Why Sports Illustrated’s ‘Drew Ortiz’ is less about bad writing and more about a bad omen

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After the beat writers had hustled back to the press box to meet their unforgiving deadlines, I lingered in the Phillies’ clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park on a warm June evening in 2011, waiting for the one-on-one interview I wanted.

It’s a go-to technique for a feature writer like me. After a player feeds a string of bland platitudes to the deadline writers huddled around them, you slide in hoping to draw them into a conversation that will yield revealing quotes and insights that illuminate the game and the people who play it, even if they don’t fit into a daily schedule that demands 600 words by 11 p.m. So I hung around, hoping my patience would earn me a few quality minutes with Carlos Ruiz.

Soon only two writers remained: me and a white guy in his mid-50s, with sandy brown hair, a matching beard, and the most impressive résumé in the business. Gary Smith, that titan of a writer, from Sports Illustrated, that monument of a publication. I had been reading him since grade school, and had studied his work in university. Now I stood alongside him, next to Ruiz’ locker. 

I felt a ripple of trepidation.

If sportswriting were an actual sport, SI would be the NBA — everyone else was the G-League. Among sports writers, Gary Smith is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Skip the five-year waiting period. This 1990 feature on Buster Douglas and his dad is, by itself, good enough to send him straight to Cooperstown for scribes.

Imagine working on your jumpshot in an empty gym, when Michael Jordan appears and starts hoisting his trademark fadeaway toward that same hoop. You’d feel as nervous and starstruck as I did sharing time and space with Gary Smith.

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So how would I react today if I ran into Drew Ortiz on the job?

Equally unsettled, but for different reasons.

A person holds a magazine.
Sports Illustrated was once considered the standard for sportswriting, with the likes of Gary Smith and George Plimpton on its roster. (Darron Cummings/The Associated Press)

Journalistic hero

Smith had that sterling body of work and towering reputation as the pound-for-pound champion of long-form sports writing. It’s enough to make the best of us question our credentials.

Ortiz has that pallid skin, vacant stare and hazy back story. It’s all awkward enough to make you question reality. And there’s the tortured syntax. Imagine falling into conversation with Ortiz, and he hits you with this bit of sports wisdom:

“[Volleyball] can be a little tricky to get into, especially without an actual ball to practice with.”

With Smith, it jarred me to see one of my journalistic heroes in real life, and confirm that behind the famous byline lived an actual person. 

But Ortiz? He’s literally just a byline. Everything else about him, from his headshot to his bio to his work, are all figments of the artificial imaginations of a series of computers. He’s one of several A.I. “journalists” whose work hid in plain sight on Sports Illustrated’s website until an investigation by Maggie Harrison at Futurism exposed the whole setup last month.

The ensuing scandal was predictable and well-deserved. If you and your business partners are using A.I. writers, just tell us. From there, we’ll decide whether to keep reading.

But the bigger questions have less to do with Sports Illustrated squandering its proud legacy than with the entire sports journalism business, and how we plan to resist, integrate or surrender to artificial intelligence. If we don’t figure it out quickly, those of us who remain employed might wind up working for Drew Ortiz.

So first, let’s acknowledge that sports media’s A.I. era isn’t coming. Like climate change, or the early season Colorado Buffaloes, it’s here. SI isn’t the only outlet who, either directly or through affiliates, has used robot writers. Gannett dabbled with it earlier this year, and A.I. voiceovers abound on YouTube, and every video-heavy social network you can name.

Even I, who have barely advanced past the flip-phone stage of technological literacy, found a productive use for A.I. I needed an image of Hulk Hogan coaching college football in a sleeveless t-shirt, and the machines delivered

But passing off A.I.-generated content as the work of humans is ethically indefensible and practically untenable. How do readers complain when the bots make factual errors? To whom? And who gets sued if Drew Ortiz defames somebody?

A logo appears on a mobile phone with the words 'OpenAI'.
The OpenAI logo appears on a mobile phone in front of a screen showing a portion of the company website. (Peter Morgan/The Associated Press)

Abysmal quality

All valid questions with no clear answers yet.

But the reality is, as publications look to trim costs, they’ll lean toward the cheapest options until consumer backlash prompts them to invest in the product. When I worked on staff, I had a salary. As a freelancer I have a rate, and the companies I might contract with either meet it or they don’t.

But Drew Ortiz? He doesn’t have a salary and will never demand a raise. He doesn’t need a dental plan, and his freelance rate — $0.00 per word — is unbeatable and unchanging. And to the extent that big outlets, three-and-a-half years post-George Floyd, are still interested in diversity, equity and inclusion, Drew Ortiz’ headshot atop his article signals a kind of multiculturalism.

“He might look white, but his last name is Ortiz. Drew is our highest-profile Hispanic staffer.”

As for the abysmal quality of A.I. generated writing, it might improve, the same way your Spotify playlists do as the algorithm learns your tastes. Except that A.I. writing learns from what’s already published, and if more of it floods the internet we’ll have robots teaching robots. It’s like learning boxing from all the non-boxers who post their pad-work to social media. You’ll hit a hard ceiling, quickly.

My hope is that A.I. follows the trajectory augmented reality did — a few years of hysteria followed by a regression to what’s realistic. A decade ago they told us AR was “The Future of Everything.” Remember Google Glass? It’s okay if you don’t. I’m still trying to forget. But augmented reality also gave us the QR code, which we now use to shave seconds off of online tasks that once took a few more seconds.

But my fear is that people who make staff and budget decisions will keep exploring how far they can push A.I. content creation before the audience pushes back. The limit is probably farther than I’m willing to admit. 

Morgan Campbell can talk to Carlos Ruiz about the ways late-career Roy Halladay was still improving, and Gary Smith can explore how an undersized catcher managed a staff of all-star pitchers. Drew Ortiz can’t. He couldn’t produce half a percent of that observation and insight.

But whatever Ortiz does, he does for free, without complaint. Folks running the site that partnered with SI to publish Ortiz gladly accepted that quality/cost tradeoff. You didn’t hear any gripes from anybody tasked with putting out a website as cheaply as possible. The only quibbles come from journalists and, eventually, from readers, who aren’t used to robot writers.

Yet.

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