When I was growing up, watching Sportscenter on ESPN — which featured the likes of Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann, Rich Eisen and Stuart Scott to name a few — was a daily must.
Though I am still an avid sports fan, I rarely watch ESPN anymore outside of live sports coverage and have hardly ever seen the current 6 p.m. Sportscenter with Michael Smith and Jemele Hill in the anchor chairs.
A big reason is time. I have a demanding job (maybe that’s my opinion) that often includes evening hours. Most nights, I’m either at a local government meeting, sporting event or in the office designing this newspaper. When I’m not doing one of those things, I’m indulging in Mickey Mouse Clubhouse with my son or reading books with him. After he’s asleep, I’m either writing again or watching something else on TV with the Mrs.
But another reason is overall quality. While there is still undeniable talent there and good content, the network is becoming too much about entertainment and not as much about sports journalism.
What I don’t get as upset about, which many other Americans apparently do, is when politics is infused with sports coverage. Some of the best content produced by ESPN has explored sports through a political lens, including several of its better 30 for 30 documentaries. But the network continues to find itself in political controversies. One of the dumbest ones came recently when network executives decided to pull an Asian-American broadcaster named Robert Lee off the broadcast of a University of Virginia football game because the recent unrest in Charlottesville brought on by a white nationalist rally “might create a distraction, or even worse, expose him to social hectoring and trolling,” as ESPN president said in a statement trying to rationalize the move. It predictably backfired.
The latest outrage is one stemming from Hill’s remarks on her Twitter page, calling President Donald Trump a “white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists” and “an unfit, bigoted, incompetent moron.”
The president hit back on his Twitter, writing, “ESPN is paying a really big price for its politics (and bad programming). People are dumping it in RECORD numbers. Apologize for untruth!” When asked about Hill’s statements, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called them a “fireable offense.”
It’s probably best reserved for another column to get into whether there is any truth to what Hill said (I don’t have any reason to believe Trump is a Klansman, but economic anxiety among white Americans was a key driving force in his election and he gave a platform to white nationalists in his administration) or whether ESPN’s response to the controversy was appropriate (It reminded me very much of some of the corporate tone-deafness I’ve worked under).
But a common question I hear is, “Why don’t athletes just stick to what they’re best at (sports)?” It’s similar to, “These actors need to stick to acting.”
I’ve heard it more frequently since last year when NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the National Anthem for the first time as a protest against what he perceives as unfair treatment of minorities by law enforcement across the country and predictably caught a huge wave of backlash.
While I didn’t agree with Kaepernick’s method of protest, and he didn’t do himself any favors early on by talking about oppression of people while wearing a Fidel Castro shirt, he and other players who have followed suit have every right to use their platform as a professional athlete how they choose. If anything, they’ve helped get people talking about issues of race in America that should be discussed, no matter how uncomfortable we might be in doing so.
When you get down to it, sports and politics/sociology are almost inseparable. The tradition of playing and singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and, in the post-9/11 world, “God Bless America,” at every sporting event is political in a sense. But because that’s not controversial, you don’t hear people saying, “Get politics out of sports.”
The politics within the sporting organizations and leagues themselves are undeniable. The history of professional baseball, my favorite sport, is filled with “political figures,” race relations and labor struggles. In many ways, it mirrors the history of our nation.
Issues like whether the long-term health of NFL players should be a greater concern to the league, or whether college athletes should get paid to play, go beyond the game action but shouldn’t be ignored or shied away from. A lot of people who get up in arms when minority athletes want to talk about race wouldn’t bat an eyelash if another athlete said, “Make America great again.”
And many of the loudest voices crying for these athletes to stop talking politics and do their jobs are the same ones who will watch hours of cable news every day and be given a laundry list of things they should (and shouldn’t) be outraged about.
Kaepernick’s actions and similar ones of other players have led some people to boycott the NFL, and I expect more will do the same with ESPN following Hill’s latest statements.
That’s fine, but ask yourself this. Is it because they brought politics into sports, or is it because they said or did something that you didn’t like or that might make people stop and think for a minute?
Scott Thompson is the editor of the Barrow News-Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.