Are liberals taking over sports coverage, too? Increasingly, that’s the way it feels. And it’s not just because Keith Olbermann is back at ESPN.
In just the last year or so, sports has been dominated by stories about NBA player Jason Collins coming out as gay, the Miami Dolphins “bullying” scandal, debates over whether or not “Redskins” is a racial slur (with some outlets refusing to even use the name), and worries over the NFL’s “concussion crisis.”
The increased politicization of sports was probably the first sign. More and more, it seems, the behind-the-scenes soap opera has overshadowed what’s happening between the lines.
And as was the case with Bob Costas’ gun control rant earlier this year — or ESPN commentator Kevin Blackstone’s recent reference to the national anthem as a “war anthem” — many sports commentators are coming down decidedly on the side of political correctness (the flouting of which forced Rush Limbaugh to resign from ESPN a decade ago), away from overt patriotism and pro-American symbolism, and toward using sports to advance progressive social engineering goals.
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“It’s funny to listen to sports commentators on the radio who have clearly been brought up through public schools and state university journalism programs talk about class and race and gender like a sociology major from Smith or Denison,” says R.J. Moeller, a conservative who also writes about sports and culture. “They hate any strong male coaches. They hate any sort of patriotism associated with the sport. They’re treating sports and holding what goes on in locker rooms to the same standard they would a diversity and social justice mediation seminar on Google’s campus.”
And if conservatives are upset about this, it may be because this is all they have left. Progressives have long owned Hollywood, and (except maybe for Nashville) most of the popular music industry. Sports were perhaps the bastion for conservative entertainment — the final refuge for the patriotic, beer-guzzling, macho male who just wants to forget about his day job and watch a game — without hearing a lecture. Those days may be over.
There have always been progressive athletes, of course. Muhammad Ali’s affiliation with the Nation of Islam and refusal to go to Vietnam, Billie Jean King’s lesbianism, and the 1968 Olympics Black Power salute are all famous examples of athletes using their platforms to push progressive social issues. But these examples mostly come at moments of great social upheaval — which may explain why one looks back to the 1960s and ’70s for prominent examples.
What is more, with the exception of integration and the occasional labor dispute, high-profile team sports like pro football and baseball — the “All-American” sports — have largely avoided such divisive politicization. The goal, it seems, was to be family-friendly and I daresay “corporate,” which typically meant being as apolitical as possible. As Michael Jordan said, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
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It would be simplistic and incorrect to say that liberals are completely taking over sports. Life is messier than that. On some issues, like stadium financing, for example, you find tea party folks and progressives can often agree. And despite the fact that liberal-leaning ESPN blogger Nate Silver is, in many ways, the poster child for the statistic revolution, the modern “Moneyball” approach to crunching numbers and innovating the use of metrics has probably had a conservative influence — making sportswriters more likely to respect the creative and entrepreneurial aspects of the sports business (and, presumably, other businesses).
Michael Brenden Dougherty, an “old right” journalist who is editor of a daily baseball newsletter called The Slurve, argues that “the recruitment of former players into sports broadcasts tends to make them tilt a little further to the right than an average broadcast team.” This rings true. When political shows recruit former candidates and strategists, they get a large swath of opinions. But former athletes and coaches have traditionally leaned conservative, meaning that the influx of ex-athletes probably pushes coverage to the right. For example, ex-NFL coach Tony Dungy, a political conservative, is part of NBC’s “Football Night in America” team.
But if sports were once a refuge for conservatism in entertainment, it does seem like we are moving toward more ideological parity. And what has changed a lot is what Dougherty describes as a “disproportionately influential niche and Internet sports media.”
This niche includes popular internet writers, podcasters and commentators like Bill Simmons, Jason Whitlock, Michael Wilbon, et al. — writers who tend to be progressive, if iconoclastic. And highly influential.
“The Internet has allowed a more acerbic and assertive liberal writer rise up and challenge…talk radio opinionators and the big broadcast companies,” avers Dougherty.
“There are rich targets for young liberal-minded sportswriters,” adds Travis Waldron, who writes about sports for ThinkProgress. He says this phenomenon is a consequence of “the pure democratization of media.”
In the old days, sportswriters might be personally liberal, but they were (mostly) confined to actually writing about the games. But the rise of alternative media has meant there is more space and time to fill, and we all know the public has a ravenous appetite for sports. You can only write about the X’s and O’s so much. Commentators must come up with constant content to keep listeners engaged, and so it’s probably not a surprise that culture and politics would creep in.
Consider Tony Kornheiser’s ESPN radio show (one of my favorites). Like most of these sports commentators, Kornheiser isn’t a partisan hack; he’s more of an old school JFK liberal. But he has golfed with the president on more than one occasion. And aside from talking about sports, his ESPN radio show runs the gamut from movie reviews to politics. It’s not uncommon for him to have James Carville on making college football picks, or the liberal-leaning Huffington Post’s Howard Fineman on to discuss the news of the day.
“I definitely don’t think there’s some larger goal on the left to just infiltrate the sports media,” says Waldron. “I think it goes back to the idea that people are willing to look at sports in maybe a different way and that there’s so many places for people to read about sports now that it’s looked at as more than just a game.”
But regardless of whether this is an orchestrated plot, the rise of liberal sports commentators could have a huge impact. It has long been believed that TV shows like “Will & Grace” contributed to changing Americans’ attitudes about gays. It’s reasonable to conclude that men whose love for sports gets them listening to Bill Simmons’ podcast might eventually find themselves subscribing to his more liberal political views.
“I think their critique will have a slow, almost geologic effect on the broader sports media,” said Dougherty, speaking of progressive sports opinionators.
“It is definitely influencing younger fans who now have to sit through the political correctness from another source (apart from their schools and the entertainment industry),” says Moeller. “The left knows no boundaries. They want wholesale influence in the culture. Conservatives play sports and run teams. Liberals cover them and snidely pick apart what doesn’t comport with their leftist view.”
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Even if progressives aren’t overtly attempting to infiltrate the sports world, liberal-leaning outlets do seem to be more interested in serious sports reporting and analysis than their conservative counterparts.
To be sure, conservatives like Charles Krauthammer and George Will have occasionally written about sports, and outlets like National Review sometimes touch on it. Sites like Breitbart.com and The Daily Caller have “sports” pages. And, of course, conservative Dan Flynn recently wrote “The War on Football”.
But this is different from having full-time reporters dedicated to reporting and commenting on sports day in and day out. And this is yet another area where the left is doing a better job. Aside from Waldron, who writes for ThinkProgress, The Nation employs a sportswriter named Dave Zirin, who has penned such posts as “Dump the ‘Redskins’ Slur.”)
One can imagine this effort to build a bench of progressive sports commentators who opine on games and subtly inject their worldview into the coverage (as we all, admittedly, do) might pay dividends. And Zirin, for example, has appeared on ESPN’s “Outside The Lines.”
As far as I know, there aren’t any overtly conservative outlets that have their own version of Dave Zirin. And that’s their fault. Culture is more important than politics, after all.