If conservatives want to know why we are losing the culture and the country, it is important to understand that while very few kids and young adults are watching Fox News (or news programs of any kind, for that matter), they inhale sports programming. It’s ubiquitous — television, radio, the Internet. And thus equally unavoidable is sports commentary, more and more of which has less and less to do with sports. Tendentious “sports journalists,” the majority of whom are decidedly left of center, are much less guarded about their hostility to conservatives than their fellow progressives on the political beat. It is a hostility that takes for granted the chummy agreement of its viewers and is designed to make Millennials want to be part of the fun.
This week, the big national news is a sports story. It involves Ray Rice. The star running-back was cut by the Baltimore Ravens after video surfaced showing him punching his now-wife’s lights out in an Atlantic City casino elevator. The National Football League and its commissioner, Roger Goodell, are in the hot seat because, some allege, the NFL had the video before suspending Rice for a measly two games. Logically, the video shouldn’t matter: The commissioner clearly knew Rice had knocked Janay Palmer out cold before issuing the trifling suspension. But graphic video has a way of overrunning logic.
My purpose here is less to wade into the Rice mess than to consider how radical ideas — like the Left’s war on boys — get mainstreamed.
Let’s say the New York Times published, or CNN aired, a fawning news story about tribal politics and Alinsky-style community organizing — how the Left uses (and often manufactures) crises to shake down big corporations, the payoffs from which pour into the coffers of “grass-roots community groups” (i.e., left-wing grievance activists such as ACORN and Al Sharpton’s National Action Network), underwriting their promotion of the “social justice” agenda in schools and the media. Big deal, right? Such stories are standard mainstream-media fare, and very few impressionable young people see them.
But what if the news story was not ostensibly political? And what if it was not published in news media but in entertainment programming — say, a hip sports show, slipped into the mix between the top plays of last night’s ballgames?
On Friday, after highlights of the previous night’s game between the hometown Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers, ESPN’s Sports Center reported, incredulously, that many female Ravens fans proudly wore their No. 27 jerseys in homage to Rice. Although this week’s coverage made him Public Enemy No. 1, it turns out that Rice is still quite popular among fans in Baltimore. One woman, clad in her Rice jersey, explained that while she did not condone his behavior, Rice had said he was sorry and was deserving of a second chance, just like other people who have done abominable things. It was a mitigating factor, in her view, that Ms. Palmer (now Mrs. Rice) had started the fight, and that the muscular professional football player was simply retaliating.
A second female Rice fan conceded that there was no excuse for the running back’s violent aggression, but contended that it was for the legal system, not the NFL, to punish him. Since prosecutors allowed Rice to enter a rehab program in anticipation of dismissing the case, rather than face a criminal conviction and prison sentence, she reasoned that the NFL should have let it go at that.
Is she right? Personally, I think a private organization like the Ravens or the NFL should have its own, loftier standards of conduct. A business is well within its rights to demand more of its employees than that they merely avoid criminality.
That said, however, the common assumption that Rice got a comparative slap on the wrist from the legal system is dubious. State prosecutors insist that he got the same deal any first-offender would have gotten. As a former federal prosecutor, I suspect that is true. Rice expressed contrition; the victim married him and ardently supports him; he is apparently complying with the rehab terms; and, unlike the vast majority of similarly situated defendants, his offense is going to cost him millions of dollars in lost salary and advertising income. Am I trivializing domestic violence? Are the state prosecutors? I don’t think so. Police and prosecutors must assess Rice’s case in the context of all domestic-violence cases involving men beating women. Unfortunately, many of them are far worse than Rice’s offense and involve serious recidivist offenders. It is certainly possible that he got special treatment because he is a celebrity, but that can also cut the other way.
In any event, I was surprised that ESPN gave airtime to the Rice supporters. The progressive soap-opera storyline of the Rice coverage is that our aggressive, competitive culture, which has made the NFL so popular, desensitizes men to the gravity of domestic violence; that women are uniformly outraged by this state of affairs; and that football and the men who play it must be tamed. ESPN is a prominent author of this particular narrative, so one wouldn’t expect coverage of women who dissent from it.
I should have figured, though, that the segment was just a set-up for what followed: a lengthy editorial interview with Kate Fagan. A former college basketball player, Ms. Fagan is now, yes, a sports journalist. Author of a memoir The Reappearing Act: Coming Out as Gay on a College Basketball Team Led by Born-Again Christians, she is a staple at ESPN-W. That’s where the network focuses on women in sports and, seamlessly, on political and social matters that the Left has successfully branded “women’s issues.”
For the politically aware, listening to Kate Fagan is a lot like listening to President Obama or any other deft community organizer. She first invoked tribal politics in refusing — or at least making a show of refusing — to rebut the female Ravens fans who sympathize with Rice. That, she said, would be “pitting women against women” — a no-no. She then skillfully lowered the boom: The problem is not Rice’s cheerleaders; it is our “culture.”
Those women, you see, are really victims of insidious bourgeois attitudes inculcated by the education system. Our task, therefore, is not to condemn them for being so wrong but to ask ourselves, “Why is this issue not as black and white as it should be?” Translation: Why is something so obvious to thoughtful progressives like Ms. Fagan so elusive to the riff-raff in their Rice jerseys?
So what’s the answer? Ms. Fagan opined that people should stop focusing so much on whether Commissioner Roger Goodell should get fired or how long Rice’s suspension should be. That’s too “reactive,” and Fagan says it’s time to be “pro-active.”
How? By working to undo our “culture” of “raising men to want to not be like women,” a culture that tolerates the teasing of boys who “throw like a girl.” The way to do that, she said, was to “hold the NFL’s feet to the fire” until the league ponies up “millions of dollars” for a domestic-violence fund. The extorted treasure would then be doled out to grass-roots community organizations, who could then send their trained experts to middle schools, high schools, and colleges. Boys would be instructed that differentiating men from women breeds domestic violence.
As Fagan put it, the goal must be “reprogramming how we raise men.” That, she said, is how we’re finally going to get — all together now — “change.”
Through all of this, the ESPN anchor played the role of amen-corner, not interviewer. There was no suggestion that the women clad in Rice jerseys might have some valid points — it was simply accepted that they were well-meaning simpletons who, like schoolboys, need “reprogramming.” There was no hint that football as a sport, and the NFL as an institution, might not be drivers of domestic violence — that while the culture bears responsibility, the problem might have a lot more to do with the breakdown of the family, the scorn heaped on chivalry, the disappearance of manners, and the general coarsening of our society that result from relentless progressive attacks on traditional values and institutions.
No, it was instead presented as incontestable fact that (a) there was a crisis involving violence, (b) the NFL and its violent sport must be responsible for it, (c) the NFL has deep pockets, and (d) the NFL should thus be coerced to fund bien pensant activists to perform progressive social-engineering on schoolboys.
Kids who tuned in to ESPN Friday morning to see the highlights of Thursday night’s game were treated to political indoctrination masquerading as sports commentary. Come to think of it, that’s exactly what football fans were treated to during the coverage of the game itself. And it happens pretty much every day.
Conservatives complain incessantly, and not without cause, about Republican fecklessness in confronting the Obama Left’s agenda, about the news media’s becoming an adjunct of the White House press office. But Washington’s political arena is just where the score is tallied. The game is being played, and lost, in the popular culture.
— Andrew C. McCarthy is a policy fellow at the National Review Institute. His latest book is Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment.