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A month ago I wrote a short column on the benefits of the small size of the cross-country ski community in the U.S. Shortly thereafter, I received an e-mail from a collegiate ski coach posing an interesting question.

“It seems like being a small sport is tough,” the query read, “because criticism tends to be withheld, or worse, is passive aggressive. After all, it’s tough to be critical of someone you’ll see again weekend after weekend. Do you think we’re stunted by this?”

I have spent the last several weeks pondering this question, and have come to the conclusion that yes, the ski community is hurt by its size.

There is an element of “small-town” syndrome: behind-the-back gossip, petty sniping, and passive aggressive behavior, all while putting on a friendly face when you bump into your neighbor on the street – or in this case, on the side of the race course.

As the editor of FasterSkier, I am constantly butting up against this issue. The tight-knit community often means that people are unwilling to talk about certain issues, fearful of offending someone or burning a bridge. Open discourse is limited, and anonymous opinions rampant.

It is ironic that the small nature of the sport leads to a lack of transparency, when exactly what we need to grow the sport is free discussion and the freedom to be critical.

As we at FasterSkier have worked to raise the bar of cross-country ski journalism, we have tackled more controversial issues. Each time we dig into something, we take a risk that there may be repercussions.  We are not just one of many media organizations asking hard questions – we are pretty much the only one. And that means there is nowhere to hide. Do we take the stance of information at all costs? Or are some things not worth the potential fallout?

There are always gray areas, but in general we go with the former, because that is our job, and we believe that doing our job properly is good for the sport. However, athletes, coaches, parents, and supporters are all faced with the same question.  “Is it worth rocking the boat to say what I think?”

I believe the answer is too often “no, it isn’t worth it.”

The solution, in my mind is extremely simple, but hard to implement.  We must recognize that we are all on the same side.  We all want the same thing, albeit in different forms: the growth and success of the sport.  We want both Olympic medals as well as a vibrant community of passionate people who love the sport and the associated lifestyle.

We can disagree on how those goals should be reached, but hurt feelings shouldn’t be the inevitable result. A big part of this picture, as it so often is, is ego. We need to be respectful in criticism and considerate of differing opinions, and we need to recognize a healthy discourse is necessary to keep the sport moving forward.

I am constantly amazed at the hostility that underlies many issues and interactions in the ski community.  Too many people feel they have all the answers, and too many people take offense when questioned.

It is not all bad – in fact, there are many constructive discussions and collaborations.  The sport is experiencing a resurgence, in large part due to the work of committed individuals striving to make things better. But we can do a better job on our communication and our openness, as too much of the positive work takes place behind closed doors or in elite circles. Ultimately, we all must be free to express opinions and ideas, without fear of pissing someone off.

19 Responses to “Speak Up!”

  1. Zachary Caldwell Says:

    Topher – I applaud the sentiment behind this editorial. I also applaud the outstanding journalistic work done by your staff in the past year. Fasterskier has made itself a tremendous resource for the ski community.
    However, I think it’s important to acknowledge the role that Fasterskier plays in fostering the contentious and divisive environment that you have identified as a problem. Fasterskier makes no effort to hold people accountable for the anonymous comments made on the site. Nothing promotes hostility and vitriol like the guarantee of anonymity. I understand that it is difficult – even impossible – to confirm identities on the internet, but it doesn’t appear that you make even a token effort to hold people accountable for their statements.
    You can count me among the people who have lost interest in contributing to the overall ski community because of the way that community is represented by Fasterskier comments. In my experience the smaller community of people that aren’t afraid to communicate directly, using their actual names, is pretty respectful and forward-looking. The community of hostility and anonymity that you have identified is one that you have fostered and given life to. A while back it lived on the Team Today website, and the administrators of that site saw fit to shut down the comments section.
    If, as you say, there are many constructive discussions and collaborations then I can pretty well guarantee that they’re not happening on Fasterskier. My suggestion is that you put some effort into checking identities and publish e-mail addresses. Until you have some control of that situation, Fasterskier will continue to be the home of unpleasantness in the US ski community, and you will guarantee that the people with the most to contribute will stay away. This is a situation of your choosing.
    Cheers,
    Zach Caldwell
    zc@caldwellsport.com

  2. Harry Says:

    Annoying, dumb, ridiculous, and anonymous commenting is part of the internet these days. Take it for what it is and beware of trolls.

  3. ML Says:

    Thank you Faster Skier for opening the discussions beyond that of those already part of the inside elite. Those on a “First Name basis” have perpetuated a very closed system which continues to require a reputation and legacy much more than top results to benefit from the pipeline.
    Opportunity in the current system cetainly is not equal for all, nor is the current system likely to find and develop very much top internatonal talent. Only by allowing far greater numbers of unknown names and their ideas into the community will new treasures be unearthed.
    Results speak for themselves, regardless of the name of the author reporting them.

  4. Norbert Meier Says:

    I also agree and like with the sentiment expressed in your article. I’m sure we all can cite many examples of the small-minded and defensive behaviour you refer to. And, I agree with Zach Caldwell’s comments about the role comment areas on website play in fostering a lack of accountability for statements and allegations.

    Perhaps we can take a page from the Obama campaign (and Mahatma Ghandi) and ‘be the change we want to see in the world”. In other words, it’s not so much about “them” — what should they do, how should they act, etc. Rather, what if we took on the personal accountability to conduct ourselves in a way that is true to the ideas expressed in the article? So, don’t post something you wouldn’t say to anyone face-to-face, work for positive change, if criticism is warranted then start with the perspective that the other person was trying to do some good and express the criticism in a building and not a destructive way.

  5. Jack Sasseville Says:

    I agree fully with what Zach has written, but Fasterskier is not alone. There are many other sites that I would love to debate on, but will not due to previous personal attacks. To say that this is a part of the internet and there is nothing to be done is like saying there is nothing that we can do about crime.
    There are ways to help create open communication. Do not publish anything that is not signed in full. If the content attacks anyone in person then it should be removed.
    You must have the ability to edit what is written in responses as much as you have the ability to edit the blogs and articles.

  6. Harry Says:

    Jack
    Most forums, news sites, and the like have anonymous usernames and profiles (NY Times does). Admins should be able to remove personal attacks and particularly bad comments but this isn’t kindergarten. Quit taking the internet forums personally (people are dicks there).

  7. Todd Eastman Says:

    If you have something to say, sign it with your name!

  8. Ben Arians Says:

    ML makes a good point about a perception of a closed system and an inside elite. There seems to be a bit of a “circle of trust”, a good ol’ boys club if you will, that is probably not the most productive atmosphere for good across the board development of coaches and athletes. I do think that the USST, and Pete Vordenberg in particular, went a ways towards trying to give a face to the USST, and to let the community as a whole into what was going on, and I hope that continues under Chris Grover.
    I’m sorry to hear that Zach Caldwell no longer is interested in contributing to the overall ski community, I’m sure he felt like he had a bit of a target on his back as Kris Freeman’s coach. It must have been hard to hear the uncomplimentary things said about the USST’s performance in Vancouver after all the time he spent working towards some big goals there. I know I was disappointed (and admittedly, dismayed at times) along with many others about the lack of results for the USST in Vancouver, but it must pale beside his own. Hopefully there will be a good hard look internally at the USST at what went on there, as far as organization and management (and of course training and preparation). And hopefully Zach will not let a few anonymous wankers affect how he feels about the ski community at large. I gotta admit, though, I get a bit of a kick out of the whole “hand-picked in Austria” thing that BNS does. Oh well, they’ve created a demand that didn’t really exist before, so bravo to them. Just don’t rule out your friendly local Fischer/Atomic/Salomon/Rossignol/Madshus/etc. dealer that knows the trails, knows the weather, and knows you.
    Happy training and coaching, see you all this winter at the races!

  9. Tim Kelley Says:

    As far as anomymous wanker comments on FS: Zach reminded me how bad Team Today was. That was really, really bad. But in my opinion FS doesn’t seem as bad. So I wouldn’t change anything. Actually, FS is very tame as far as Internet discussions go. Any major web site that is political or financial oriented has much more vitrol for sure.

  10. Marty Hall Says:

    I think this is simple—-No real name you don’t get to play the game. Topher—you’re the referee

  11. Seymor Butts Says:

    I agree with Marty, social security numbers and birth certificates will be verified by Topher before anyone is allowed to rip on the USST.

  12. Marty Hall Says:

    Hi Marty – This is Topher writing. I will respond to this issue,and Zach’s comments in a much more robust fashion, but for now,wanted to make a simple point – there is NO way to force people to use their real name. This is true on every site on the internet. The onlyway to verify a name would be to require a credit card,but I for one would never give my credit card info unless I was purchasing something.

  13. FedererFTW Says:

    And what if you don’t write your name but all you have is great things to say about the USST?

  14. teamepokeedsbyn Says:

    Seymor, i enjoyed your last film

    Anoninimity is exactly why many feel free to speak their mind here, and elswhere on the internet. Leads to much freeer and better discussion in my opinion. This protects a person both personally and professionaly. For example, how could a member of the USST/coaching staff post something negative about that team if he/she is required to submit identity and thus face the consequenses for speaking his/her mind….won’t happen.

    The alternative is a discussion of a single closed group all agreeing, or face ridicule for not agreeing. If you want to give your name, do so. If not, don’t just your opinion is good.

    Signed,
    William Marolt

  15. David Knoop Says:

    Personally I don’t do Facebook or the phonebook. It cuts down on the undesirable elements from contacting me. Many of you know who I am anyway and that’s fine I just don’t need internet search engines pinging on me everyday, lord knows it happens enough anyway. Many of you have had the experience of me walking right up to you face to face, I’ll stick my hand out and say “hi how are you, I’m Dave Knoop”. We may agree or not it doesn’t really matter yet the face to face interaction always gets a different result than the sniping on the internet. I still say hello to many people I disagree with as they do the same. It’s a common curtousy that can build respect amongst each other and for understanding someone else’s opinion.

    Andrew Gardner, oops I mean Johnny Klister, made a comment
    last winter that resonated well with me. It may have been a harsh message yet he was right. Basically he said talk is cheap and actions speak louder than words. So if you are actively involved in our sport trying to do something for the greater good by volunteering, coaching, fund raising, etc.. Good on ya’ mate! If you are just whining and spewing your opinion in a negative way then maybe you should try walking a mile in someone else’s shoes who is actually trying to get something done. Johnny Klister isn’t exactly a huge USST booster yet his objectivity was more balanced at a time when FS had 200 mostly negative & sometimes strange comments in one article during the Olympics.

    There are many shrill headlines that I see posted on this web site. For example, the one posted today “DANGER SKIING CAUSES ASTHMA” or something like that. Yeah and staying indoors is a great way to get sick to from breathing everyone else’s germs. Or how ’bout all those high school basketball players with exercise induced asthma? Exercise induced asthma is very common and not exclusive to skiing so why post such an insipid headline?

    I digress…

    What I commonly see here regarding any discussion that FS would like to promote is as follows:

    1. Lots of problem admiring but no solutions or positive suggestions.

    2. Little if any back up from those that can’t walk their talk.

    3. Ironically I do have to thank John Caldwell for his “Call to Action” , yup he pissed me off but I did something about it. check out http://www.nccsef.org.

    Cheers!

  16. Todd Eastman Says:

    With a name comes a history of that person’s involvement and accomplishments in the community. A signed comment bears considerably more weight in a discussion than one from an an anonymous poster. There is a pecking order in this community, if improving skiing is important to you, step up and put in your time. We have a small xc community in this country and because of that we have the unusual opportunity to have access,in person and communications, with the elite coaches and athletes.

    Don’t forget, skiing fast is fun!

  17. Heidi Henkel Says:

    I agree with Zach. I think people should post with their real names, unless there is a legitimate reason for wanting anonymity, in which case the person should, using their real name, send their comment to Fasterskier administrators for approval and if the Fasterskier administrator sees this as a legitimate comment with a legitimate reason to be anonymous, they would post it as an anonymous post. But people should not be allowed to post nasty comments directly, anonymously.
    Also, anyone posting a nasty comment should be suspended from posting for a period of time.

  18. Dell Todd Says:

    My local tv news instituted an effective measure that completely fixed this problem. You make comments on their site via embedded facebook. Here take a look at a discussion from todays news:

    http://www.woodtv.com/dpp/entertainment/Film-to-close-2-GR-roads-for-car-chase

  19. highstream Says:

    Actually, Dell, Facebook doesn’t check IDs either, and users don’t have to post a photo. The very desire to use a pseudonym arises in part because of the small nature of the community that Topher addresses.

    My first thought is, what discussions? There are few topics or articles on fasterskier that even theoretically engender discussion of any note. For those that do, they often speak to and bring out the sharp differences of opinion that exist among the x-c ski community in the U.S. (and Canada). If Topher wants to – and has time to – moderate contributions to make sure that the tone and style of speech are within reason, that’d be fine by me, but names or pseudonyms won’t change the underlying nature of the discussion.

    And there are some hard justifiably hard differences of opinion and hard feelings out there. About some people’s desire for “positive” or “constructive” comments, leaving aside generational differences, the fact is that critique of what exists is the first step toward wisdom. Its content should stand and fall on its own merits, regardless of the activity level or name of the writer.

    Speaking more generally, i.e., beyond Fasterskier, I’m tempted to say that anyone who uses their real name on the internet to post opinions either has a secure job or occupation, or is a fool. That would be a bit cavalier, and I certainly understand the motivation behind Zach’s comments (we’ve discussed this many times over the years). However, the reality is many potential and current employers do internet name searches. Given a choice between employment and using one’s own name, I don’t see the choice as difficult.

    P.S. Topher, it would be helpful if the comments set up allowed for editing one’s posts.