As Donald Trump assumes his new role as President of the United States after a bitterly divisive campaign, it is increasingly relevant to examine the ways in which politics intersect with sport. While much attention has been given to the proliferation of national anthem protests by athletes and spectators, and the modest group of NBA coaches speaking out against Trump’s rhetoric, no examination of politics and sport would be complete without discussing how this intersection is brought to bear on those who report and/or comment on sporting news for a living.
Although sports journalism has long been viewed as the “toy department” of the mass media, rarely reporting on serious topics such as political corruption or healthcare reform, sports journalists play an important role in society, working to meet the demands of a seemingly insatiable appetite for sports news. In spite of this appetite, sports journalists and sports media personalities are increasingly discovering that some of their patrons don’t want the extra side of politics that sometimes comes with the sports news entrée.
“Stick to sports” has become the rallying cry of sports media consumers who prefer apolitical sportswriters and sportscasters. Nowhere is this more apparent than on social networks such as Twitter, which gives sports media consumers unfettered access to those who work in the sports media industry. On November 9, 2016, the day after Election Day in the United States, many sports media personalities took to Twitter (and, in some cases, the airwaves) to voice their opinions vis-à-vis the election result. In response, however, many men and women in the industry were told by some of their followers to “stick to sports,” as seen in the examples below. In many instances these commands to be apolitical were accompanied by threats to click the dreaded “unfollow” button.
Where does this phenomenon come from? Little scholarship exists on media consumers’ desire for apolitical sports coverage. However, an interview with Dave Zirin conducted by sport sociologist C. Richard King for the Journal of Sport and Social Issues in 2008 offers a few potential explanations.
Zirin, a self-proclaimed “radical journalist” who maintains an online column/blog called The Edge of Sports, professed to King an increased social and political awareness during the 1990s that coincided with a disenchantment with sports. As athletes such as Mahmoud Abdul Rauf—an NBA player who refused to stand for the national anthem, a la Colin Kaepernick—found little support from their mostly-conservative team and league administrators, Zirin saw a void which needed to be filled, that of political sports commentary.
For Zirin, what made sports journalists (and, perhaps their audiences) resistant to a having their work politicized is the fact that sports journalism, widely viewed as the “toy department” of the news machine, is very seldom taken seriously. This is perhaps because the people covering sports have not taken themselves seriously. “For far too many people, politics is what the people with the bad haircuts do on CSPAN,” Zirin said in the interview.
Exacerbating matters, and perhaps striking closer to the heart of the “stick to sports” moment, is the fact that, as David Theo Goldberg has argued, the sports media industry (in Goldberg’s case, sports talk radio) has been a bastion of dominant, conservative ideals, despite the increasing number of women and people of color employed in the industry. These values, which tend to ignore issues related to race, gender, sexuality and socioeconomic status (to the extent they don’t impact the privileged), have long had an effect on the ways in which “old-school” sports journalists have viewed the world, their work, and the intersections therein. Additionally, inasmuch as the sports media have conditioned their audiences over the years—some people watch the Super Bowl just for the commercials, after all—the average sports media consumer has come to expect sports coverage that is relatively apolitical or, at the very least, socially indifferent.
But the landscape of sports media coverage and politics has changed in recent years. According to Zirin in 2008, as sports journalism became increasingly democratized thanks to the web, “old-school” sports journalism and sports journalists were being challenged politically, often called out for ignoring their social privileges. But now the roles have reversed; sports media personalities have become more outwardly political, particularly online. In a sense, sports media professionals have played a significant role in making sports journalism more democratic, which has coincided with the increasing demands placed on sports journalists to build and maintain active presences on the web. These changing demands have been evidenced by research conducted by Pamela Laucella, Mary Lou Sheffer, and Brad Schultz in Routledge’s Handbooks of Sports Communication and Sports and New Media, published in 2013 and 2014, respectively.
Thus, what we are witnessing in the current, “stick to sports” moment is a perfect storm that is the result of competing political views within the sports media industry and sports journalism’s web-driven democracy. Given the fact the web fosters more nuanced sports commentary, and the divisive political environment in which we currently find ourselves, it’s no wonder sports media personalities have been more inclined to express their opinions online, despite repeated calls by their audience not to do so. Also, due to sports journalism’s lack of any “official” connection with Washington, sports journalists are free to provide personal political commentary. Thus, any inclination to provide political commentary would appear to be natural.
A cursory look at the Twitter profiles of sports media personalities suggests many of them have taken notice of the “stick to sports” moment. For example, Toronto Star sports columnist Bruce Arthur and Comcast SportsNet anchor and reporter Trenni Kusnierek both tell their profiles’ visitors, to varying degrees, that they will not stick to sports. Atlanta Falcons online writer Jeanna Thomas’s pinned tweet, which remains affixed atop her timeline, warns her followers that she does not stick to sports. An accompanying trademark superscript following the phrase suggests Thomas’s awareness of the phrase’s increased prominence.
As Donald Trump assumes his new role in White House, bringing with him inflammatory rhetoric, many sports media personalities will be disinclined to stick to sports. To expect otherwise would be unrealistic. “[P]olitics are of course the food we eat, the air we breathe, and yes, the sports we watch and play,” Zirin said in 2008.
Because of the web and social media, sports media personalities are no longer required to stick to sports and their audiences will have to grapple with, and/or enjoy, this new reality.
Guy Harrison is a doctoral candidate in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. His research examines constructions of gender and race in the sports media. You can follow him on Twitter @GuyMHarrison.