Younger readers probably won’t comprehend how important magazines like Sports Illustrated were in pre-internet culture. Most sports news was found in local papers and in short segments at 10 p.m. on the nightly news. Sports Illustrated was often—though, periodically, competition would pop up—the sole venue in which a sports fan could find deeply reported, well-crafted features and profiles, not to mention often-remarkable photography (the swimsuit issues, naturally, sold best). The magazine’s circulation hit around 3.5 million in the mid-1980s, with another million copies being bought on newsstands.
In my late 20s, I briefly worked for the company (well, the website, which was then called CNN/SI.com—perhaps a portend of terrible things to come), where I occasionally interacted with one of my writing heroes, Frank Deford. What a dream it was. I would have done it for free. I guess I almost did.
I’ve largely ignored the magazine for the past decade or so, not for any philosophical reasons or any animosity, but with all the choices it simply fell off my radar. But after running across an astoundingly nonsensical piece headlined “When Faith and Football Teamed Up Against American Democracy,” I’m glad I did.
Ostensibly, the feature is about Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, a SCOTUS case regarding a school district punishing a football coach named Joseph Kennedy for a 30-second silent prayer on the 50-yard line after every game. The piece’s subhead describes the case as so:
“The U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide the case of a football coach at a public high school who was told he wasn’t allowed to pray on the field in front of players. The expected result is a win for the coach—and the further erosion of the separation between church and state.”
In front of players? Can you imagine? How will our brittle democracy survive an open display of religiosity? Greg Bishop, who could easily have written this piece for The Nation, offers no explanation of how a prayer is eroding “separation of Church and State.” Even this atheist, after all, understands that the Establishment Clause doesn’t ban praying in public places—not in schools, and not even in Congress, where prayers are recited before every session.
Bishop anoints Rachel Laser of Americans United for Separation of Church and State his proxy, allowing her to frame the debate over Kennedy in the most preposterously hyperbolic, partisan terms imaginable, even though the only thing her organization excels at is losing cases. The bad-faith retelling of Kennedy’s story is crammed with partisan platitudes about “democracy” being under attack on issues like “voting rights, LGBTQ rights,” and the potential overturning of “Roe v. Wade.”
Now, it’s unimaginable that a major publication would allow a reporter to throw around phrases like “voting integrity, religious freedom, and protecting the life of the unborn”—without quotation marks intimating that the ideas aren’t real—and that’s probably always been the case. Though the piece brings up Roe three times, no one explains how a court (concerned solely with the constitutionality of laws) is undermining democratic institutions by giving abortion “rights,” unmentioned in the Constitution, back to voters. Washington State, home of Bremerton High School, sadly, will not be restricting abortion any time soon.
In any event, Bishop also uses appeals to authority, tapping “independent scholars or legal experts who hold no vested interest in the outcome”—one of the only names offered is conspiracy theorist Laurence Tribe. He warns readers about the nefarious, big-money forces propping up Kennedy. First Liberty ($7,255,961 in assets), writes Bishop, is a “powerful Christian conservative law firm,” part of a “powerful right-wing machine”—powerful is the key word here—while Americans United for Separation of Church and State ($11,141,577 in assets, not counting in-kind contributions from places like the Meredith Corporation, which has $6.727 billion in assets), are simply “terrified” and “transported” to an “alternate universe of disinformation and propaganda—and, in that world, even democracy is in danger.”
Disinformation? It’s all just progressive mad libs. That’s what happens when “democracy” is a euphemism for achieving political ends in whatever fashion happens to be convenient. Sometimes, when the numbers are there, it means crass majoritarianism and centralized federal power; and when the numbers aren’t there, it can mean compulsion or a court dictating “rights” by fiat.
In this case, a school district, not the coach, is attempting to limit speech. There is no prohibition on praying in public institutions. Such a prohibition has never existed. Any scholar—and Bishop claims to have spoken to many for the piece—who claims that the Constitution’s authors would have found the act of kneeling after a competition “perilous to foundational American ideals” is a complete fraud. Then again, “When Faith and Football Teamed Up Against American Democracy” is a microcosm of the incurious activism that dominates journalism these days. It’s one thing to put up with relentless bias that’s infected virtually every area of mainstream culture, but another to see once-respected magazines putting out such banal, predictable propaganda.