Grant Cohn is a member of the media who writes for the FanNation 49ers blog at SI.com. He also talks about the team on his YouTube channel, which has more than 48,000 subscribers as of Thursday noon. Her father, Lowell, was a longtime Bay Area columnist.
Javon Kinlaw is a defensive lineman, who the San Francisco 49ers drafted in the first round despite concerns about the durability of his knee. He played four games last season, his second in the league.
The two have been involved in two confrontations this week. The first happened on the side of the 49ers practice field. Kinlaw apparently cursed Cohn and knocked his hat off the top of his head. Later that day, Kinlaw swore at Cohn again, this time after joining a live stream on Cohn’s YouTube channel. (Note: I never felt so old as when I typed the previous sentence.)
OKAY. This is my attempt at an absolutely simple and objective summary of a situation that scares me. Not because a player was angry with a member of the media. It’s happened to me and I’ve seen it happen to others. It is my opinion that this has been happening for as long as human beings have scrutinized the athletic endeavors of other human beings.
What scared me was that I was seeing a version of the future of sports media. A future in which members of the media behaved like YouTube trolls, acting deliberately ridiculous or antagonistic to spark conflicts that could be turned into more conflicts that could be happily recounted as content for the public. I thought this because that’s pretty much what Cohn did: https://youtu.be/4Hf9sjBttFY
Cohn basically bragged about how many different things he said that could have provoked Kinlaw’s reaction, and you know what? It worked. Kinlaw got angry. He confronted Cohn. Twice. TMZ published an article about it. SFGate.com too.
This is trolling behavior. You know, the online parasites that say or do something in an effort to elicit a reaction, and once they get that reaction, they narrate and review that reaction in an attempt to trigger another reaction. Lather, repeat rinsing. Increasingly, entire online media ecosystems consist of nothing more than people disliking themselves and talking about how much they dislike each other.
I’m not going to pretend this is entirely new to sports media. Sports columnists are known to make a reputation for their willingness to criticize the home team. A big part of Skip Bayless’s trademark is his unwavering insistence on highlighting Lebron James’ perceived flaws. Stephen A. Smith has engaged in public feuds with players, namely Kevin Durant.
I see a difference between that and what Cohn did, though. The reaction that Bayless and Smith primarily care about comes from their audience, not their subjects. Topics can get crazy, but that’s not the primary goal. At least I hope not.
What if that’s the main goal? What if someone offers opinions not because that’s what they really think, but because they want to elicit a response from the subject? Media careers are built on less.
I don’t know if that’s the case with Cohn. I’ve never spoken to him in my life, and even if I did, it’s impossible to know someone’s true intention. But listening to everything he said AFTER the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, I don’t want to assume that Cohn was acting in good faith. Here’s how Cohn described the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, which happened early in practice.
“In the practice room, I saw Javon Kinlaw, who is the king of the practice room,” Cohn said. “He’s usually in the practice room.”
Cohn said the two eyes met, but were about 70 yards apart at the time. Kinlaw then walked across the field to where the reporters were gathered. He was standing directly behind Cohn.
“So I turn around and say, ‘Wassup, Mook Dawg?’ said Cohn, referencing the nickname on Kinlaw’s Instagram account. “And he doesn’t say anything. And I say, ‘Why are you looking at me like that, Javon?’ “
“And then he said, ‘What are you gonna do about it, bitch,’ and then he said one more word that I can’t say,” Cohn said. “And then I turned around to face him and said, ‘Oh, is that like that?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, that’s the way it is.’ And then he knocked the hat off my head.
OKAY. Pause. In my experience, when your job is to publicly describe and critique the performance and attitudes of professional athletes, there will be times when athletes don’t care about your description or critique. Some of those who are dissatisfied will let you know their objections.
However, there are two things that are unusual here: first, the fact that Kinlaw knocked the hat off Cohn’s head, which is unacceptable. Secondly, Cohn then posted a video on YouTube not only to talk about what had happened, but to state that he had been so critical of Kinlaw for so long that he wasn’t sure what specifically had happened. angered Kinlaw.
“Javon, why are you upset?” Cohn asked near the end of his video. “Is it the fact that I said you had an 80-year-old knee?” Is it the fact that I said you’re a terrible pass thrower and you’re just a two-down player? Is it the fact that I said the Niners shouldn’t have signed you and should have taken Tristan Wirfs instead. Is it the fact that I said you are unprofessional and immature.
“It escapes me which of the hundred negative things I’ve said about Javon Kinlaw over the past two years caused him to approach me in this way, but you know what, I applaud Javon Kinlaw for coming to talk to me directly, and I’m asking you, what do you think Javon Kinlaw is crazy about.
Cohn was dragging Kinlaw. No other word for it.
That night, Cohn was leading a YouTube live stream, which Kinlaw joined, while apparently having dinner, to make statements about the size of Cohn’s genitals, among other things.
Neither looked particularly impressive. Not Kinlaw, who was profane and combative with a member of the media, at one point making a not-so-subtle threat. Not Cohn, who asked Kinlaw, “Do you think I’m afraid of you, Javon?” He also said, “I don’t even know why you’re mad, Javon.”
I think Kinlaw would have been better off ignoring Cohn. If I were Kinlaw’s employer, I’d probably prefer he didn’t log on to live video feeds to do testicular comparisons. But honestly, I don’t care what Kinlaw did. At all. He is not part of a team for which I encourage. He did not harm anyone physically. He uttered swear words in public.
I’m disturbed not only by Cohn’s actions, but by some of the reactions to them because of what I think this type of behavior will do to an industry I’ve worked in for 25 years. Members of the accredited media who behave like Cohn did this week make it difficult for other members of the media who act in good faith. Preserving access for people like him diminishes what that access will do for those who don’t try to use criticism to create conflict that will become content.
I think Cohn knew what he was doing. In his livestream, before Kinlaw joined, Cohn said he was not afraid because he knew – due to his father’s history in the business – that if Kinlaw had touched him, he would would potentially be entitled to monetary compensation.
By now it should be pretty obvious how problematic this all is and yet on Thursday a number of 49ers fans online were defending Cohn as simply doing his job. Dieter Kurtenbach, a Bay Area columnist, tweeted, “Javon Kinlaw doesn’t know @GrantCohn was built for this.” Built for what? Win battles on the Internet? Kurtenbach also deleted a Tweet in which he called Kinlaw “sweet.”
Cohn’s father, Lowell, is a former columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. He promoted the first video his son made on Tuesday:
Sorry, I don’t find it funny because it’s another step down a path where members of the media are looking for feedback at the expense of information. Where they seek to poke fun at players instead of getting to know them. They’ll stop acting like reporters and start acting like the trolls who make their money by fomenting a dispute, which they then film: “Jake Paul, live coverage of 49ers practice…”
If so, thank God I’m about to retire from this business altogether. I’m 47 and I can’t believe there’s anyone in our industry who thinks what Cohn did this week is okay.