The Close Encounters of an Athletic Kind Are Getting Even Closer

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Humans are being replaced by machines with alarming pace, even in the creative fields and the sports journalism industry is no exception as automated gamers have become fairly regular. Some of them are actually halfway decent and if you wanted to take a glass-half-full approach you could say that it's kind of cool that more people participating in lower-level athletics will get some sort of written record of what went down on the playing field. Yet even the most bullish AI proponents would admit that the technology isn't quite there, to the point where there's absolutely no doubt that the prose was put together by someone without a soul or emotions or even some basic level of familiarity with the way humans interact.

Earlier today Nashville Banner editor Steve Cavendish tweeted out a screenshot of one such effort from The Columbus Dispatch recounting Friday night's tilt between Westerville North and Westerville Central. It is quite something from the very jump as LedeAI makes the unusual choice to stack two leads on top of each other.

The article has a note at the bottom explaining "You're reading a news brief powered by ScoreStream, the world leader in fan-driven sports results and conversation. Read the latest exclusive high school sports coverage from the award-winning Columbus Dispatch sports journalists."

Everyone got off their jokes and guffaws and eventually someone else pointed out that the usual "close encounters" phrase appears to be a feature, not a bug.

If you Google "close encounters of the athletic kind + Columbus Dispatch" it returns 18 different news briefs in which it was used to describe the tightness of said affair.

And it'd be funny if the situation weren't incredibly bleak. For whatever reason the machine has latched onto this phrase and used it as a crutch as it spits out content faster than feeble fingers could ever dream of doing.

“In addition to adding hundreds of reporting jobs across the country, we are experimenting with automation and AI to build tools for our journalists and add content for our readers," a Gannett spokesperson told The Big Lead. "We are continually evaluating vendors as we refine processes to ensure all the news and information we provide meets the highest journalistic standards."

From a financial standpoint it makes all the sense in the world to cut out people who are collecting a salary from the process. A machine is never going to ask for a raise. It has one job and it is to answer a prompt with the most human-like response it can muster and if actual readers glean one or two facts out of the ordeal then it's a success. My question, though, is on the consumer side.

Like, who actually wants this?

High school sports coverage is one of the reasons why subscribers are keeping their subscriptions. There's still something magical about seeing Jimmy Down the Street's name in print after he takes one to the house on a veer option to salt the game away. But when you peruse through most of these briefs it becomes very clear that there are precious few human beings mentioned. So it seems to be a worse version of a box score?

My first job out of college was on a prep sports desk and high school coaches would call in with their scores and a few highlights which we would squeeze into agate. In a lot of ways you could argue it was the best job because it actually made a difference to the people being mentioned and the reasons they were being mentioned were almost universally positive. It was all very rudimentary yet at the same time it feels more evolved than written narrative that tries to bely there was no witness from a point of authority.

In the local men's baseball league I play in, we use GameChanger and when something goes final it spits out a recap and let's just say that they are sometimes painful to read if you care about the craft at all. An RBI single in the second inning or a team drawing an unremarkable five walks combined will get top billing over a crucial three-run homer in the seventh that swung the game. It's not just that there's a lack of life that would come from someone who witnessed it and wanted to convey what went down to a neighbor, it's that it's completely devoid of any color or nuance. It cannot remark on a clutch defensive play or a questionable call or even an injury that spun the outcome.

So yeah, this is where we are and we all know where we are going. Enjoy those close encounters of the athletic kind witnessed by your fellow man or woman while you still can.