Magazine | October 5, 2009, Issue

Safe-Zone Violation!

Why sportswriters, and others, should be penalized

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. More and more, there are no safe zones.

Take a recent column in the New York Post. (What would Henny Youngman say?) The writer, a sports guy, was talking about a local PGA tournament. He was complaining that Tiger Woods was not sufficiently open to the media. And 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.”

Now, was that really necessary? Yes, it may have been, psychologically — for the columnist.

The spoiling of sports pages by politics is a flaming red sore point among conservatives of my acquaintance. (The liberals have less cause for soreness.) You’ll often hear, “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. So as to leave room for other topics in this issue of National Review, I will provide a relative few. I promise that they are more representative than aberrational.

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.”

Sarah Palin comes in for a lot of abuse, as you might expect — putdowns of her are a dime a dozen. But it’s Cheney who seems most irresistible. This is particularly true at Sports Illustrated’s website. Perusing it, you may suppose that anti-Cheney remarks are required by SI. These remarks, these little jabs and asides, amount to a big, collective tic.

Here is 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.” Here is a warning at the beginning of a column about David Beckham, the soccer star: “If you care about ‘Goldenballs’ about as much as Dick Cheney cares about Global Warming, feel free to click through somewhere else.” Here is a columnist confessing 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 a line from a column on baseball: “The Red Sox even hired James, which is like Dick Cheney hiring a French chef.” Here is a line from another column on baseball: “Watching Bonds talk to reporters is like watching Dick Cheney when he’s asked to discuss his daughter’s sexual preference.”

Etc., etc. There are many more where those came from, from innocuous to rotten. These anti-Cheney blurts and smirks seem to be an open codeword, saying, “I’m cool, I’m with-it, I’m in the club.” Sportswriting is as susceptible to groupthink as other fields.

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 SI: “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 feel a touch embarrassed about being 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. You can almost hear them saying, “I may cover the NFL, but hey! I hate Bush as much as you do, I swear.” 

It could be, too, that they simply have a platform and are exploiting it: “As long as I have your attention on Peyton Manning, let me tell you what I think of Bush.”

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 mocking 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’s not only the sports sections of newspapers that are infected by politics — other ostensibly non-political sections may be unsafe zones. A correspondent of mine 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 have even heard complaints about chess columns.

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.

As I keep saying, I could provide examples of these violations and intrusions till the cows come home. When I brought up the subject recently at National Review Online, I got an e-mail from a sportswriter at a major daily. He said, “Dear Sir: What the f*** [no asterisks] are you talking about? Love, The sportswriting community.” Take an honest look at sportswriting in America today and you’ll see.

Love, Me.

 

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