There’s more to Hinsdale basketball suit than just the headlines


Let’s cut right to the chase: The state of media literacy in this country is dire. Probably more dire than us having a United States Senator who can’t name the three branches of government and spends all his time holding up military promotions. And because so few people actually bother to read beyond the headlines and educate themselves on any given topic, our discourse about current events, both online and in real life, is a raging dumpster fire. Somewhere along the way (and I put this around the time people decided the President of the United States had to be fun to have a beer with), being informed and smart became uncool, and being dumb and messy became something to be cheered on.

I mention all of this because of the recent story in the Chicago Sun-Times about a high school basketball player whose mother sued the school district when he was cut from the basketball team as a senior. The lawsuit involves Hinsdale, a tony west-suburban enclave of Chicago, better known for its destructive teen parties and residents who chased an anti-racism educator out of the district. So you can probably understand why seeing a headline proclaiming that a kid didn’t make the basketball team and his mom was suing the school had many people rolling their eyes and proclaiming it “Peak Hinsdale.”

So let me let you in a secret that might be news to you: Reporters don’t write their own headlines. Headlines are typically written by editors, but these days SEO specialists and social media teams also have some input. Writing headlines for digital copy means walking a fine line between telling the reader what the story is about, being short enough to fit in social media previews, including (ranking, if possible) keywords that make sure Google shows the story to people, and also ensuring the headline has a “hook” to make you want to click on it. That’s a tall order, and one that is always difficult to get right. So if you’re in the habit of digitally screaming at reporters because you don’t like a headline, there are probably others to whom you should redirect your ire. The reporter/columnist likely had nothing to do with it.

I had a history teacher in high school who preached to us daily, “You have to read beyond the headline!” and taught us how to quickly skim articles for the salient facts. And she made us practice with “news quizzes” over and over. It was one of the most valuable things I learned in all of my years of school, and I wonder how often this skill is taught to kids now. My guess is a lot less frequently, based on the number of people (in my experience) who reveal, usually halfway through an online argument, that they haven’t actually read the piece they are complaining about. It usually goes something like this:

“You’re a POS for writing that. I hope (insert name) sues you for slander.”

“Okay, but did you actually read the piece?”

“I would never read anything you wrote.”

(and scene)

So back to the Hinsdale basketball player story. Brendan Savage, who is in his senior year at Hinsdale South, played almost every game and was an All-Conference pick in his sophomore and junior years. He also dropped 35 points on perennial powerhouse Proviso East last season, according to his mom, Erin. Last year, however, Brendan spoke out against his varsity coach, whom Brendan accused of bullying him. While the school district investigation did not find that the coach had engaged in the district’s definition of bullying, it did find that “[the coach’s] interactions and communication with your son have been inappropriate and inconsistent with the high standards of professionalism expected of all employees under Board Policy. . . . Further, please be advised that the District does not tolerate any form of retaliation because you have made this complaint.’’

Despite the district’s findings, the varsity coach, Michael Moretti, was demoted from varsity to freshman coach, seemingly as a result of Brendan’s complaint. A new coach, Michael Belcaster, took over for the upcoming season and, allegedly, cut Brendan from the team in retaliation.

That’s an awful lot of context that wasn’t contained in the headline; that couldn’t possibly be included in the headline. It’s enough to make you completely change your mind about the way you view the community and the parties involved. Suddenly, what initially seemed like a story about the entitlement of privileged kids in a wealthy suburb may, in fact, be a story about speaking truth to power and pushing back against retaliation. But you would never know that if you didn’t read past the headline. This story will definitely come up as evidence in someone’s upcoming “Society is going to hell in a handbasket” holiday dinner soliloquy. Someone who only read the headline. And it’s going to color (or validate) the way that person sees the world.

I wonder sometimes if people would be less angry about the state of the country if they had more context for the world around them. It’s easy to scroll through social media, see headlines that evoke a strong reaction, and accept them as absolute truths. But I find that when I come across a headline that seems incredible, more often than not, it is. There is usually some bit of info in the story that changes things, that makes it all make sense. The McDonald’s coffee case is the best example of a story that completely changes once you have some context and additional details, and people still drag it out to complain about frivolous lawsuits. As Mark Twain said, “​​A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.”

Do yourself, and the rest of society, a favor: Read past the headlines.

By the way, after the Sun-Times reported on the legal filings, Hinsdale South miraculously found a spot for Brendan on the team, though Erin Savage isn’t withdrawing her lawsuit yet. “The case isn’t over but it is no longer an emergency since he is back on the team,” her lawyer, Steven Glink, told the Sun-Times. “If they put him on the team and never play him, it is the same retaliation.”

Deadspin reached out to both Hinsdale South and Savage’s lawyer for comment. At the time of publication, neither had gotten back to us.

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