Sep 16, 2022

Seeing Ghosts

America's psyche appears to be disintegrating.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.” Today's newsletter is a special Friday edition.

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One of my favorite expressions in sports is when an athlete is described as "seeing ghosts."

You hear commentators say this after someone has made a mistake, and that mistake provokes panic, and the panic compounds into more mistakes. "He's seeing ghosts out there," an announcer may say about a quarterback who has just thrown his third interception in a row.

I like this expression because it resonates with me deeply. I know the feeling of seeing ghosts — of being spooked to the point your imagination fills in the blanks in the most negative and horrifying ways possible. We've all heard a creak in the floorboards of our house, only to then see a movement out of the corner of our eye, leading to a full scan of the property, just to realize our head was playing tricks on us.

I also like it because it's a great way to explain the current state of America's discourse, where it seems as if so many of us are seeing ghosts so incessantly.

One of the most talked about examples of this recently happened at a Brigham Young University volleyball game.

In case you missed it, here is the rough summary of the story: A Duke women's volleyball player named Rachel Richardson recently played in front of a BYU home crowd. Richardson is Black. After the game, she told reporters she was "racially heckled," and her godmother, an attorney who did not attend the game, took to Twitter to claim that a fan had shouted the n-word at her “every time she served” for an entire game. Additionally, a white male allegedly threatened her – suggesting she watch her back on the way to the team bus.

Basically every major news organization ran with the story immediately. It was on the front page of ESPN and got in-depth (and deeply flawed) coverage from The New York Times. Apologies were written. Student protests snapped into action. South Carolina’s women’s basketball team canceled a two-game series it had scheduled with BYU on account of the incident. And BYU itself banned a fan over the story.

Naturally, the narrative was something most of the sports world and the country were ready to hear. Few things evoke whiteness like the letters "BYU." Few things evoke the image of rowdy debauchery like "college sports." And few of us would doubt that a Black female athlete playing college sports in a decidedly white part of the country might encounter racist heckling.

But then something weird happened.

It started to look like the story wasn't true.