Tempest In A Pickle Jar
Earlier this month, Axios published a snippet about a neighborhood pickleball matter. As I was reading it, I kept asking myself why a journalist for a national news company was subtly, yet repetitively, taking sides in such a small potatoes dispute. At one point, I wondered aloud what could have possibly prompted the author to marginalize the complaints lodged by citizens of the tiny Columbia Heights section of Arlington, Virginia. It was all so odd. But, upon reflection, it made perfect sense. Dare I say it led me to an epiphany:
The deck is stacked against regular people... and nothing better demonstrates it than pickleball.
I know it sounds crazy. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would write a sentence like that. But here we are. Now hear me out.
What's The Dill?
Journalists are no longer arbiters of truth. The days of evenhanded reporting are a distant memory. Many in the profession are now out-and-out activists. And activists want change. Not just a little change; and not just change related to certain issues. They want to change everything.
There's only one group standing in the path of these crusaders. Ordinary folks, as it were, don't want their lives turned upside down to accommodate the latest cause du jour.
These veritable pillars of the community chose to plant roots in the places they did based on a complex matrix that balanced individual needs against an exhaustive list of civic qualities. In some cases, their calculus stretches back generations. Messing with that continuity is not an idea they are willing to take lightly, especially when it's being jammed down their throats.
You might call them residents. Or neighbors. Or maybe friends.
Change agents call them boomers. Or NIMBYs. Or slurs that are far worse.
Whatever it takes to get what they want, activists will say or do it. Even if it means trampling over the objections of the locals. Even when the goal is something as inconsequential as pickleball.
In A Real Pickle
Pickleball is enjoyed by folks of all abilities, backgrounds, and creeds. Despite its beginnings as a game for children, it has blossomed into one of the rare all-age recreational activities with mass appeal. Many sources contend that it has become America's fastest-growing sport. On the surface, it seems like one of the least contentious topics in the modern world.
As far as I can tell, the only organically controversial thing about pickleball is the sound it produces when played outside in residential areas. Still, it is important to recognize that this solitary drawback is no small matter. Quite the contrary, the noise generated by plastic balls hitting paddles has led to lawsuits from South Carolina to California.
[That linked Newport Beach case also highlights a worrying trend where the installation of sound-dampening fences around pickleball courts is used as an excuse to shun citizen complaints. My two cents: maybe those fences don't work as well as advertised in open-air settings.]
Arlington is no stranger to this phenomenon. Just last year, the county had to alter activity in a park due to pickleball noise. Note how I used the word "alter" as opposed to "cease." This is important. What appears to be a good-faith compromise actually exposes pickleball's dark underbelly. Cosmetic mitigation concessions, such as this one, are reminiscent of Roman bread and circuses policy. It's not meant to legitimately solve the problem. It's meant to distract from the fact that the affected parties are going to be forced to get used to the high-decibel barrage of popping sound waves. Not for a few minutes. No, for roughly half the day - almost every day.
Meanwhile, the snobs telling these directly impacted locals to shut up and accept a permanent ruckus almost always dwell elsewhere and, thus, have the luxury of avoiding the noise nuisance.
[Look no further than the last quote in this article about the compromise, where USA Pickleball's Ambassador, of all people, admits, “I’ve asked myself ‘would I want to live there?’ Probably not.”]
Worse yet, members of the pickleball lobby have been documented over and over again bullying anyone who gets in their way, from homeowners who oppose them to children merely trying to use public facilities. Picklers' behavior in Columbia Heights has been so verily ridiculous that comedian Stephen Colbert mocked them on his talk show.
You'd think nobody would side with a gaggle of whiny elites who mess with kids. You'd be wrong.
As it turns out, there are plenty of activists ready to swoop in and assist Big Pickle. For starters, there are droves of likeminded bureaucratic minions who wield control over the levers of power. Sure, they'll pretend to be in search of a reasonable solution that satisfies everyone. But it's not difficult to imagine who emerges the victor when cause-oriented activists (who do this stuff for a living) face off against a constrained band of citizens who likely lack the time, money, or experience to make it a fair fight; especially when you consider what a motivated activist army can accomplish behind the scenes.
In those rare instances where a neighborhood is able to come together successfully -- maybe even recruits a few well-intentioned government employees to help navigate the briny waters -- picklers still hold a powerful trump card. The media. Former Arlington County employee and current Columbia Heights dignitary Reggie Nixon put it best when he told me, "That's American media for you. They love sensationalism."
Let's use the article that originally caught my eye to confirm propaganda is, indeed, being deployed; thereby validating the assertions both Mr. Nixon and I have made. Look at all of the ways the author drags residents in a quick hit piece that, by all appearances, has the trappings of neutral coverage:
Right off the bat, she applies the NIMBY label to anyone who opposes pickleball.
She calls their neighborhood a hotspot without saying most of the picklers don't live there.
Placing it "in the shadow of... a country club" tricks readers into believing that the homeowners are pinkies-up elitists. A quick search of home prices in Columbia Heights proves it is no silver spoon sanctuary. [If anything, the elitist paradigm is inverted since it fits the picklers better.]
By saying the side opposing the courts has pickleball players in it, she sows "Inception" levels of doubt in your brain about the local group's logic. She'll say she's reporting the facts. And, yes, it is true that some of them play. But it can also be true that they care significantly more about keeping that persistent popping sound away from their houses.
When the homeowners flyer the area, it's an "attack ad." When the activists do it, it's satire.
Notice how she puts the bullying in quotes. This is what angered me most. She'd probably claim that she had to do it because the incidents there haven't been officially corroborated. I'd retort that she didn't dig hard enough. I'd further argue that the real reason she did it was to cast doubt on whether it really happened. Getting down to brass tacks, if her friend's kid was bullied in the exact same manner but there was no hard proof of it, how much do you want to bet that those quotes would disappear?
Picklers have been treating the park like a toilet and then joking about it in their flyers. Witnesses say they ignore the posted closing times. Does she show the slightest bit of disdain for these actions? Would she if people started loitering, or worse, near her home?
Instead, she feels the need to point out that the denizens don't like the smell of the porta-john. Again, if you don't think too hard about this, it seems like a candid statement of fact. But, in my opinion, it portrays them as stuffed shirts who will complain about everything. Whether this is by design or not is immaterial. What matters is that she never does it to the picklers.
She makes sure to include the case for why the change (pickleball courts) is needed. To provide a counterpoint to that argument, she doesn't find a true naysayer; as in someone who fully opposes kowtowing to the bully brigade's multiple-million-dollar demands. Rather, she picks a person who echoes the activists' goal, only with a slight modification (courts are needed, but perhaps not in that exact spot). I cannot stress enough how often journalists utilize this tactic. [They'll even go as far as ignoring every part of a staunch opponent's fiery speech except for a singular fragment of courtesy that, out of context, masquerades as appeasement. That they'll print.]
For her finishing touch, she uses the statement of a bureaucrat to crush the hopes of those challenging authority. [This man, the Park Development Division Chief, asserts the decision has already been made before throwing in the familiar refrain about how there's room for discussion about minutiae. This same guy, by the way, was quoted a few weeks earlier saying government was just beginning the conversation with the community.] We're supposed to accept one unreliable source's words as gospel... even though the whole article pertains to an ongoing debate involving taxpayers who make his job possible.
Can you see it now? Ten identifiable examples of bias in an article that is only 23 sentences long!
Leaving A Sour Taste
I believe pickleball politics perfectly demonstrates how basic processes have been rigged against ordinary members of society. It is the Rosetta Stone issue for those who want to contextualize what happens when interlopers interfere in local matters; and, specifically, how they eschew common-sense solutions at almost every turn, even when faced with the absolute simplest decisions.
It's the only way to explain how they routinely ignore obvious answers to questions like, "Hey -- just spitballing here -- but shouldn't we nix the proposal that will drive a bunch of families insane due to the nonstop cacophony of sounds it has been proven to generate?"
Activists, governments, and the media are using the same playbook they bust out when quarreling over the world's biggest and most bitter factional feuds. These partisans are playing for keeps; despite the fact that nothing about a recreational activity like pickleball warrants a win-at-all-costs mentality.
In short, external forces are manipulating the environments inside of what should be self-contained spaces. As a result, they're creating tempests in teapots (or pickle jars) everywhere.
Note: the post above may contain commentary reflecting the author's opinion.