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The Active Voice
The Active Voice: Ethan Strauss is jumping off a high diving board

The Active Voice: Ethan Strauss is jumping off a high diving board

Hamish McKenzie talks to Ethan Strauss about conformity in sports media, being an outsider, and taking bold stances

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When he’s about to hit publish on a take that he knows will catch some heat,

feels like he is about to step off a high diving board. He’s scared, but he knows he will do it anyway. 

“That, to me, feels good,” he says. “The entirety of the process and that particular catharsis feels good.”

Ethan writes about the intersection of sport and culture—especially when it comes to the NBA—on

, where he also hosts a cult-favorite podcast. He made his name in sports media through covering the Golden State Warriors for ESPN and The Athletic (they’re also the subject of his book, The Victory Machine), but more recently he has become known for defying a silent consensus in his industry. Hence the wobbly knees on the diving board. 

In August 2020, he wrote a piece analyzing the NBA’s ratings decline and wondered if it could, in part, be explained by the league’s social justice politics. That piece, coming at that time, won him some enemies. But he hasn’t backed off.

Ethan continues to explore positions that might otherwise get a sports writer cast out from polite society, whether it be an examination of Nike turning away from masculinity in its marketing, or talent agencies’ secret power over the NBA, or Kyrie Irving’s punishment for refusing to take a Covid vaccine.

The result? A body of work that can feel bracingly different, that often provokes, and that always creates room for thought—demonstrating that sports are so much bigger than the game on the field.

Quotes from the conversation

On being hated

I do think I have a bit of a moral Tourette’s, where if there’s something that I think is obvious and nobody else is saying it, then it almost builds up like a boil, like it just needs to be lanced.

On growing up in public libraries

I always felt like if [my mother] had wanted to, she could have done something really big. But that’s what made her happy. She liked working with books. I think she liked her job well enough, and she eventually was running about a quarter of the public libraries in San Diego before retiring. So I kind of grew up a lot of the time in libraries after closing time.

On being an only child

I wasn’t a mimetic person. There wasn’t the opportunity. It really hurt me in some ways. I remember going to the first day of middle school in some red shorts that were just high up above my knees because I didn’t know at that point in the 1990s that you weren’t supposed to do that and that was bad. I got made fun of and I was just thinking, “Man, if I had a sibling, maybe I would have a pipeline and I would know that this is the thing that you don’t do.”

On courage

I don’t love it altogether, that type of thing. But I do derive some sort of sense of identity and satisfaction from the sense of, I don’t like what I’m about to do. I’m scared on the diving board right now, but I’m going to do it anyway. That, to me, feels good. The entirety of the process and that particular catharsis feels good.

On the era of blogging

The internet was a smaller place, and many of the challenges we talk about as far as getting paid to do stuff existed back then. It wasn’t a utopia, it wasn’t idyllic—I’m sure that people can talk about whatever the flame wars were back then—but it was more innocent.

On the first gig

I heard through a friend of a friend that the NBA hires people to do something called media monitoring, which is a very Orwellian-sounding department. And so I applied for the job and I got the job. It was a remote job back then. I would wake up every day at 3:30 a.m. This was back in 2008.

On the story that changed his career

It just seemed like the craziest thing I’d ever experienced. It was totally surreal. It’s not like now, where I’ve just been within the NBA world in all these different capacities. I was working remotely from home as this college kid, and then suddenly I’m there in Madison Square Garden at draft night.

On finding a niche

I wanted to be a writer. I want to have a cool story to tell. I love behind the scenes of any subculture. I love learning about where people work, what it’s really like. Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, that’s a great example to me where nobody really knew they wanted to know about chefs like that, but it turned out that they really wanted to know.

On the horseshoe

The most extreme people on both sides will start to sound a lot like each other, or there will be this overlap in their political positions, if not their style of rhetoric, and I’m always fascinated when that happens.

On declining viewership of the NBA

In my industry you were not supposed to talk about it. You were supposed to serve the interests of the NBA and their constant narrative of ascendance, and if you ran afoul of it, I think like I did, and also just broached the idea that maybe some of these cultural issues were impacting the viewership, it was very taboo.

On appreciating what’s right in front of you

It’s easy to get frustrated, but it’s an enormous privilege to be able to communicate with thousands of people. That’s amazing. I’m so lucky to be able to do that. It’s ridiculous that I’m able to do that. And so I just want to do it as authentically as I can and feel as though I’m expressing what I want to express.

On the media landscape

A New Yorker [magazine] pre-Twitter is better than the New Yorker right now. Just not even close. Not even fucking close. And so I think the low barrier of entry in sharing opinions has accelerated a kind of overall decline, but at the same time, we can rebuild. 

On social media

We don’t really deal in statistics and graphs and charts. We deal with seeing something graphic happen. And so it became this powerful way to disseminate a graphic emotion-stoking video often, and spreading the sense that this was the thing that we all had to care about at the moment. 

On the summer of 2020

You can kind of hear your heart beating because everybody is just so emotional and angry and hysterical. And if you’re working for a publication, like, Oh, I could get fired very easily

On burning out

Your brain starts getting funny on you, man. I remember five games in seven nights. For people who don’t know, the NBA schedule is overstuffed. It’s not good for human beings. That’s why the players are taking games off.

On being laid off from ESPN

I just felt relieved. I was just like, Oh my God, thank God. Thank God I don’t have to do the same thing. That team sucks up all the energy and you’re just constant vigilance.

On going independent and having a child

Am I going to be [watching basketball for work] when he comes home and he is trying to interact with me? And it sounds just so weird, but that was a huge component of it. I think I can make interesting stuff and I think I need to get off this particular hamster wheel to do it. And that has made it a lot easier for me to be a participatory father. 

On having kids and a business

It sounds like you’re wallowing, and it sounds bad because you’re so happy to have your son, but there’s that feeling of, I have one hand tied behind my back, and I could be doing this and I could be doing that.

On parenting and running a Substack

On the writing end, I don’t totally have a system. I don’t totally have a way to make it a non-insane schedule, but I’m learning. The main thing isn’t that I learn what to do, it’s just that the conditions of what you need to provide your family and your young children changes and they slowly get more independent and they need less.

On House of Strauss

I’ll write about something that is less in-demand for my readers, but I think it just keeps everything else fresh. And my dumb sports analogy is that you need to throw a variety of pitches to make all the pitches potent. And so that’s part of what’s happening here hopefully, that wouldn’t be happening when I was working for people in a very defined role.

Ethan’s recommended reads: 

Show notes

  • Subscribe to Ethan’s Substack, House of Strauss

  • Find Ethan on Twitter

  • The clip Ethan discusses from Comedian with Jerry Seinfeld

  • Ethan’s book, The Victory Machine

  • [02:10] The horseshoe effect

  • [04:14] The sports and culture intersection

  • [12:15] Speaking out on the NBA’s declining viewership

  • [23:19] Having moral Tourette’s

  • [24:44] Ethan’s childhood

  • [28:09] Jumping off the diving board

  • [36:34] Twitter and conformity

  • [48:02] Ethan’s early career

  • [51:21] The Ricky Rubio story

  • [58:16] Covering the Golden State Warriors

  • [01:05:11] Being laid off

  • [01:09:27] Writing a book in lockdown

  • [01:14:49] Running an independent business

  • [01:21:05] Ethan’s recommended Substack writers

The Active Voice is a podcast hosted by Hamish McKenzie, featuring weekly conversations with writers about how the internet is affecting the way they live and write. It is produced by Hanne Winarsky, with audio engineering by Seven Morris, content production by Hannah Ray, and production support from Bailey Richardson. All artwork is by Joro Chen, and music is by Phelps & Munro.


NBA sports reporter brain exploding, in the style of Jean-Michel Basquiat, via DALL-E
Substack Reads
The Active Voice
The internet is conditioning our minds and influencing the global consciousness in ways that we are only beginning to understand – and writers are on the front lines. In The Active Voice, Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie talks to great writers about how they are reckoning with the challenges of the social media moment, how they find the space for themselves to create great literature and journalism despite the noise, and how to make a living amid the economic volatility of the 2020s.