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Looking Back on the Cavinder Controversy
I hate getting involved in controversies, but at least this latest one offers an opportunity to take subscribers behind the media scenes a bit. If you didn’t already know, I wrote an article for the Free Press on Haley and Hanna Cavinder, twin millionaire college basketball TikTok stars turned full-time influencers. The piece went up in the wee hours, and I awoke to a missed call from their agent the next morning. I called back but no answer. This was my first clue that Camp Cavinder was less than pleased. This was the next clue.
And boom. I was in the news, suddenly mentioned by many an aggregator and getting besieged with media requests to explain myself. Apparently I was accused of doing an article under “a false pretense” and furthering “the narrative that hard working, creative and driven women can only do well if they are deemed attractive.” I asked about their “physical looks,” a phrase Hanna Cavinder put in specific quote marks, which would indicate I’d said just that.
Except, in point of fact, I never said this “physical looks” phrase, or asked anything remotely like it. I know this because I recorded our entire talk and transcribed the conversation. It’s just made up. I also did not do the article under a false pretense, which I’ll demonstrate later on in the piece.
Look, I’m not trying to be pedantic or attack our Influencer Overlords. Arguing with 22 year olds seems unappealing given that I’m mostly out of the loop, and quiver before their viral Zoomer powers. Can they send flash mobs at me? Are flash mobs even still a thing?
At the same time, it just seems strange to have your own site and go along with the publicized idea that something happened when it didn’t. I get that ultimately nobody cares much about what’s actually true in a low stakes argument between TikTokers and Substacker. All that said, my readers might find the behind scenes of this incident, such as it is one, interesting. I think it offers a good summary of a) How a story happens and b) How it can piss off those used to controlling their own narrative. Let’s take a look at what went down here.
So, just how did I become something between a lying journo trickster and the public perception of Homer Simpson in that Gummi Venus de Milo episode? I think it comes back to how my article pitch couldn’t withstand the interview. Here’s what I mean.
When the Free Press reached out with an offer to fly me to Miami for a Cavinder interview, we both were thinking it’d yield some fascinating insights. The twins were the first and biggest superstars of this new NIL (Name, Image, Likeness) era, wherein college athletes are finally permitted to profit off their individual brands. Clearly, beyond their “physical looks,” the Cavinders had to have some business savvy. They’d ridden this TikTok wave with a lot of intentionality, trading up from Fresno State to the University of Miami to cashing out with the WWE.
We wanted a granular, behind-the-scenes peek at an incredibly modern journey. Top YouTuber Mr. Beast left listeners spellbound when he went on Joe Rogan and explained all that went into success on that platform. I was hoping for the same effect and pitched it as such. The idea of the Cavinders as “a story about new media culture and business” was indeed what I was after.
As previously mentioned, I did not arrive with “a false pretense” of doing a business and media story. How can I prove it? Well, prior to the public Cavinder complaint, I’d already posted such a business and media story on my website, free to all readers, just because I was that interested in the material.
And why wasn’t the Free Press as invested in this business-forward perspective? Perhaps it could have been, but the interview responses in Miami didn’t exactly sound like Jack Welch explaining the inner workings of General Electric. The best insights I got into how the Cavinders’ operation worked came through observation on the scene. When I actually asked questions to this end, the replies were mostly vague and useless for publication purposes.
And that’s no sin. They’re 22 and in a maelstrom of publicity and activity. Maybe speaking about TikTok dominance is inherently difficult, a lost-in-translation endeavor that reminds of dancing about architecture. Or the result could be my failure as an interviewer. Or it might be situational. For what it’s worth, I’ve seen the Cavinders respond similarly in other media interviews, but found them far more candid when asked questions by Jake Paul, their partner and fellow big-time influencer.
In any event, my Miami trip yielded enough material to write a sports business story that was perfect for House of Strauss, but the haul was not so optimal for the Free Press, a site with a larger and not necessarily sports-obsessed audience.
So the editors at the Free Press opted for a different angle, more rooted in the NCAA’s intersectional challenge during this NIL era. Was the Free Press wrong to do this? No, not at all. The updated version better served its readers, whose interest is likely more keyed in on these tensions between the free market, college bureaucracy, and intersectional feminism.
I don’t think the Cavinders came off bad in the article, by the way. The piece wasn’t judging or criticizing their journey. Not that the actual content matters much when someone famous signals anger and people start reacting to reactions.
As the frenzied backlash grew, with certain media members melodramatically lamenting how far I’d fallen or whatever, a lot of writers privately communicated that the piece was fine, as they saw it. Some even said as much in public, such as author Jeff Pearlman, whom I don’t know and did not necessarily expect to defend me.
Given all the crazy backlash, I retroactively appreciated that the Free Press opted for something more encyclopedic than what I usually do on my site. I personally found the editing process difficult because I’m used to an audience that needs less sports exposition, and I found the newsier FP style hard to mirror. In the end though, when people are in an attacking frenzy, it’s nice to have written something so heavily anchored in reporting and quotes.
Overall, I understood the choices Free Press made, and took no issue with their potentially provocative “The NCAA has a ‘Hot Girl’ Problem” headline, even if it’s specifically what triggered the Cavinder response. That headline style is how it works at certain shops; the hed is splashy and the body is newsy. It wasn’t a dishonest title, so I’m good with it.
The Cavinders were, obviously, not so good with it. They wanted a story that was more rooted in their exciting new business adventure. They also didn’t want aspects of their success attributed to conventional attractiveness, though, come on, what are we doing here? The twins had decent college careers and Miami had a great run, but one was a reliable starter last season and the other averaged 3.8 points. I think every sane observer understands that their dramatic outearning of the game’s best players involves marketing more than just pure hoop. And that’s fine. Stating it isn’t a “blatant sexist trope.” It’s just reality, regardless of whether the Cavinders or certain journalistic outlets want to admit it.
All that said, the Cavinders are well within their rights to offer a negative opinion about an article. I don’t mind that they posted one, even if I disagree with their perspective on what’s included. I do, however, mind having a specific quote falsely attributed to me. I’d add that asking a couple of Zoomers about their “physical looks” is about the last thing I’d want to do as a suburban dork dad trundling around Miami. This whole experience was awkward enough for me without venturing into territory like that.
So what did I actually say, you might wonder? Having checked tape and transcript, the only snippet I can find even in this ballpark is the following barely coherent run-on paragraph from me, in which I’m asking about a New York Times story that mentioned them:
I don't know if you saw the New York Times article, that it was on NIL, and it was controversial, and it was saying that athletes are selling sex in the NCAA. The Stanford women's coach didn't like it. What's your take on that whole controversy?
For what it’s worth, they were aware of the story but that question yielded no takes. Instead, the conversation shifted to TikTok-famous LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne, who was mentioned specifically in the NYT article.
Other aspects of the interview did yield takes, some even quite controversial. But little of what was said actually corresponded to our story’s broader themes, and so they were cut. Perhaps that’s tough from the perspective of people who’ve grown accustomed to curating every aspect of their public transmissions. Maybe they’d felt their time was wasted.
I just know that our goal was to tell a broad story about the culture and we accomplished it. Not a hit piece. Not a sexist diatribe. Just a snapshot of this moment in time across multiple institutions as a lot quickly changes. That’s it. No hidden agenda. No “false pretense.” Just a no-bullshit look at hard-to-reconcile forces. Within all that chaos, we wanted to know how these Zoomers had gained so much power. Perhaps enough to invent their own reality, it turned out. Or, put more generously, perhaps enough to curate a reality more in alignment with their current #goals.