ESPN and the Politicization of Sports

ESPN and the Politicization of Sports

Can we enjoy sports for sports’ sake?

The question, considered obliquely by ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte earlier this week, evokes a similar debate over the arts informally held more than seventy years ago. Albert Maltz, a Communist writer tired of advocacy journalism masked as literature, argued in The New Masses in favor of art for art’s sake. He confessed a weariness toward the attitude that “unless art is a weapon like a leaflet, serving immediate political ends, necessities and programs, it is worthless or escapist or vicious.”

This describes the self-hating sports journalist’s approach to the events he covers. Viewing athleticism as “worthless,” or “escapist,” or “vicious,” the egghead injects meaning into what he imagines as a meaningless enterprise by politicizing inherently apolitical competition. For the self-hating sports scribe, what happens “Outside the Lines,” as one of ESPN’s programs calls itself, deserves greater attention than what happens inside of them. Fans, who tune-in to ESPN to watch buzzer beaters rather than table thumpers, naturally complain to its ombudsman. 

Lipsyte synthesizes the familiar grievance thusly: “Enough already about Michael Sam, Jason Collins, Richie Incognito, Jonathan Martin, concussions and the N-word. I turn on ESPN to get away from the stress of everyday life, to relax with my friends, to share some family time with the kids. Why do you keep shoving that stuff in my face?

Eat it, Lipsyte essentially responds. “I don’t think ESPN is actually shoving enough of that stuff in enough faces often enough,” the ombudsman writes. “The coverage of issues that jump the white lines tends to be hit-and-run, treated as isolated events rather than as a web of Jock Culture attitudes and politics that are connected and need continual attention.”

In the paternalistically titled, “Give fans what they want, or should have?,” Lypsite recites four such hot-button sports controversies in need of “continual attention”: bullying, exemplified in the Incognito-Martin affair; the homosexuality of Jason Collins, Michael Sam, and other athletes; sports concussions; and the use of the N-word by competitors. The thread uniting the four issues that ESPN’s ombudsman wishes to stuff more aggressively in the face of patrons is that one can’t vocally disagree with ESPN’s favored stance and enjoy a platform on the network. In fact, the N-word controversy, alone among the four, engenders robust televised debate, albeit debate which 88 percent of the population doesn’t dare participate. Lipsyte paradoxically wants ESPN to expand discussion on issues that ESPN has already limited discussion.

Debate on these issues effectively plays out as a monologue on ESPN. It’s not so much, as Lipsyte suggests, that such discussions necessarily strike viewers as overdone. It’s that participants who veer from the Bristol party line strike bosses as over, done. This necessarily ensures that any conversation about such hot-button topics comes across as either forced or one-sidedly stale. Whether ESPN deliberately employs talking heads who talk alike, or the talking heads instinctively know what their employers want them to say, matters little because it all ends the same for viewers: boredom. Consider the Sunday snoozefest Sports Reporters program featuring Mike Lupica, Mitch Albom, William Rhoden, and John Feinstein–all quite accomplished, and all quite left-wing. However much critics may lambaste the fairness of this or that Sunday morning politics-panel show, they all at least allow dissenting voices on the air.

ESPN’s intellectual ghetto broadcasts to the wider world daily on Pardon the Interruption, a looser, lighter, and livelier program than The Sports Reporters. The Newspeak title of the program suggests spirited, in-your-face debate, and that generally happens when the discussion stays inside the lines. When conversation veers outside the lines, the hosts interrupt only to outdo one another in political correctness. In such instances, the only fireworks viewers see are the ones that go off when Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser finish the other’s points as they gaze into one another’s eyes. You’re so right. No, you’re so right.

In late February, to take a recent example, Wilbon counseled the NFL to remove the 2015 Super Bowl from Glendale, Arizona should the governor sign a measure protecting business owners who refuse to violate religious conscience at the behest of clients. A baker ordered to bake a cake for a gay wedding served as an impetus for the legislation, but one could imagine other occasions when a customer’s wants clashed with a proprietor’s faith. “Bail,” Wilbon instructed. “Take it out in a heartbeat.” Not to be out-flanked, Kornheiser quickly denounced Arizona as the “most recalcitrant, backward-looking state in the country when it comes to social change.” He then showed how one wins a debate when it masks a monologue. He compared the Grand Canyon State–the place where H.I. and Ed saved little Nathan Arizona from Tex Cobb–to Nazi Germany. He asked about the state, “How are [gays] supposed to be identified? Should they wear a yellow star? Because my people went through that at one point.” 

ESPN deals with disputes as though they aren’t. Tautologically, a controversy doesn’t elicit unanimity. As the votes among the democratically-elected legislature in Arizona indicates, a view beyond the narrow one aired by Wilbon and Kornheiser exists. But it doesn’t exist on ESPN.

It may be the wrong view, but the network doesn’t help viewers to see this by exposing them to a caricatured version of it. Given that the four-letter sports behemoth, and its ombudsman, seem committed to covering sport more aggressively when it intersects with politics and culture, shouldn’t it make more of an effort to acknowledge that it reaches an audience far more diverse in outlook than those watching from a cable-television campus in Connecticut? Dispensing with the political litmus test for the non-jock talkers would be an encouraging start. 

Sports remain an attractive vehicle for propagandists. The Putin regime displayed this last month in Sochi. The Obama administration demonstrates it this week in its push linking the Affordable Care Act to the NCAA basketball tournament. Ideologues love sports not for the competition but for the lack thereof. Put simply, nothing compares to sports in monopolizing the eyeballs of Americans. Ideologues find in sports their deepest desire: a captive audience.

That’s why, despite embracing MSNBC’s politics–and now employing in a late-night slot the one-time personification of that network–ESPN won’t follow MSNBC’s ratings dive anytime soon. Americans won’t, and shouldn’t, turn off games because so many ax-grinders have become turned on by their potential for propaganda. Football, basketball, baseball, hockey, and the rest play on our screens as too exhilarating, too aspirational, too metaphorical for Robert Lipsyte and Keith Olbermann and the Brothers Fainaru and Tony Kornheiser to ruin them through politicization. Mr. Lypsyte’s correspondents seem to be telling him that they click on his network to escape FOXCNNMSNBC, not to watch a jock version of them. The letter-writers view sports as end, not as means to launch into conversations about homosexuality, feminism, gun control, and racism in which mere dissent serves as an invitation to let loose a barrage of nasty names describing one’s mental, psychological, and moral shortcomings. Fans want a game, not a sermon. To loosely paraphrase Albert Maltz’s argument, fans want sports for sports’ sake.

Maltz, the writer who stood up for art for art’s sake when his comrades embodied the troglodyte art-as-a-weapon slogan, faced a panel of American commissars in Mike Gold, Howard Fast, and V.J. Jerome at actor Morris Carnovsky’s Los Angeles home shortly after the publication of his New Masses article. A man who later refused to cower before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and accepted prison over cooperation with his government nevertheless broke before party discipline. He denounced the very article he had written.

How utterly bizarre that the politicized litmus tests that characterized a tiny sect of fanatics would begin to be applied to journalists who watch balls bounce and pucks drop for a living. A spokesperson for Fox Sports Net, a competitor to ESPN, recently explained that college football commentator Craig James, a former SMU and New England Patriots running back, “was terminated because of his religious beliefs about same-sex marriage.”

Given the chilling context of the case of Craig James, a man deprived of his livelihood because he harbors convictions with which the broadcaster disagrees but about half of its audience embraces, one begins to understand why Robert Lipsyte wants more discussion of athletes coming out of the closet and concussions as the new plague and sensitivity training for a league of Richie Incognitos. One side of these rigged debates finds subsidy for their speech; the other side finds censorship. Albert Maltz stood merely to lose comrades who weren’t his friends by remaining loyal to his opinion. Craig James lost his job by remaining loyal to his.

An echo chamber isn’t a debate despite what the loud voices bouncing off the walls may tell you.

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