By Tim Baffoe–

(670 The Score) The year 2017 is ending in a terribly fitting way — watching internet toxicity.

I’ve genuinely grown fatigued by social media bringing out the worst us, myself included, and considered quitting it entirely as it sometimes eats away at my emotional wellbeing. But in some catch 22 ,I also depend on it, so I’m still there.

For now. But it tries me.

On Thursday, photographer Betsy Bissen wrote about Minnesota Twins player Miguel Sanó allegedly sexually assaulting her years ago. Sano denies it. Despite making it clear that her only motivation in telling her story was to simply tell her story, Bissen, as public accusers of famous or powerful men know, was harassed heavily online and eventually made her Twitter account private.

The managing editor of the SB Nation Twins site closed the comments section on its Sanó story because comments sections are dumpsters and dumpsters in July when the article is about alleged sexual assault by an athlete. She was then harassed for it because … yeah.

Later on Thursday, Jay Bilas of ESPN continued his righteous biting of a hand that has long fed him by criticizing Iowa State for restricting quarterback Jacob Park from transferring to Iowa.

The replies to his tweet were typically ignorant of any humanity in athletes treated as commodities. Whether it be their autonomy causing we fans to lose some perceived control over them or them as potential sexual predators causing we fans to lose someone who helps our favorite teams win or being forced to knowingly root for someone who does.

Thing is, I’m not here to point to the problematic people. I’m here to talk to the problematic people because I was once one of them. And I want to talk about empathy — or the severe lack of it.

I used to believe things about women and women’s sports in particular that were unfair and stupid and sexist. There was a time I would have criticized Bissen or at least made a tasteless joke about the situation. In the past, I’ve let blind spots and conditioned biases show through in issues and stories involving people of color, the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities and the poor. I’ve been the guy in person and online who would have been put on blast in my social media feeds today.

I wasn’t much of a critical thinker, and I certainly was lacking in empathy. Basically, there’s a lot of me in this Drew Magary reflection from October. The sourest of stomachs comes in waves when I think about how I’d go for a cheap joke, even if there wasn’t malice driving my idiocy. It’s like seeing photos of bygone fashion you were into and cringing, but it’s worse because these bad figurative haircuts didn’t only involve me. At least I now have baldness as a penance.

It has taken me years of my adult life to deprogram myself through listening. Through exposing myself to discussions involving communities of which I’m not part but that might indict the ones of which I am. Through slowly learning that a lot of things I thought were funny or unworthy of being taken seriously are important or painful to many people.

I mentioned my dependence on social media earlier. Sure, it’s a vehicle for my writing and #brand, but it’s also my access to witty people and important voices that make me a better thinker the more I’m exposed to them. Much of my education in empathy has ironically come through social media. A series of accidental exposures to people I chose to listen to because I found them smart, funny or informative about one thing but ended up teaching me so much more about stuff beyond sports analysis or something comparatively mundane, instead suggesting an article or a book or another person to follow that put my mind in a different place.

There was no great awakening, just a bunch of little periodic realizations that broader discussions that intelligent people with much different backgrounds than me were having were often indirectly about me. I quietly observed creative, funny, experienced people explaining societal situations — often that intersected with sports — that I did not identify with.

But empathy isn’t about identifying. I’ll never identify with Baltimore Oriole Adam Jones having objects and racial epithets thrown at him by fans. I can’t know what it’s like to have a sports opinion replied to with “Go back into the kitchen.” If I’m ever in a locker room, nobody is going to be wary of me because of my sexuality or gender identity.

I ask that in the new year you, the bothered, contentious person in any majority societal group, make a conscious effort to listen. Seek out voices — sports and otherwise — from marginalized communities you aren’t part of. Read their writing. Check out their podcasts. Follow sports writers and talkers of color and women and the LGBTQ communities on social media. Consume way more than you produce.

Understand without offense intended that if you aren’t part of a marginalized community, your thoughts on that marginalized community aren’t important or solicited unless you’re educating unempathetic members of your own community. Know that not everything on social media is an invitation for your interjection. Just listen.

When a person of color points out a perceived injustice — like what NFL players have knelt for and the misplaced criticisms they’ve received for that — it’s not whining from that person and it’s not a figment of his or her imagination. It’s speaking from real experience and knowledge. To dismiss that is to continue to lacquer our imaginations of a world that isn’t the reality of those we choose to not empathize with.

When a woman says something about issues with women or sports or both, allow space for it. Don’t question why someone waits any period of time to report or talk publicly about being the victim of inappropriate sexual behavior, especially because there are many valid reasons why one does that you’re choosing to ignore.

Your initial reflex to such things may be to get bothered, to have that human defense mechanism of doing anything to rid your senses of this perceived poisonous info. That’s OK. You’re not a bad person for your reflexes. But a decent person — an empathetic person — will take that discomfort, stop for a moment and consider how this might be an opportunity to learn something and better yourself in even the slightest of ways. We don’t learn through comfort.

Empathy can take time, years in my case. I still come up short sometimes. It takes a lot of listening and reading and observing and just basically shutting up. It’s work, but it takes work to make up for intellectual laziness of the past just like any diet you plan on starting January 1. OK, January. OK, February at the latest — unless it’s still too cold outside to take a brisk walk. Comfortable info that reinforces your beliefs about minority groups is empty intellectual calories. 

Empathy means you also stop writing off insensitivity to marginalized communities as “just making a joke,” as though these bits of lazy humor are just insignificant drops in a bucket when other people live every day in that bucket and you don’t. Satire and any good humor punches up or across, not down. Empathy understands which direction is which, and empathy knows that targets of the “humor” aren’t being oversensitive.

This is no wussification of America or PC police run amok. It’s being not an idiot when you’re made aware that what you’re doing impedes people who already have enough unfair disadvantages. It’s still possible to be funny without using the vulnerable as fodder, and if you can’t do that, maybe you’re not actually funny except to the lowest common denominator. It’s not pleasant to realize this — I know all too well. But denying it ain’t empathy.

Stop defending people accused of bad stuff just because they entertain you on a field, court, rink, screen or stage or because they wear the team colors of a faith or political party. Empathy means deferring to accusers of systemic injustice and not adding any “yeah, but …” or “what about…” whatsoever.

And some of my continued empathetic pursuits in 2018 will involve trying to not be so quick to belittle someone who doesn’t agree with me on matters mentioned here. I still need to better myself daily and haven’t earned a high horse. Also, I didn’t learn from being scolded or mocked, and I’ve been a hypocrite to take that approach with others in the past. I want to model better empathy.

There’s been plenty of talk in recent years of how difficult discussions “divide us.” The dividing only happens when someone walks away from those discussions — or attempts to outright sabotage them, maybe by attacking someone online into submission — instead of walking toward them. This is to resist empathy. I ask that you try to walk toward them, and then listen from the sidelines. Engage if called on, but otherwise just listen for now.

If you make that effort, you will be better for it. I’m going to keep trying to get better in 2018 and keep trying to listen to and amplify those other voices.

I sincerely wish you the best of mental and emotional health in the new year.

Tim Baffoe is a columnist for Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not Entercom or our affiliated radio stations.