Stephen Holder Isn’t Holding Back

Stephen Holder
Stephen Holder, The Athletic’s National NFL Writer, is unafraid to share his views: “It’s just me being me.”

IN THE TRADITIONAL sense, a sports “beat writer” is a source of team information for fans. They write game recaps, give practice reports and injury updates, gather locker room quotes, and debate who deserves to be the team’s third point guard. Their social media accounts, outside the occasional Bruce Springsteen lyrics or tip on where to get the best barbecue when traveling to a Chiefs game, is generally dominated by just sports. Beat writer is absolutely an informative and useful role, but it’s also kind of … boring.

Stephen Holder’s Twitter feed is not.

Entering his ninth season on the Colts beat, the 44-year old Miami native completes all of the tasks listed above—maybe replace the Springsteen lyrics with Kanye or A Tribe Called Quest—but also opines on anything that piques his interest on social media. In front of a mostly white fanbase in the middle of a conservative state, Holder, an African American whose parents emigrated to the United States from Trinidad and Tobago, isn’t afraid to freely tweet his takes on hot-button issues like police reform, immigration, and climate change. Sure, he’ll tell you who he thinks should win the fifth wide receiver job after training camp, but he’ll also express his feelings on the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan or Texas’ abortion law.

I recently sat down with Holder to discuss his open approach to social media, the responsibilities that come with his platform, and the life experiences that have shaped his worldview.

IM: You seem to be completely unafraid to share your thoughts on topics that have nothing to do with football, whereas many sports media people, myself included, are often hesitant or extremely careful when doing so. Why is it important to you to use your platform in that way?

I don’t think it’s something I actively think about. It’s just me being me. You know me in real life—I’m pretty laid back. You’ve probably never seen me upset. It’s not a product of “I’m really, really ANGRY” or anything. People may think it’s born out of that, but it’s not. I’m just a really inquisitive person. Even as a kid, I wanted to know “why is this issue or that issue the way that it is?” I’m interested in a lot of different things. I don’t see any need to pretend that something is OK if I disagree with it. I am media, and I do think there’s a difference between espousing views on what I cover, but I’m also a citizen of the world. I have opinions about stuff. I don’t have a problem sharing them.

IM: You’ve been covering the NFL since the 1990s. Have you always been given the freedom to express those views from your employers?

Things have definitely changed. I started at the Miami Herald when I was in college, writing short game summaries. Even back then, you could be a personality, but there was no Stephen A. Smith in those days. There are all these forums now that didn’t exist back then. As a result of that shift, the job and our identities have become a lot more public. No one knew what your favorite sports writer’s musical taste was back then. People care now because they make a connection with you—they hear you on the radio, see you on TV, read your stories—and social media is where they really learn who you are. It’s no longer you, the writer, providing facts to the reader. It’s much more of you, the personality, making a connection. I feel like I do my job well. People have continued to employ me, so I guess I’m doing something right. If you follow me for sports coverage, you’re going to get what you came for, but you might get some extra. What you’re getting is me. Social media is free. You don’t pay a dime to follow me, so you don’t really have a say in the matter. You can’t send your meal back to the chef.

Yeah, I know which Kanye album is your favorite now. I wouldn’t have known that back then.

(laughs) There you go.

I think you see this phrase a lot less now, especially considering how much sports and politics have intersected in recent years, but what’s your reaction to “stick to sports”?

I think most people have come to accept the fact that you’re not a robot. Any person you follow on social media, whether they be an actor, athlete, professional in some field you’re interested in, very rarely do they only tweet about their profession. You might have a favorite musician or actor that you don’t like their views. Does that mean you’ll never watch or listen to something they do again? No. If I post a family picture, am I sticking to sports? There’s no blowback from that, but the “stick the sports” comments only come when it’s a topic someone doesn’t want to talk about, to which I would say, maybe we should be talking about that, then. Who really sticks to any topic on social media?

I think it’s pretty obvious that Twitter skews liberal and is a younger audience. However, Indiana, especially when you get out of Indianapolis and the donut counties, skews red. Have you ever worried about your takes costing you readers, subscribers, and followers?

There probably are people on Twitter that are like, “I’m done with this guy”, but I don’t think that matters as much as people think. What we’ve found as an industry is that social media is great for journalism in that you have a wider platform, but it’s hard to capitalize on that. It doesn’t totally pay the bills. The net loss, if there is one at all, is minimal. I don’t think there’s been a real tangible cost [to social media]. Most people if they disagree, they roll their eyes and then they say, “OK, what are they writing about today?” It’s been an education because my time here has come at an interesting point in history. I think a lot of [the openness on social media] started with the Trayvon Martin case. I was still living in Florida, and I remember the emotions watching that play out. You can probably guess where I came down on that case. It was right in my backyard, wall-to-wall coverage, and it was pretty consuming. It has been eye-opening for me to be in Indianapolis because I get to see and hear how people very different from me view these events, be it Ferguson, the Trump Presidency, or any number of things. There were times where I was like, “Whoa, that’s different!” You know, I’m a lifelong Floridian, born and raised in Miami, a cultural hotbed. I probably know more people from the Dominican Republic than I do most small towns in this state. But we all want the same thing. We want our families to be happy and to pay the bills. I take some measure of satisfaction in sharing how I see things. Maybe I’m too idealistic, but I think there was some good in that. I’m not putting myself on a pedestal or that I’m going to change the world or something, but I think there’s some benefit hearing from them and them hearing from me. I don’t think there’s any downside to that, as long as there’s respect on both sides. I don’t see where anyone loses. How is that a bad thing?

Stephen Holder
Holder, right, grew up in Miami. His parents emigrated to the United States from Trinidad and Tobago

As you said, you grew up in Miami, a young Black male, also a first-generation American. You have a voice that we often don’t hear in Middle America. It’s not a commonality like it is on the coasts, particularly in South Florida. Is it important to you to have this type of platform here for voices like yours?

I’ve never really thought of it as a “platform”, but you’re right that it is one. You hear all these buzz words in corporate America today, and some of them are corny, but one of them that is legitimate is representation. It matters. I had an editor at The Indianapolis Star who would come to me when there was a topic or line in a story that may have been racially insensitive, and he wanted to know my thoughts before it published. You can look at that two ways: “Oh, you go to the Black guy…” Well, yeah, you go to the Black guy because that’s who you’d be offending! So, I didn’t take offense to that. I’m not suggesting you need to have The Resident Black Guy so you can vet something, but I think what you want is to have all kinds of representation so these things happen organically. Sometimes, that question doesn’t even get asked because there’s no one there to ask it. I’m a pretty tough guy, and I’m not someone that gets hung up on every term, but I do think we in the media have a responsibility to be sensitive to those things. So I do think there was a lot of value in having that varied background. For example, with the law enforcement issues and NFL protests, that’s something we’ve had to write about because the players were talking about it. Given my experiences, I was able to really understand what questions to ask and understand why that needed to be dealt with.

For a lot of people, if something hasn’t happened directly to them or they haven’t seen it, they think, “Well, this doesn’t exist.” And the life experience that Zak Keefer had—Hamilton Southeastern grad, grew up here, white guy—is drastically different from the life experience you had. So I agree there’s value when you can say “I lived this” or “I had to talk to my son about this” when much of your audience, say 90 percent, has never experienced it. I’m not just talking about police issues, but just societal issues in general …

This is another reason why I get interested in these issues, because a lot of them have touched me personally in some way. My parents are from Trinidad and Tobago. Immigration is at an interesting place right now. If my parents were trying to come to America today, I don’t know they would make it. I’m not saying their life would be awful, but it would be very different and that brings it home. It puts it in perspective for me. I grew up working class. I didn’t grow up in the projects and I never missed a meal, but we didn’t have a lot. I was the Black kid who was bussed to the white school in the affluent neighborhood, which is a really bizarre experience when you’re young. I’m not saying they were all bad experiences—many of them weren’t—but they definitely end up shaping you. I ended up befriending a few kids in that other neighborhood and remember thinking, “They have a pool? Oh my God. People have pools at their house?” In Florida, that shouldn’t surprise you, but it did me. I took my daughter back to my old neighborhood and she was like, “You grew up here?” I was like, “Yes! And I turned out great!” I was offended! You mentioned Zak, and we have had that exact conversation before. We can’t sit here and be all uptight because it’s not that big of a deal. We’re different. So what?

Has there ever been anything that you’ve said on Twitter that you regret? Even something in the heat of the moment?

I think there are some small instances, but nothing big enough that I remember vividly. 

Whenever something happens, we all have this visceral reaction to it, but that’s actually a good time to step away and not post. There have been times where I’ve done that and thought, “OK. Take a breath. Step back.” So, I’ve learned that, but whether you have a platform or are Joe Fan, if you say the wrong thing, you can get very famous, very quickly, and you don’t have to be someone who is known. But that shouldn’t be the motivation. The motivation should be to not say things that don’t help. I know it’s fun to dunk on people, but you don’t want to make it too personal. We crack jokes and say things that aren’t productive, but we have to be mindful of the things we say that make bad situations worse. Whether people know you are and you have a bunch of followers, or no one knows who you are, we all have to answer to somebody. I tell my daughter, who is 12, everything you post represents us and you. And, honestly, I have to remind myself of that sometimes.

There have been a lot of tweets that I’ve typed out in the heat of the moment and then never sent, but they’re saved in my drafts. The old joke is if you die suddenly, have someone delete your internet history, but I’ve instructed my wife, “Hey, if anything happens to me, delete my Tweet drafts” because I don’t want those getting out there. So, what hits the cutting room floor on Twitter for Stephen Holder?

There are times when I have an opinion and I’m like, “I might be wrong!” Not that people will disagree—because I don’t care about that—but is my position completely informed? I’m still a reporter, and credibility matters. My credibility on social topics doesn’t impact my accuracy as an NFL reporter, but you don’t want to look like an idiot, because then why would people listen to you on anything else? I’ve learned you don’t have to react to everything. On social media, you can do that all day long. It’s one stream of ridiculousness after another, and it’s overwhelming. As much as people like to accuse me of only talking politics or race, 99 percent of my feed is football. That said, I do try to be mindful and not overwhelm people. It’s not that the argument bothers me, but you don’t want to be known only as a “react to everything” guy.

Even though I find you far more interesting than the 2021 Colts, given your job title, I feel like I’m obligated to ask you a football question. For all the excitement that surrounds this year’s team, I’ve got this creepingly equal feeling of dread that this season might be a total and complete disaster. This year, you could talk me into them playing in the AFC Championship Game, or you could talk me into 6-11 and Wentz missing half the season for close contact protocols. Where are you at with these Colts?

As someone who has been around the Colts a long time, I’ve seen everyone get burned before. In the post-Manning era, take 2015 for example: They go to the AFC title game in 2014. I remember being in Foxboro writing, “The next step needs to be the Super Bowl!” Talk about things not aging well. Andrew Luck gets hurt, they go 8-8, and hopes are dashed. It’s OK to guard against that letdown, because Colts fans have earned that right over the years. All of that said, this is a very good team. I think they’ve gotten this roster right. This is my ninth season, and it’s the best roster they’ve had in my time here. That doesn’t mean it’s the best team, but it’s the best roster. It’s easily the deepest, and I don’t think it’s close. However, the question is, is this a house of cards? I worry about them getting off to a slow start. Even if Wentz plays Sunday, he has barely practiced. What is he going to look like? Same for their offensive line. There’s a lot of hope and reason to like this team, but there’s a lot of justification to ask those questions. They have a good team, but they need a lot of things to go right to be where they want to be. It’s the NFL and things never go as you plan.