The Atlanta Hawks are my favorite basketball team, although it was easier to say that a few days ago. Last Friday, the Hawks released an Ashley Madison parody video in which real girls really named Ashley Madison invite you to “have a love affair with the Hawks.” The video was met with mixed reviews, as some found the video funny and others felt it was offensive. The Hawks are in the middle of a rebrand, having recently unveiled new colors and doing their best to appeal to a younger audience.
i saw the video through a unique lens because of a recent conversation with my friend Byron. Byron lives in New Orleans and he told me about a professor there who was exposed in the Ashley Madison leak. This man was also a pastor and also a husband and also a father. Because of the weight and shame of having this secret made public, the man chose to end his life. He died by suicide. My friend Byron knew this man. He saw him the very day he died. Byron went to the funeral.
So, suddenly, for me, the words “Ashley Madison” took on a different meaning. “Ashley Madison” meant a family in mourning, children without their father, and a wife without her husband. On top of that, friends lost a friend and students lost a teacher and a church lost their leader.
i came to learn that this suicide was not the only one, that there were multiple suicides that came in the wake of those email addresses being made public. Hundreds of people lost jobs and it’s safe to say that many marriages have ended and many more are still up in the air.
So again, suddenly “Ashley Madison” was clearly something tragic. It was nothing to joke about, because those two words now hang heavy over hundreds of homes, hundreds of families. If those people are in mourning, we should not be laughing.
For all of the reasons above, i decided to write an open letter to the Atlanta Hawks. My friend Josh Jackson is the editor at Paste Magazine, which also happens to be based in Atlanta. i texted Josh, told him about my idea, and asked if Paste might be willing to publish the letter. He responded right away, “Sure thing.”
i addressed my open letter to Hawks CEO Steve Koonin, who is credited with much of the Hawks turnaround and who was recently honored for that very thing. i follow Mr. Koonin on Twitter, so when my letter went up online, i made sure to tag him.
That was Friday afternoon. On Saturday afternoon, Coy Wire at CNN called the letter “a paradigm shifter.” Unfortunately, he said that in a message to me on Twitter, not on CNN. He added that he wished he had seen the letter before he filmed a segment on the Hawks campaign. (Translation: Almost.)
It’s now Monday afternoon. The video is still up on the Hawks website and there’s been no reply by Mr. Koonin or the Hawks organization. On a certain level, i feel defeated. i wanted to change the minds of the Hawks leadership. i wanted to see the video taken down. i wanted to see the campaign go away, because i believe the campaign to be a mistake, one that hurts people who are already in a great deal of pain.
But beyond that feeling of defeat, something else stood out. It was a message from a girl who had read the open letter. She said, “My family is one of those personally affected. I’ve been without my father for 29 days. There’s nothing funny about ads like this. I saw it and it hurt a lot. Thanks for making your position on it so public. I wish more people shared your viewpoint.”
Suddenly, it was personal. The idea of Ashley Madison being linked to suicides, it wasn’t hypothetical. It wasn’t just a story i’d been told. Erin lost her Dad. This girl was living a nightmare, the storyline something from a movie, except that it was real. When she reached out, it had been 29 days and now it’s 32.
We traded messages. i told her i was sorry beyond words and she told me how hard the last month has been, how afraid she is to go home. i encouraged her to see a counselor. She asked some questions and i sent her a link to our Find Help page.
i thought about this whole thing over the weekend, about the video and the letter, about Erin’s words and Mr. Koonin’s silence. The following thought came to me last night and it moved me to write. You might call this the moral of the story: i suppose i sort of picked a fight with a giant. There are fears that come with this kind of thing. For one, i might get crushed, but i suppose there’s also the fear i’ll simply be ignored. i’m not sure which is worse.
In this case so far, the giant seems to be ignoring me. i can’t make Steve Koonin or the Atlanta Hawks listen or respond. i can’t make them take down their video or stop their campaign. But this whole thing has taught me that maybe there’s another outcome, perhaps a silver lining. Maybe those words we share with conviction, maybe the giant doesn’t hear them, but maybe someone else does and maybe that someone else feels less alone as a result. Maybe we’re supposed to question giants so that someone else feels less alone with their questions. Maybe we end up speaking on behalf of someone we haven’t even met yet, underdogs united.
Erin sent these words last night: “I don’t feel a lot of kindness lately. It’s just judgement and hurt and wondering what people are thinking. So thank you for being kind. It means more than you know.”
Peace to You.
PS: Can i make a request? When there’s a suicide, let’s put away our judgement. It doesn’t matter whose fault it is. It’s not the time to place blame. A suicide means a story ends too soon. A suicide means loved ones left with broken hearts. Our judgement won’t help but our love can do a lot.