The left wanted to mix politics with sports right up until last Sunday, when Vice President Mike Pence left an Indianapolis Colts game at the sight of the kneeling players on both sides (the San Francisco 49ers are the most kneel-happy team in the league).
For years, sports media has enjoyed injecting politics into sports, but they didn’t seem to like Pence doing the same. Which suggests that their priority was never about covering the intersection of sports and politics, as they claimed, but rather the intersection of their politics and sports.
Sports fans, in large number, think of sports as solely entertainment and largely unifying. Sure, you may be a Clemson grad who hates all things Gamecocks, but for the most part, sports are what brings communities together for high school football, colleges together during NCAA Tournament runs, and diverse cities and entire regions together for pro sports success.
Everyone enjoys an inspiring story, and sports are chock-full of them. It can be the most uplifting part of your newspaper.
What disrupts our enjoyment of sports is divisiveness, but sports media has had no time for that complaint in recent years. This was another realm of culture to claim, so they’ve made things and more political, even against its better interests.
Sports Media Have Disdained Their Audience
In 2013, the National Journal studied 200,000 interviews and charted what sports fans liked, how they leaned politically, how many fans liked a certain sport, and how likely those fans were to vote.
The sports that skewed left were the WNBA, pro tennis, the NBA, soccer, pro wrestling, horse racing, UFC, and extreme sports. Only the NBA ranks among America’s most-watched sports.
Two were right on the line of bipartisanship: motocross and grand-am road racing (I don’t know what that is, and don’t care to look it up).
All other sports skewed right: the NFL, the MLB (the closest to the bipartisan line all these), college football, college basketball, NASCAR, rodeo, bull riding, drag racing, pro golf, IndyCary, high school sports, and the Olympics.
It would be wise to take this information into consideration, right? Maybe not preach liberal politics to right-leaning sports fans, particularly at a time when we’re more divided than ever? Sadly, many in sports media have done the exact opposite.
They’ve roundly mocked their own audience when asked to “stick to sports.” They reference Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali as shining examples of the good that happens when athletes don’t stick to sports (isn’t it odd they rarely offer examples from the last 35 years?).
Seth Davis allegedly covers college basketball for The Athletic. Last March, college basketball’s most important month, his Twitter timeline was full of anti-Trump tweets and his profile picture was an image of Obama.
I followed him for a few weeks, ready for daily updates on all the bubble teams. But he was busy scolding his followers. His account now proudly declares he “doesn’t stick to sports.”
Why Sports Writers Are Drawn To Politics
You go to work and follow sports on the side, but sports media has it reversed, naturally: sports is work. So following politics becomes many writer’s most enjoyable side hobby.
Any chance to weave the two together is a win for sports media. It’s a ticket to more clicks, more airtime, more front pages, and more relevance.
If your local NFL team wins Sunday, that story be on the front page of the sports section. If they kneel, that same writer might get a story on A1. TV is much the same. Sports is the first thing cut on local TV when the weatherman goes over time.
There’s also more money to be made with politics: Keith Olbermann was a popular SportsCenter host, but made more money talking politics. Jemele Hill’s recent controversy and suspension all but guarantees her next gig will be at MSNBC or CNN, and she’ll get a nice pay raise with that.
Many sports journalists got into the business hoping to cover their own Ali, but those don’t come every decade. For years, they kept wanting to pull the star athletes into the political realm, but were refused (most notably by Michael Jordan’s “Republicans buy sneakers too” quip).
As things got more polarized in the latter years of George W. Bush’s presidency, efforts to find a star athlete who fit the leftist media’s cause were scrapped. If you started with the cause, you could find another vessel to weave sports and leftist politics together.
Here’s a few examples:
- Gun control: When Kansas City Chiefs player Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend and then himself, NBC’s Bob Costas dedicated his halftime monologue for a Sunday Night NFL game to gun control (and not domestic violence, which is something both left and right have rallied against in pro sports).
- LGBT causes: Sports fans may not care if their sports figures are gay or straight, but the media has been trying to make them care. When former NBA player John Amaechi came out as gay, the search was on for an active gay player. Jason Collins was that guy, and later Michael Sam, and perhaps both were newsworthy—an organic intersection of sports and politics.But now our U.S. Women’s Soccer Team are wearing rainbow jerseys for gay pride, the NCAA is pulling events out of states that dare challenge the unpopular transgender agenda, and a sports blog dedicated to LGBT causes, called OutSports, wonders whether Tim Tebow is gay. And who could forget ESPN naming Caitlyn Jenner its sportsperson of the year, ahead of a college basketball player who played with terminal cancer?
- Black Lives Matter: Colin Kaepernick sat for the National Anthem, then kneeled, and sports media did the rest, plunging headfirst into #KneelingAnthemChallenge wall-to-wall coverage. CBSsports.com has an entire section of its website titled “Anthem Protests.”
It was overkill. And now it seems to have backfired.
Through Trump, the Right Is Striking Back
As much as right-leaning sports fans begged the sports media to stop, they were mostly powerless, and sports media knew it.
“You’ll still watch,” they said, smugly. They were right, but only for a while.
Sports media erred in two ways: one, they didn’t see the long game. Two, they thought that the right would never get involved and try to promote its own brand of sports and politics.
ESPN has learned the hard way. They’ve lost many subscribers due to cord-cutting, and many sports fans have grown to dislike the first channel that was made for just them. The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis has a good article on the falling out of ESPN’s popularity.
NFL ratings went up the week Donald Trump attacked anthem protests; perhaps people were tuning in to see how the NFL would respond. When a record number of players sat, knelt, stretched or stayed in the locker room for the anthem, fans tuned out. The next two weeks of ratings show it.
NFL Sunday Ticket cancellations were so plentiful, DirecTV offered full refunds (a smart long-term play to get those fans to pay next year, should the NFL succeed in quashing the anthem protests).
Trump and Pence’s willingness to join the fray is unprecedented. At first, I was against it. After all, I don’t like politics in my sports. I was being consistent.
But now that the NFL is backing down, and sports media are freaking out about Pence getting involved, I have to sit back and look at this differently. Pence and Trump didn’t start this battle. But they may have won the biggest current-day culture war in sports, and it only took a few months of their first football season in office.
If sports and politics are going to be joined at the hip, there might as well be some of my politics in there as well.