The thoughts of a journalist/libertarian–conservative/Christian husband, father, Eagle Scout and aficionado of obscure rock music. Thoughts herein are only the author’s and not necessarily the opinions of his family, friends, neighbors, church members or past, present or future employers.
Tonight begins the high school girls basketball playoffs in Wisconsin, followed one week from today by the boys playoffs.
So it seems appropriate to bring up self-described liberal sportswriter Bryan Curtis:
Today, sportswriting is basically a liberal profession, practiced by liberals who enforce an unapologetically liberal code. As Frank Deford, who joined Sports Illustrated in the ’60s, told me, “You compare that era to this era, no question we are much more liberal than we ever were before.”
In the age of liberal sportswriting, the writers are now far more liberal than the readers. “Absolutely I think we’re to the left of most sports fans,” said Craig Calcaterra, who writes for HardballTalk. “It’s folly for any of us to think we’re speaking for the common fan.”
Of course, labels like “liberal” and “conservative” don’t translate perfectly to sports. Do you have to be liberal to call Roger Goodell a tool? So maybe it’s better to put it like this: There was a time when filling your column with liberal ideas on race, class, gender, and labor policy got you dubbed a “sociologist.” These days, such views are more likely to get you a job.
Donald Trump’s election was merely an accelerant for a change that was already sweeping across sportswriting. On issues that divided the big columnists for years, there’s now something like a consensus. NCAA amateurism is rotten. The Washington Redskins nickname is more rotten. LGBT athletes ought to be welcomed rather than shunned. Head injuries are the great scandal of the NFL.
A few decades ago, Taylor Branch’s line that NCAA amateurism had “an unmistakable whiff of the plantation” would have been an eye-rollingly hot take. Now, if you turned in a column comparing college football to the institution of slavery, I suspect few editors would try to talk you out of publishing it. But they might ask you to come up with something more original.
As recently as the turn of the century, you could find columnists hanging Alex Rodriguez’s $252 million contract around his neck. Nobody much writes about free agency like that anymore. Even a bad contract is usually called a misallocation of resources by a team rather than a manifestation of a ballplayer’s overweening greed.
In the new world of liberal sportswriting, athletes who dabble in political activism are covered admiringly. Last year, Slate’s Josh Levin went searching for the voices who were dinging Colin Kaepernick for his national anthem protest. Levin found conservatives like Tomi Lahren and a couple of personalities from FS1. In the old days, such voices would have filled up half the sports columns, easy.
And these are just issues within sports. Look at the way sportswriters tweet about politics now. “God bless the @nytimes and the @washingtonpost,” Peter King tweeted earlier this week after the papers revealed the Trump administration’s web of ties to Russia. Two weeks ago, sportswriters blasted away at Trump’s immigration ban — staging their own pussy-hat protest within the press box. Last year, Roger Angellcame out of the bullpen to endorse Hillary Clinton.
“How many sportswriters have you seen on Twitter defending Donald Trump?” asked the baseball writer Rob Neyer. “I haven’t seen one. I’m sure there must have been a few writers out there who did vote for him, but there’s a lot of pressure not to be public about it.”
Forget the viability of being a Trump-friendly sportswriter today. Could someone even be a Paul Ryan–friendly sportswriter — knocking out their power rankings while tweeting that Obamacare is a failure and the Iran deal was a giveaway of American sovereignty?
In sportswriting, there was once a social and professional price to pay for being a noisy liberal. Now, there’s at least a social price to pay for being a conservative. Figuring out how the job changed — how we all became the children of Lester Rodney — is one of the most fascinating questions of our age.
But these idealists plied their trade in a media universe almost completely different from our own. The first reason sportswriting became a liberal profession is that the product known as “sportswriting” has been radically altered from what it was 40, 30, even 20 years ago.
The old liberal sportswriter was a prisoner of daily newspapers. If he wanted to write about politics, he had to do it within the confines of a sports story.“You decide whether you think this is a lefty idea or not,” said Larry Merchant, who was a columnist at the old (liberal) New York Post. “I wrote a story about a horse that had ridden in the Kentucky Derby. Now, it was in service of the national police in riot control in Washington, D.C. To me, that’s the most natural story in the world!”
Even if a newspaper had a “political” sports columnist, he was nearly always paired with a second, apolitical columnist, who matched the former’s moral crusades with his own rigid attention to balls and strikes.
“When you treat sports as a self-contained universe into which the rest of the universe does not intrude, it will inevitably be conservative,” said Craig Calcaterra. You defer to the commissioner, to the head coach, to the reserve clause — to the reigning authority.
The internet leveled the barrier between sportswriting and the rest of the universe. It also dropped the neutrality that was practiced by everyone but a handful of columnists. “We might have been more liberal than you would have imagined we were, but we didn’t bring it in our copy, you know?” said Deford. “We separated our individual lives from what we wrote because that was what was expected.”
In a sense that Curtis doesn’t mention I can understand how this happened. Of the five Ws and one H — Who, What, Where, When, Why and How — the Why and How could have more opinion than the rest. Did a basketball team lose because it failed to score for seven minutes, or because its opponent outscored them 14–0 over that seven minutes? Did Green Bay beat Dallas because of Aaron Rodgers’ great play, or because the Cowboys defense played poorly?
The fact vs. opinion standards have always been looser in sports journalism as well.
That great liberal Supreme Court Chief Justice Hugo Black may not have approved of this. He famously said he read the sports pages first because the sports page chronicles man’s successes, while the front page chronicles man’s failures.
I do not approve of this. For one thing, it wasn’t a conservative who coined the execrable phrase “The personal is political.” I do not believe sports fans read the sports page to get a sportswriter’s sociological or political views. Sports was one of an apparently decreasing number of areas in our lives measured in wins and losses instead of lefty victim-du-jour babble, and now it’s not.
It isn’t as if sports media can afford to offend its consumers. Sports Illustrated is printing seven fewer issues this year. The increasing politicization of ESPN has dovetailed with a drop in subscribers. NFL ratings dropped corresponding to Kaepernick’s protest. There are numerous websites and smartphone apps available for those who want only the scores and avoid sportswriter opinions. And it strikes me as career suicide in an era where news media outlets are shedding jobs left and right to go out of your way to alienate a substantial percentage of your readers, who are probably more likely to follow sports than those on the left side of the political aisle.