Editor’s Note: The below is a version of a piece that appeared in the October 5, 2009, National Review.
It’s an old story, but one that deserves retelling now and then: I’m talking about the injection of politics — partisan politics — into sports columns. And into other areas where partisan politics have no place. As I’ve taken to lamenting in recent times, there is no “safe zone.”
A reader of National Review Online sent me an e-mail whose Subject line read “Safe-Zone Violation!” (I get many such e-mails.) This reader had been enjoying a sports column in the New York Post about a local PGA tournament. The columnist was complaining that Tiger Woods was not sufficiently open to the media. He wrote, “It’s not like we’re trying to pull President Obama aside for a couple of questions while he’s trying to save our country from itself.”
Was that really necessary? Psychologically, for the columnist, it may have been.
I did a little note about this on NRO, and it struck a nerve — struck it hard. Readers responded with an avalanche of mail, much of it anguished. A typical letter went (something like), “I always loved reading So-and-so” — Bill Simmons of ESPN.com, for example. “But finally I had to stop because he was constantly insulting my political views with little asides. Why do they have to do that? Why do they have to alienate half their audience, or at least some part of it?”
I could give you a thousand examples of “safe-zone violations” in sportswriting. Why don’t I give you a more modest, less choking number?
A columnist for the Boston Globe was writing about hockey, and he said, “Bigger nets will likely bring, at most, a teeny-weeny uptick in scoring. Focusing on bigger nets, in many ways, is hockey’s version of cutting taxes — eye-catching, but ineffective.” You see, he knows about economics. And has college football’s Bowl Championship Series ever reminded you of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney? No? You’re weird.
In 2007, the Washington Post’s John Feinstein wrote, “The BCS Presidents are a lot like the current President of the United States. They think that if they keep repeating their lies and half-truths and remind people who they are enough times, people will buy into what they’re selling. According to one poll, only 21 percent of the American people are buying what President Bush is selling, but it sure took a long time and lot of deaths to get there.” The next year, Mike Celizic of NBCSports.com wrote, “Is Dick Cheney a member of the BCS? That’s got to be the explanation for the latest load of nonsense to come out of the outfit that runs the system by which college football does not choose a legitimate champion.”
Celizic likes Cheney, in a way. Here he is in a different column, same topic: “. . . the stewards of the BCS, who match Dick Cheney in arrogance and outrank him in gall, have confirmed their intention of depriving college football fans of a playoff and a legitimate champion.” Celiciz writes about other topics, but Cheney seems ever with him: “The Jaguars’ front seven surrendered rushing yards as willingly as Dick Cheney admits to strategic errors in Iraq.” And so on.
Sarah Palin comes in for a lot of abuse from sportswriters, as you might expect. Here is an item from Sports Illustrated’s website –the subject is baseball (really): “Imagine for a minute that you had free reign [sic] to add any three players to your team for the second half, while punishing a heated [hated?] rival by tagging them with three more of your choice. That’s basically the essence of this week’s revised format: three players who will heat up post-All-Star break and three who will break down faster than you can say Sarah Palin.”
If he says so.
Another Sports Illustrated writer was sizing up Heisman prospects, ranking them, 1 to 10. He said he “had more trouble picking the No. 10 candidate than Sarah Palin had choosing a Supreme Court ruling she opposed.” A writer for a college-football site had occasion to write, “Sarah Palin could be thrown out there against John Kenneth Galbraith in an open forum debate on economic reform, and if it’s in that time slot on CBS, it would go down to the wire.” (Actually, to borrow an old line, Galbraith knew more than Palin about economics — and also more that simply isn’t true.) An SI writer, soliciting reader mail, asked specifically for “Sarah Palin jokes.” Why not?
But Palin is nothing like the target Dick Cheney is. Perusing SI’s website, you might suspect that anti-Cheney remarks are required from all SI writers. These remarks amount to a big, collective tic. Have a passage on a San Antonio Spur: “[He] remains as unpopular among non-Spurs as Dick Cheney is among Democrats, Independents, Americans with no political affiliation, a growing number of Republicans, the great majority of the world population as well as that poor guy he filled with buckshot.”
A column about David Beckham, the soccer star, came with a warning: “If you care about [Beckham] about as much as Dick Cheney cares about Global Warming, feel free to click through somewhere else.” A column about basketball confessed error: “What could I possibly have been thinking when I picked the Knicks to finish sixth in the East? . . . Dick Cheney was more accurate in his prediction that we would be greeted as liberators.” Here is one about football: “His comments to reporters after practice were, for the most part, as bland as a Dick Cheney address.” Here is another about football: “As it is, the dour Belichick, who is only slightly less warm and fuzzy than Steely Dick Cheney, is easy to root against.”
And have a handful about baseball: “The Red Sox even hired James, which is like Dick Cheney hiring a French chef.” “After . . . conducting himself with the sunniness of Dick Cheney throughout the ’05 season . . .” “For those superstars dropping out of the WBC like so many lawyers around Dick Cheney . . .” “Watching Bonds talk to reporters is like watching Dick Cheney when he’s asked to discuss his daughter’s sexual preference.”
Etc., etc., etc. There are many more where those came from, from innocuous to rotten. These anti-Cheney jabs seem to be an open codeword, or an unsecret handshake. They say, “I’m cool, I’m with-it, I’m in the club.” Sportswriting is as susceptible to groupthink as other fields. People in general, when they run, like to run with the herd, no matter what their protestations of independence.
As I said at the outset, this is not a new story: politics-in-sportswriting. Christopher Caldwell, who has just written a book about the Islamicization of Europe, once wrote a piece about the politicization of Sports Illustrated: “Sports Eliminated” (!). That was for the inaugural issue of The Weekly Standard, in September 1995. James Taranto, of OpinionJournal.com, has a series called “Wannabe Pundits,” which includes political forays by sportswriters — I have quoted an example or two of his above. And I myself have banged this drum for a while.
The problem is worse than ever, I believe, and I also believe that we have a broader national problem: with political talk leaking over into almost everything. The “cable culture” is all around us, and safe zones — i.e., spheres free of partisan politics — are diminishing.
Why do sportswriters do it? Why do they bust out political? I have a theory, and it’s an easy theory — maybe a too-easy one: Sports guys, some of them, may be a bit embarrassed to be sportswriters. So they have to prove they’re just as serious — just as liberal, virtuous, and “engaged” with the world — as their colleagues on the news and editorial desks. “I may cover the NFL, but hey! I hate Bush as much as you do, I swear.”
Or it may just be that they have a platform, and they’re going to exploit it. “While I have your attention on Roger Federer, let me tell you what I think of Bush.”
And as long as I’m playing shrink, I will hazard something else: You can glimpse the insecurity of sportswriters in the overwriting they do. Many sportswriters are notorious overwriters, larding their prose with similes, metaphors, and other imagined, writerly cleverness. The message? “I may not be writing about the weightiest or most consequential affairs, but you see how smart and lit’rary I am?!”
An NRO reader had a nice insight and comparison, I believe. He e-mailed, “My brother says there is no liberal more liberal than a southern liberal.” (So, so true — see the former chief of the New York Times, Howell Raines, for instance.) “Similarly, there may be no writer more liberal than a sportswriter.”
Of course, contemporary sportswriting is part of the “New Journalism,” which includes a lot of ego, a lot of politics, and a lot of sociology. (I have written a few of these pieces myself! May be embarked on one now . . .) In 2002, I wrote for National Review an essay called “Hunting Tiger: Everyone wants a piece of him.” It began, “The pressure on Tiger Woods is mounting, and it has nothing to do with golf: It’s the pressure to blacken up — to be a social activist, a racial spokesman.” Much of that pressure has come from sportswriters, acting on their “social conscience,” and demanding that the famous, talented people they write about come into line. So far, Tiger has proven his own man, much to the consternation of many.
Incidentally, on no subject are sportswriters more sanctimonious or insufferable than on the subject of race. Of course, this is true of writers in general.
I can further testify to the need that many people felt, over the last eight or so years, to confirm their hatred of George W. Bush. Let me take you to Salzburg, in about 2003. I’m covering concerts and operas at the festival. I meet a fellow critic — also an American — at an intermission. He wants to express displeasure with an opera production that is “transgressive,” “subversive,” and whatever other trendy word you can think of. He began, “I hate George Bush, but . . .” — then he criticized the production. He had to assure me, you see, that he was not a Neanderthal or prude. He needed to assure me that he did not have horns and a tail. So he said, “I hate George Bush” — out of nowhere, to a complete stranger.
One funny thing was that he was talking to an admirer of President Bush, and not only that, to someone who had taken a leave of absence from his regular job to work on Bush’s speechwriting team. Apparently, my fellow critic had not seen my horns and tail. To him, “I hate George Bush” was a laissez-passer — his permission to go ahead and criticize a radical opera production.
Should sportswriters blurt out “I hate George Bush,” in whatever form? Is that some kind of laissez-passer of theirs? I quote Austin Murphy, of, of all places, SI.com:
Those of us who toil in journalism’s toy department do so under orders never to breach The Firewall. As a sportswriter, we are told, you must never allow your politics to seep into your prose. Readers come to us seeking respite and escape; surcease from the cares of the world. So it simply won’t do to cause them discomfort by bringing up the policies and peccadilloes, the wide stances and extramarital romances of our elected officials. Passages on politics, favoring either red or blue, will be deleted by pencils red and blue. Lions and Bears, yes. Donkeys and elephants, no.
That is a lovely passage. But the writer must be speaking of some far-distant age, or of a principle to be ignored — for the sports columns are chockfull of politics (coming, almost always, from the left). This “Firewall” must have been razed long ago, by the evidence of our eyes.
Some sports guys are so political, they have simply crossed over. I mean, they have made honest men of themselves by being forthrightly political guys. Keith Olbermann of MSNBC is the most prominent such example. Other sports guys are just a blur: half sportswriter, half political pundit. The other week, Frank Fitzpatrick of the Philadelphia Inquirer devoted his column to making sport (so to speak) of protests over health care. The sports fig leaf, I suppose, was that health-care policy was the latest “blood sport,” reminiscent of “an Eagles-Jets game.”
It is not only the sports sections of newspapers that are infected by politics — other, ostensibly non-political sections may be unsafe zones. An NRO reader told me, “I stopped reading the New York Times in the ’80s, when the cooking columns started saying things like, ‘Just as Reagan should have known it was time to [do X], you must carefully monitor the exact time to [do Y].” I even received complaints about chess columns.
And a woman from Nashville registered the following: “Conservative women also have to put up with this when reading one of the expensive, glossy women’s mags such as Cosmo or Glamour. You’re reading a lovely little article on vintage purses, the best under-eye creams, boyfriend woes, etc., and — there it is. A Palin slam. A reference to Dick Cheney shooting someone. A joke about a Republican getting caught in a scandal. A glowing reference to Michelle Obama.”
And would you like to hear about another unsafe zone? Let’s go on a city tour. Recently, a newlywed couple I know traveled to New York to spend a few special days. They took an open-air bus tour, and the guide peppered his commentary with anti-Republican jibes. For example, as the bus cruised up Sixth Avenue, he pointed out Fox News, calling it “the voice of evil.” That certainly says to conservative-leaning couples, “Happy honeymoon!”
Of course, everyone has a right to an opinion, but people often confuse what you have a right to do with what’s right to do. (I heard Bill Bennett say that, long ago.) I love opinions, heaven knows, including political opinions: but they have their place.
Last winter, wearing a music critic’s hat, I covered a chamber concert in New York’s Weill Recital Hall. A composer mounted the stage to give a talk about a piece of his, about to be played. Any talking at a concert is bad enough: but our guy duly inveighed against Bush and hailed the new president, Obama. I mentioned this, not in a concert review — which would have been perfectly within bounds, as the composer had injected politics into the evening — but on a political blog.
Our guy wrote me a profane e-mail saying (in essence), “Hey, no fair! You’re supposed to be a music critic. Why don’t you do your job?” I replied that the same question could be asked of him. To his credit, he took the point, and most graciously.
There are people who like walls of separation and those who don’t. I like my sports, music, food, etc., politics-free. Others think that this is some sort of moral or civic negligence, or simply naivety. Laura Ingraham wrote a book about entertainers and politics called Shut Up & Sing. When I look at such publications as Sports Illustrated, I think of a variation: “Shut up and write about sports!”
Care for a final nugget? A football columnist at the Philadelphia Daily News wrote, “The [Eagles’] offensive numbers are poor, but if you really want a scary, my-daughter-married-a-Republican moment, take out the Detroit game and look at them again.” I’m sure that Republican readers in Philly enjoyed that fleck of mud in their morning cereal.
Look, I could provide examples of these violations and intrusions till the cows come home. When I revived this issue on NRO, I received an e-mail from a sportswriter at a major daily. He said, “Dear Sir: What the [rhymes with “duck”] are you talking about? Love, The sportswriting community.” Take an honest look at sportswriting in America today and you’ll see. Love, Me.