It’s been a tough spring for ESPN. They laid off 100 anchors, reporters, analysts and production staffers. Then The Walt Disney Company announced that operating income at its media division suffered a 3 percent decline because of ESPN’s declining subscriber base and higher programming costs.
And to add insult to injury, the former ESPN analyst Jason Whitlock published a widely discussed op-ed in the Wall Street Journal arguing that ESPN has lost its mojo because it succumbed to political correctness and started to lean left.
This confluence of events spotlighted an ongoing debate about whether ESPN has become a liberal network, with most of the mainstream media averring that, no, it certainly is not, and the Right acerbically responding that left-leaning reporters wouldn’t recognize media bias if a “Resistance” poster fell on their head. (For what it’s worth, Sporting News reported that 60 percent of TV sports fans believe that ESPN lean left, compared to only three percent who believe it leans right.)
The debate over ESPN is just the latest in a series of episodes demonstrating the increasing politicalization of sports. There was San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand during the national anthem. There was the berating of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for having a “Make America Great Again” hat in his locker. There was the refusal of some New England Patriots players to go to the White House and be honored by President Trump. Before that there was the support of the Black Lives Matter movement by many of the NBA’s most prominent players.
When we’re talking about politics in sport, it’s important to point out that we’re not talking about politics as it was understood for the first two hundred years of the Republic. For centuries the important political questions concerned the distribution of the nation’s wealth – who gets what. But politics today is increasingly defined as identity politics, or the respect paid to people who consider themselves part of vulnerable population, which is essentially everyone who’s not a straight white male.
Consider the case against ESPN – it has nothing to do with interest politics like healthcare reform, international trade, or infrastructure spending, and everything to do with identity. Among the bill of particulars: they gave a heroism award to Caitlin Jenner for publicly transitioning to female; they played up Michael Sam as the first openly gay player drafted by the NFL; they fired Curt Schilling for tweeting (rather crudely) in favor of North Carolina’s “bathroom” law.
The same is true in sports in general. No one in sports gets in trouble for having opinions about the budget deficit or taxes (although I’m sure that athletes definitely have opinions about taxes since they are among the most highly compensated people in America). No, where players and commentators trip up is by addressing issues of gender, race and sexuality.
Sportswriters and social media enforcers make life tough for athletes, who are in no position to navigate the complicated world of identity politics. Many commentators yearn for the golden age of sports activism in the 1960s, when Muhammad Ali protested the Vietnam War and African American Olympic runners raised their fists in “Black Power” solutes when receiving their medals.
According to this narrative, Michael Jordan is a corporate lackey because he declined to take political stands, allegedly remarking that “Republicans buy sneakers too” (although has denied this and there is no proof that he ever did say it.) This is another example of the extra burden that is put on African Americans that white athletes easily avoid. No one ever gives Larry Bird a hard time for not popping off about Indiana rural poverty.
When commentators say they want athletes to speak out more, what they are really saying is that they want them to articulate positions that they, the commentators, support. They falsely assume that everyone will conform to stereotypes: that all African Americans are democrats or all women are feminists. Yet Caitlyn Jenner is a vocal Republican and Charles Barkley spoke approvingly of Jeb Bush and Chris Christie. There were no media accolades when former tennis great Margaret Court spoke out against gay marriage. If every athlete honestly started offering political opinions I can promise you the media would be appalled at what they heard.
Count me among those sports fans who prefer to root for my teams as a mild form of escapism. If politics permeates every other aspect of our lives, is it too much to ask for a couple of hours where I can commune with my fellow sports fans regardless of their political opinions?
What’s particularly surprising about this issue is that many sports writers think it’s a good idea for athletes, teams and leagues to voice opinions that alienate their core audience: older white men. What a good business model! And for what? The chances that I will change my mind on an issue because of something a basketball player says are about as likely that I will do so after a Facebook friend post a snide meme. I can unfollow over-opinionated friend on Facebook, just as I can change the channel whenever an athlete gets under my skin in an interview. Please guys, save the politics for the ballot box.