In 2011 he wrote a piece for Bleacher Report titled “Cam Newton: Why Carolina Panthers’ New QB Is the Worst NFL Draft Pick Ever.” The article compared Newton to famous NFL disappointment Ryan Leaf, predicting that he would be nearly as big of a bust while claiming former Denver quarterback Tim Tebow would go on to do great things.
“If [Newton] is the Panthers’ starting quarterback in 2016, I will buy a Cam Newton jersey and stand in the stadium parking lot in my underwear when the Panthers come to Tampa Bay and hold a sign proclaiming that Auburn rules over Florida and Carolina rules over Tampa Bay,” Folsom confidently wrote. “In five years, when Tebow is leading Denver into the playoffs and Cam Newton is riding someone’s bench, remember this article.”
And with Newton set to lead the Panthers against the Tebow-less Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50, people have not forgotten.
“The blowback has been crazy,” Folsom told me by email. “Every day I get email notices by the dozens all day long about people mentioning me on Twitter. I get phone messages, text messages. Most of them I just delete without reading now. I don’t have time for it.”
Even in the less-than-impressive early years of Newton’s career, when Folsom’s prediction didn’t seem quite so far-fetched, the writer received a steady stream of anger from Carolina fans. But with Newton’s amazing turnaround last season, the online harassment has grown exponentially and is likely to become even stronger if Carolina wins Sunday’s game.
“It’s been going on for the entire five years, but it was no big deal for most of the first four when Cam was stinking up the place,” Folsom said. “It really ramped up after the Seattle game early in the season.”
Unfortunately, the constant stream of harassment has not been confined to Folsom alone. His wife has also been a target.
“[She] has nothing to do with this,” Folsom said.
Of course, there’s the matter of Folsom’s unfulfilled promise. If you make a bet with the Internet that involves standing in a football stadium parking lot in your underwear, you’d better be prepared to pay up. And at least some of the harassment is tied to the fact that Folsom is refusing to carry out his pledge. (Update: Folson pointed out that the 2016 season has not started yet, so he has not yet fallen through on his pledge.)
“They think I’m some sort of coward for not going through with it,” Folsom said. “I always ask those people the same question. ‘Do you work for free?’ I always get the same answer. 'No.’ Well neither do I.”
According to Folsom, the reason he’s reneging on his underwear bet has nothing to do with potential embarrassment. It’s about the fact that he’s tired of being harassed for an article that continues to make Bleacher Report money - money that he will never see.
“I’m not showing up at the game next year unless BR cuts me a check,” he said, claiming his title on the site was recently changed from “Senior Analyst” to “Contributor” with no explanation. “I’m done giving them free publicity.”
(Update: Folsom also claims he will go through with the bet if Carolina fans chip in to pay for it.)
It’s easy to see this as a cop-out from a man who simply doesn’t want to stand in front of thousands of people in his undies. One can argue that Folsom brought this all on himself. After all, that’s his name on the byline. While he has admitted he was wrong and wished Newton well with his new success, Folsom’s attitude about his now infamous prediction has been less than contrite, especially considering he has not followed through with his pledge. As late as last year, he was still provoking Carolina fans online (in all fairness, they’d also been provoking him on a daily basis for years).
On the other hand, as Theoden Janes of the Charlotte Observer points out, in 2011 Folsom was not a journalist, nor was he a professional writer (although he has since landed some paying gigs). He was a laid-off construction sales rep writing for free. The only difference between Folsom’s stupid prediction and the millions of other stupid predictions made by average sports fans on a regular basis is that Bleacher Report was willing to post it, which gave it a certain amount of credibility.
As Janes also points out, Folsom had previously published an equally inaccurate but less inflammatory Cam Newton article for Bleacher Report and was allegedly asked by an editor to write something “a lot more controversial.” If true, the editorial staff at Bleacher Report in 2011 shares at least some of the blame for the ridiculous prediction, yet it receives none of the blowback. On the contrary, the influx of people visiting the site to gawk at Folsom’s blunder only helps the company. While Folsom and his wife get harassed, Bleacher Report gets paid.
(Update: Folsom was unable to provide me with the name of the editor in question, so I reached out to Bleacher Report. While they chose not to answer any specific questions, a spokesperson for the website said, “Jim Folsom has not written for Bleacher Report for some time. We wish him well and encourage him to follow through on his guarantee.”)
“I can tell you that nothing gets published on their site that they are unaware of,” Folsom said. “They also promote the articles. They decide where they appear on their site and where to link them. So if your article is still being read five years later, that is their doing. If it gets 500,000 reads, they have a lot to do with that.”
The article has now been viewed more than 600,000 times. And when it comes to advertising revenue, the fact that those pageviews are the result of negative publicity is irrelevant.
It’s one thing for a paid staffer or a member of the editorial team to write something for the sole purpose of creating a controversy. After all, this is the Internet. But assuming Folsom’s claims are true, it’s hard not to feel at least somewhat sympathetic for an unpaid writer putting up with five years of harassment for an idea that wasn’t even his.
“If in the middle of all this you read that the guy who started [Bleacher Report] sold the site for $10,000,000 to Turner Sports yet they paid not $1 to you for the hundreds of articles you wrote, how would you feel?” Folsom asked.
I didn’t have the heart to tell him the site reportedly was sold for $175 to $200 million.
“You write a book or a song that becomes a million-seller, you never have to work another day in your life,” Folsom said. “This article has 605,000 reads. If the Panthers win, it will easily top a million. It might even if they lose. What do I get for that? I get angry fans harassing me. I get anonymous assholes threatening me, but no money.”
For the record, a digital media consultant I spoke with estimates the article has made between $4,000 and $8,000.
Folsom chose to write the article for free. He chose to follow his editor’s advice, and he chose to make a stupid bet with the Internet – a bet he lost badly. But he still has point. His ordeal raises some legitimate concerns about the nature of pageview-based Internet advertising, the type of content it breeds and the consequences it can have for the writers at the bottom.