Why this matters
As athletes become wealthier and more outspoken and sport continues to be a site for political and social discourse, it's impossible for sports reporters to stay in one lane.
Everything changed so quickly.
Rudy Gobert, then a member of the Utah Jazz, tested positive for COVID-19 in March 2020. The National Basketball Association indefinitely suspended the rest of its season. The National Collegiate Athletic Association canceled its 2020 basketball tournaments. Major League Baseball delayed spring training. The United States – and the rest of the world – went into various states of public health lockdown.
In the middle of the upheaval, Toronto Star writer Bruce Arthur, who wrote a piece trying to capture the moment, was asked by his bosses if he’d like to become the newspaper’s coronavirus reporter. A widely respected sports columnist at the time – albeit with a Twitter habit of riffing on politics and culture as much as on pucks and dunks – Arthur thought about it for a day. He decided that the offer represented the chance to cover the biggest story of his lifetime, and he said yes.
“I figured it was a really interesting challenge, and I was ready for that,” Arthur says now.
In his new beat, Arthur found himself interviewing doctors and nurses, paramedics and funeral home employees. Writing about arguably the most significant news anyone this side of the baby boomer generation has ever known, he experienced something familiar, the same criticism he had received for years on social media while covering sports: Go back to hockey. Go back to basketball. Stick to sports.
“It wasn’t that different,” Arthur says. “It was just more reliable, because I was more reliable in not talking about sports.”
This phenomenon – sports journalists becoming more reliable in not sticking to sports, and other people becoming more reliable in complaining about that – is arguably becoming more commonplace across the media universe. Connect sports to culture or sports to social issues or sports to (gulp!) all-American partisan politics, and you will eventually and inevitably hear that you should stick to sports, from readers and fans and (gulp!) even your own bosses. The old Deadspin imploded when its new owners demanded that writers follow that edict. The New York Times recently frustrated writers at its sports journalism subsidiary The Athletic with a “no politics” social media rule.
How did we get here? Dave Zirin, an author and the sports editor for The Nation, has covered the intersection of sports and politics as much as or more than anybody else in his books, podcast, and magazine work. He traces a significant change in how the media covers that intersection to 2012, when Miami Heat players, led by superstars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, wore hoodies to draw attention to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
“That, to me, was the biggest inflection point of the 21st century,” Zirin says.
The images blew up on Twitter, which was emerging as a medium for athletes to speak to the masses without the media serving as gatekeepers. That made it far easier for them to tell the world exactly what they thought. Gone was the fear that an intermediary – meaning a journalist – would botch the message before it went out.
Then came Donald Trump. The political divisions inflamed by his presidency manifested in sports, too. He called out athletes like quarterback Colin Kaepernick by name, and inserted himself into sports issues in ways previous presidents never did. And sports journalists pushed back in ways that they never had – most notably when Jemele Hill, then with ESPN and now with The Atlantic, called Trump a White supremacist, a comment she never backed down from, even under heavy criticism.
Today, barely a week goes by without a major sports story that has nothing to do with final scores or on-field performance. From Kaepernick and other athletes kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police brutality to U.S. Women’s National Soccer team players demanding equal pay to Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr’s impassioned speech after the recent school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, to quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ stance on COVID-19 vaccination, social and political issues crossing over onto the sports pages has become the new normal.
Even the phrase “stick to sports” is having a moment. At least four current and former podcasts and one show on Vice TV (co-hosted by Hill, which aired in 2020 and 2021) have had a form of it in the title. Several journalists use it in Twitter bios – albeit in the negative: “I don’t stick to sports” – like a vampire slayer holding a crucifix to ward off battles before they start. I emailed Trenni Kusnierek, a two-time Emmy winner who covers Boston sports for NBC, to ask if having “No, I will not stick to sports” in her bio means people stop telling her to do just that.
Her answer: No.
“There will always be a section of sports fans,” she wrote, “who still see sporting events as their escape from the world and want all of us to shut up and ‘stick to sports’ for their own personal comfort.”
The sports world isn’t sticking to sports. Perhaps unsurprisingly, sports journalists aren’t, either. But they are catching flack for it. So how are they coping with criticism? Is it affecting their coverage? Should it affect their coverage? Is any of that criticism fair? Is it right?
Seeking answers, I spoke with a number of journalists. Here’s what I learned.
‘Look at the Supply Side’
Criticism comes with being a journalist. No matter what you report, write, or create, someone won’t like it. Six percent of the Amazon reviews of the literary classic The Great Gatsby give the book only one or two stars.
“Your job isn’t to be popular,” Zirin says.
Not all feedback is valid. Do critics actually mean it when they tell you to stick to sports? Or do they really mean, When I agree with you, you can write about politics as much as you want. When I don’t agree with you, that’s when I would appreciate it if you would shut your cake hole.
When stick to sports criticism is loud, and there seems to be a lot of it, it can be easy for journalists to think that it reflects the masses. But that’s not necessarily the case. Social media can be deceiving, home to bots and anonymous grumblers and small groups of dedicated haters shouting in expletives and all-caps. “I have very well-organized trolls,” says Julie DiCaro, an author and editor and senior writer at Deadspin. Those trolls follow her across social media platforms to her podcast to the Amazon page for her book. (On Instagram, she follows a carefully curated feed of flower photos to give herself a break.)
Zirin’s strategy? Remember that, as he says, “Twitter is not real life.”
Mark Hyman, a veteran journalist, professor, author and lawyer, says that a better gauge of whether sportswriters should stick to sports is to “look at the supply side of the equation.” He points to the number of publications that cater exclusively to sports content that is almost entirely political, social, and/or cultural—from Andscape and Deadspin to production companies run by LeBron James and Colin Kaepernick to popular recent sports books like The Heritage by Howard Bryant.
When DiCaro is trying to decide either what to write about or which pitches to greenlight, she checks to see what’s trending online. Twitter may not be real life, but social and search metrics are a decent approximation of what people in real life are thinking and reading and talking about. And as it turns out, sports plus politics or culture or social justice is almost certain to generate high numbers of page reads and social media engagement.
It’s amazing how voraciously people read content they profess to hate.
‘It’s So Damn Hard to Figure Out’
John Rawlings served as editor in chief at Sporting News for 18 years, ending in 2008. (Full disclosure: I worked under him for the final eight. I interviewed him for this story in part because I know he cares and thinks deeply about these issues, and in part because we have argued about politics for all of the 22 years we have known each other.)
Rawlings, it should be noted, is never right about anything. And he says the same thing about me.
The point is, we argue and disagree, but I listen to him, and he listens to me, and neither of us thinks less of the other because he is so hopelessly wrong all the time.
Listening well is an increasingly rare characteristic, especially when being bombarded by anonymous critiques laced with vitriol that are bouncing around in an online echo chamber.
But for sports journalists wading into politics or other touchy subjects, it’s crucial.
Bad-faith arguments masquerading as legitimate criticism aren’t worth anyone’s time. Nor are hateful personal attacks. Still, not every stick-to-sports critic should be dismissed out of hand. It’s important for journalists to ask themselves challenging questions: Do you know the material as well as you do for a story that is more traditionally on your beat? Can you explain it well? Do you know where your blind spots are?
The worst way to defend yourself against stick-to-sports critiques, Zirin says, is to file a bad story.
“You have to know your craft,” he says. “First and foremost, you are a bricklayer. If you don’t know how to lay a brick, you’re not doing your job.”
Writers who are consistently told they are too far left or right or unfair to opposing arguments should examine whether there’s any truth to that – and if there is, whether to do anything about it. Don’t be afraid to ask: What if I’m wrong?
“There’s a necessity to self-interrogate and critically assess where you’re coming from,” Zirin says.
Even if the result is refining your argument to prepare for the counterargument, as Arthur says he does, that’s a valuable exercise.
It’s also important to draw a clear line between columnists writing about politics and beat reporters writing about it, especially on social media. This issue has taken up a lot of bandwidth lately, particularly around The New York Times’ “no politics” social media policy filtering down to The Athletic. As easy as it is to chide The Times for having an opaque and slippery policy, there is no easy solution.
If a media company has no Twitter policy and reporters shoot their mouths off about issues they cover, that can raise legitimate objectivity questions – not just bad faith ones. For example, Hyman, who directs Merrill College’s Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism at the University of Maryland, said he would not have wanted his San Francisco 49ers beat reporter opining about Kaepernick kneeling while the quarterback was playing for the team.
“The big question is whether you want to use the huge megaphone to talk to an audience that the next day you may be addressing as an objective reporter,” he says. “That’s what I would worry about.”
At the same time, the media business exists to encourage, report on, and shape public discussion – to exercise the right to free speech. The minute that publications tell staffers “You can’t say that” is the minute they become hypocrites. Where should outlets draw a line? No one seems to know for sure. However many people you ask, that’s how many different lines you’ll get. And someone likely will cross it before you’re done drawing it.
“I don’t have an answer … ,” Rawlings says. “That’s one of the few things I do think about (since retiring) in terms of what would I do in our industry. It’s so damn hard to figure out.”
News Judgment Is Changing
Imagine you’re a sports reporter. You sit down in front of your laptop. You have, it seems, two stories in your notebook. One is about the game you just watched. The other is about the politically charged statement the star player made afterward.
You only have time and space for one. Which should you write?
All of this boils down to news judgment. What should journalists cover? How should they cover it? Sticking to sports – or not – may be relatively new, but these are very old questions.
“This is what we do every minute,” Rawlings says. “Do we cover this story or that story?”
The neat and tidy newspaper section-like division between sports and the rest of the world has never been real. Sports have been home to racism, sexism, economic exploitation, and every other social and cultural issue and illness under the sun for as long as sports have existed. There’s nothing inherently sinister about just wanting to read a game story – or just wanting to write one. Look around. Who wouldn’t want to escape, if just for a few hours?
“Sports is a place to go away,” Arthur says. “It’s a great place to hide from the world. And the problem is the world comes (into sports).”
That’s truer today than ever before. In turn, that means news judgment is changing. Those two stories in your imaginary notebook? They’re probably a single story. Until six years ago, when championship teams went to the White House to get their pictures with the president, it was arguably a sports story and a politics story. Mostly, it was an incredibly boring story that nobody really cared about. A grip ’n’ grin photo, a few lame jokes, some wire copy you could safely ignore, regardless of how you felt about the occupant of the Oval Office.
That shifted with Trump. Teams and athletes began refusing to show up. It was still a sports story and a political story, just an interesting one that was bound to piss a lot of people off – and hearten at least as many. It was, inarguably, if nothing else, news.
“How much do you really want to interrogate the world that you live in?” Arthur asks. “With sports, if we don’t do it all, we’re doing a disservice. And if we do it too much, we probably take away the impact.”
‘It’s the World’
Zirin is the author of 11 books on politics and sports. In some ways, he was once a lone wolf howling in the distance – or, less metaphorically, the guy MSNBC bookers would call on a Saturday afternoon for a quick and informed discussion on Rush Limbaugh saying something wild about Black quarterbacks.
Today, Zirin has been joined by a large pack, and they’re howling in unison in our backyard. “It’s not my niche anymore,” he says. “It’s the world.”
The world, arguably, is a mess. Everything seems political – and everything political seems increasingly worse, or more urgent, or more upsetting, or at least harder to ignore. Sports have always been a mirror of society, and these days, the picture isn’t pretty. Readers and viewers and even journalists aren’t crazy to want to look away. Still, unless you close your eyes entirely, that reflection can’t be avoided.
“What isn’t often considered by these fans is how these difficult issues of today’s society – racism, sexism, violence – affects (sic) us sports journalists every day in our jobs, our industry, and in the sports that we cover,” Kusnierek says. “While it may be hard to see, unfortunately it is the harsh reality.”
So is this: In 2022, there’s no way for sports journalists to stick to sports and still do their jobs.
The media shapes how people view characters and issues in sport and society. Today, however, journalists' stories are increasingly found online and on social networks in addition to more traditional mediums like print, television and radio.
As the media itself has changed, its relationship to and impact on athletes and the sports industry has changed as well. Does a more disparate and diverse media ecosystem inspire hope for a better future in sport, or could old pitfalls arise again in an era defined by digitization and immediacy?