In a profile of Steph Curry published earlier this week, Marcus Thompson II, a writer for The Athletic, described a scene between Curry and rapper Mistah F.A.B. in which the two were “laughing [...] about a certain tranny sex tape.” After facing backlash over the use of the slur, The Athletic changed the line and added an editor’s note apologizing for the “offensive language.” On Wednesday, a spokesman for the Warriors told Deadspin that no such exchange between Curry and Mistah F.A.B. ever happened, in essence accusing Thompson of fabrication.
Thompson’s fawning story presents Curry as the physical manifestation of Oakland, a figure worthy of near-religious devotion. (“Curry, like Oakland, is most appreciated when closely affiliated,” he writes, confusingly. “[T]he best way to experience them is intimately. Up close, personal, entrenched.”) Curry’s new shoe line is presented as evidence, and to show readers just how close the bond between Curry and the city is, Thompson positions them next to Curry at an event where “youth and key influencers” have gathered to celebrate Oakland, Curry, and Curry’s shoes:
He chats with Ward, an early arriver. He is talking with Chef Smelly about a potential pop-up restaurant with his wife’s International Smoke. He’s laughing with Mistah Fab [sic] about a certain tranny sex tape. He spends time with E-40. He reunites with Walker.
Readers immediately criticized Thompson’s use of the word “tranny.” The line was quickly deleted, and a brief note was added to the top of the story:
Editor’s note: We deeply apologize for the offensive language originally published in this story. It failed to meet our editorial standards and we commit to doing better moving forward.
In the comments below the story, Thompson responded to a reader asking why he used the word “tranny,” and how the line got through the editorial process:
I was completely wrong. Completely wrong. It was a a foolish, tasteless joke that was mistakenly posted for less than 10 minutes. I won’t even bother explaining the joke because it doesn’t matter. It was just wrong. Everybody who is angry at me has every reason to be. I am angry at myself. I apologize profusely.
There’s no reason to doubt that Thompson feels bad for fucking this up, but “I won’t even bother explaining the joke because it doesn’t matter” is inadequate as an apology not only because it doesn’t explain why the word was used or how it made its way through the editorial process, but because it doesn’t address a crucial ambiguity. In the original context, the line can be read as Thompson’s own characterization of something Curry and Mistah F.A.B. are doing, or as indirect quotation. The “joke” here, in other words, might have been made by Thompson, or by his subjects. Which is it? Neither his explanation nor The Athletic’s note offer any clarity.
Making things more confusing is what the Warriors had to say: “No such exchange ever transpired between Stephen and Mistah F.A.B., hence the removal of the line from the story,” a team flack told Deadspin.
This explanation, Thompson’s apology, and the editor’s note are all saying different things. The Warriors say it never happened; they are accusing Thompson of fabrication, the cardinal sin of journalism. Thompson says it was a joke, but fails to explain whose joke it was, what it was, or how it got published. The editor’s note merely apologizes for the “offensive language,” without addressing whether the conversation happened or why the “joke” appeared in the story. Neither Thompson’s apology nor the editor’s note address the Warriors’ claim that Thompson made the whole thing up—which, if true, would certainly require more than a brief editor’s note.
Thompson and The Athletic’s “chief content officer,” Paul Fichtenbaum, have not responded to repeated requests for comment. Deadspin has posed specific questions to Thompson—Did Steph Curry laugh about a a sex tape with Mistah F.A.B., yes or no? Do you have notes or audio tape from the event the could corroborate your reporting? Why did you include the detail of the “tranny sex tape” in the story?—and will update this story if we hear back (though that seems unlikely, given the possibility of Thompson further jeopardizing his access to the Warriors).
Even in a year that has seen some spectacular misadventures in profile writing—the Washington Post, for some reason, doing yet another puff piece on racist dunce Britt McHenry, the New York Times doing sponcon for Serena Williams’s TV show, Sports Illustrated pinning an entire Drew Brees profile on a false premise—this one stands out. Either Thompson made a bigoted joke without anyone at The Athletic noticing until the story was published, or he clumsily described something newsworthy and The Athletic hastily deleted it, or he fabricated something entirely. None of these possibilities reflect well on the writer or the publication, but whichever describes what happened, it’s worth an explanation.
Update (1:45 p.m. ET): After this story was published, Taylor Patterson, The Athletic’s communications director, emailed me to say that Thompson and Fichtenbaum had not seen my requests for comment, which apparently went to their spam folders. She further expressed disappointment, explaining that she had been waiting for me to reach out so that she could respond with a statement she had prepared after the Warriors’ PR department had told her that I contacted them about this story. Putting aside the fascinating closeness between the Warriors’ PR department and The Athletic, the journalistic entity responsible for covering the Warriors, Patterson’s statement is just as empty and useless as the initial editor’s note:
“Our writer used inappropriate and offensive language in a story. As we wrote in the editorial note, we deeply regret the error and have taken appropriate internal action.”
This statement does not explain whether Thompson or his subjects made the joke in question or how it came to be published, nor does it address the Warriors’ assertion that Thompson fabricated a conversation. When I followed up to ask these questions, Patterson said: “I can say that the mistake was entirely ours (The Athletic’s) and we have taken disciplinary action.”
She did not specify whether the writer or the editor faced disciplinary action.