Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published by Arc Digital. It is adapted here with permission.
Bill Simmons was once ESPN’s hottest talent, and now — backed by HBO and Vox Media — he runs his own media empire through The Ringer, its various extensions on social platforms, and its accompanying podcast smorgasbord. Jemele Hill has risen through the ranks of ESPN to become one of its most recognizable faces, especially on the 6 p.m. SportsCenter with co-host Michael Smith. Dan Le Batard, who also works for ESPN, (figuratively) owns the radio waves in South Florida, and his sports and culture takes reverberate across the internet and on television.
Countless other ESPN and former ESPN personalities routinely share their thoughts, observations, and analyses with their millions of fans, and, especially given President Trump’s tweeting proclivities and inability to stay away from misguided social and sports commentary himself, they have left the days of “stick to sports” far behind them. Not only do they refuse to “stick to sports,” but they also talk about how they refuse to “stick to sports.” As Simmons has recently argued,
the bosses were always adamant about ESPN sticking to sports. They wanted ESPN to be your escape from the real world. We don’t care what you believe, how you voted or where you live. We won’t judge you. You’re safe here. Come talk sports with us. For writers and talkers and talking heads at ESPN, politics was our invisible third rail. There was no nuance. They wanted as many sports fans to consume ESPN as possible. Even when they bought FiveThirtyEight, they made it clear — this was an analytics site, not a political site.
And that’s how it stayed for 35 years. Once John Skipper placed a bigger emphasis on diversity — first by finding and promoting talent that didn’t look like me or Scott Van Pelt, then by funding The Undefeated — it became harder to stick to sports when sports kept colliding with everything else. When Donald Trump won the election and Colin Kaepernick began kneeling in protest during the national anthem, it became impossible. When President Trump started dividing Americans in increasingly hideous ways, it became truly impossible. And when Trump declared war on the NFL recently, it became inconceivable. ESPN couldn’t ignore race and politics because NOBODY could ignore race and politics. Especially when the president was blowing his own version of a dog whistle.
It is understandable why Simmons, Hill, Le Batard, and others find it impossible to stick to sports when the president of the United States is tweeting about firing NFL players. It is understandable why Simmons, who parks himself in front of multiple TVs 20 Sundays a year to watch football for twelve hours (because it’s his job), ventures outside the realm of sports from time to time — given Simmons’s immersion in popular culture and his need for a break from sports every once in a while, it’s almost unavoidable. It is understandable why Le Batard brings up every political or social issue he can think of and shames his audience for complaining about it; it’s a free radio show and you can turn it off if you don’t like it. It is understandable why Jemele Hill tweeted this:
Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists.
— Jemele Hill (@jemelehill) September 11, 2017
It is understandable, because how could someone who disagrees with the president (most Americans) and has a large following (possibly all of the above) resist the opportunity to speak up?
It is understandable, sure, but people — even non-Trump-voting people — don’t have to like it. That these sports personalities want to speak out is understandable, but that doesn’t mean those who refuse to spend their time listening to political commentary from sports personalities are in the wrong.
A parallel phenomenon is found on late-night television. Jimmy Kimmel is the Walter Cronkite of our time? Please. Then again, why wouldn’t someone want to tune in to hear sports and entertainment personalities weigh in on complex political and social issues?
I can think of a few reasons.
1. Expertise — The sheer number of hours it takes to become an expert in something in today’s complex and specialized society is a barrier to insightful commentary across any number of disciplines. Simmons sits for hours on any given Sunday, eyes glued to multiple TV screens, thinking about everything from the Vegas line to quarterback play to the politics of ownership to Commissioner Roger Goodell. Zach Lowe, on his podcast, bemoans the non-stop nature of today’s NBA and, in his columns, provides detailed evidence to support his analysis that evinces a life spent breaking down numbers and film. It takes time, as Malcolm Gladwell has shown, to become an expert in anything. Sportscasters who are good at analyzing and talking about sports will not, in general, have the time or the focus to become proficient political analysts as well. The result is that the political analysis of sports broadcasters is often shallow, biased, and poorly reasoned. It is also decidedly left of center for the most part, but that is a symptom of journalism as an industry in general.
2. Escapism — Sports is one of the areas that has classically served as an escape from the drudgery and tragedy of modern life and the troubles of the real world. I turn to sports to take a break from my day job as a Christian ethicist, a vocation that requires spending large amounts of time and energy thinking about social, political, and personal good and evil. I don’t need Stephen A. Smith or Max Kellerman to give me a lesson on representative democracy or the motivations behind middle-aged white men voting for Trump. I want to hear, when I turn on ESPN, about the post move LeBron James added to his game in the offseason. I’m not going to get that on Meet the Press or Face the Nation. Put another way, this is about specialization and division of labor: Jimmy Kimmel cannot be an expert on health policy, because he has chosen to specialize in telling jokes and interviewing celebrities.
3. Bias — It just so happens that most sports journalists, especially sports personalities hired in recent years by ESPN, are decidedly left of center. If a channel dedicated to sports and entertainment wants to enter the arena of political commentary, it might want to reflect the political composition of its viewers — that is, if ESPN wants to make money, which I think is the desire of its parent corporation, Walt Disney Co. The reality is that ESPN is mostly staffed by liberal East and West Coast elites who probably couldn’t be fair to the political views of the average ESPN viewer if they tried. If they are going to be a left-wing advocacy group, they should say so and expect to make a whole lot less money.
4. Unity — Sports serves as one of the few areas that can actually bring diverse groups of people together. If you voted for Donald Trump but you are wearing a Red Sox shirt, at least I have something I can talk to you about that may not end in an argument. Sports crowds tend to be incredibly diverse, especially politically, and this is an increasingly valuable commodity in the marketplace of ideas, as fewer and fewer people go to church or participate in non-partisan social and civic organizations. If sports continues to become increasingly political, it will eliminate one of the few venues Americans have to know people who don’t think exactly like they do. This is bad for the country, as are most forms of self-segregation.
Ultimately, the above is not an argument for sportscasters to be hermetically sealed off from the world of politics. This is not a call for sports journalists and broadcasters to resist ever speaking on the subject of politics, or to relegate themselves strictly to the Xs and Os of athletic competition.
But it does mean that when they enter this realm, a realm in which they will admit no special expertise or insight, they should do so with humility, generosity, and an awareness that their audience is most likely incredibly diverse. If analysts, hosts, and columnists choose to continue to speak about politics in the same way they recently have, more and more people will tune them out. But ESPN already knows that.