last three years to see how much the journalistic experience has degraded, taken over by fansites, branding exercises (Sports Illustrated the resort!) and the regular detritus you expect to find on almost any corporate website these days. If you are just now gnashing your teeth about what has happened to Sports Illustrated since you read the magazine as a kid, you are getting on this bus very, very late. (Full disclosure: I briefly hosted a television show for Sports Illustrated a few years back that no one watched.)

It’s hardly the first once-respected sports website to fall prey to the desperation of AI-generated content: The site I founded, Deadspin, has restarted its AI program, and while it’s thoroughly depressing to see my pride and joy turned into a robot content farm, I have to confess I’m not sure the human writers over there are faring much better. But the only difference between those sports sites using AI writers and other sports sites using AI writers is that people actually used to enjoy Sports Illustrated and Deadspin; Yahoo, for example, has been contracted with a company called “Automated Insights” to write AI sport stories for years. It doesn’t seem like that many people have noticed, or really cared if they did.

And I think there’s even something existential about the profession here. The other big sports media controversy of recent weeks involved Fox and Amazon sideline reporter Charissa Thompson (whom I’ve also worked with, it’s a small industry, people) confessing on a podcast that she, when she couldn’t track down a coach at halftime for an in-game quote, would “make up the report sometimes.”

Many smart sideline reporters, including Hall of Famer Andrea Kremer, blasted Thompson for the obviously unethical behavior (for which she apologizedsaying she “chose the wrong words to describe the situation” ). But it is worth noting that despite Thompson working as a sideline reporter for eight years, not once did anyone notice that she might have been making up stories even though she had one of the most high-profile jobs in the profession.

Thompson herself said she could get away with it because, as The New York Times put it, “no coach would object to her citing boilerplate comments about the team’s performance.” That’s pretty damning right there, isn’t it? Making up reporting is bad, obviously. But what does it say about the reporting in the first place that Thompson’s (self-alleged) made-up stories were indistinguishable from the empty prattle she usually got out of coaches?

Usually when journalists make up stories, they do so to make them more interesting (and of course, the vast majority of journalists do nothing of the sort). But Thompson knew not to do that, because if she would have made them interesting, they would have sounded fake. Because she—and so many other sideline reporters—so rarely gave us anything worthwhile. Her deception was a sad, empty cracked-mirror image of what she was giving us anyway. If sports journalists can’t give us anything that isn’t obviously different than something made up specifically to be boring and anodyne, well, how much better are we than the robots anyway?

Another game I like to play in my downtime is NBA2K, the wildly popular NBA video game. At halftime of every game I play, the (virtual) announcer throws it down courtside to an XBOX avatar of Curt Gowdy Award-winning reporter David Aldridge, who, in real life, is a fantastic journalist whom NBA fans have known and respected for years. But in the game, Aldridge is not real; he’s just some pixels synced to audio the real Aldridge recorded years ago.

The last time I played, Video Aldridge asked Video Julius Randle, who had 16 first-half points for my Video Knicks, what the key to his performance in the first half was. Video Julius Randle (also synced to audio the real Randle recorded years ago) answered in empty platitudes, because how could he not? He’s not real. He’s describing a game that didn’t happen. The whole interview is made-up, because the game is made-up.

And you know what? I get just as much insight from a NBA2K courtside interview as I do from a real one. They sound exactly the same. Is it any wonder Thompson wouldn’t bother with an actual interview? A robot literally does it just as well.

So as much as I was saddened by Sports Illustrated’s AI debacle, not to mention what’s happening at my old site, I still find myself less offended by the robots than I am despairing at the quality of the work they’re ostensibly replacing. Sports writers insist, as we fight back against a creeping AI world, that we can always do our jobs better than a robot can. If we’d like to continue working in this industry and having the trust and eyeballs of our readers and viewers … I’d humbly suggest we work a little harder to make sure we can prove it.

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