I had a nice chat early this week with Matt Lewis, a columnist at the conservative Daily Caller, who had a theory that the sports world, and the sports media in particular, was becoming more liberal. He turned that into a column that posed a simple question: Is the left taking over sports too?
That’s an interesting question, but while I agree that the sports media is probably more progressive today, that’s because the left is finally participating in it, not taking it over.
The history of sports and the media that covers it provides important context for that view. There have, as Lewis notes, always been outwardly progressive athletes, and there have always been athletes who advanced progressive causes solely through their actions. Those athletes and their causes have always existed as a form of resistance politics — from Ali’s draft dodging to Curt Flood’s stance against the reserve clause to Billie Jean King’s fight for gender equality to Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ black power salute — because the establishment in sports has always been more conservative.
That primarily applies to owners and league executives, but it applies to the media too, which has always taken a more culturally conservative bent. Take, for instance, the fact that Brent Musberger described Smith and Carlos, whose protest at the 1968 Olympics provoked quite a bit of outrage, as “black-skinned storm troopers.” Or note that the media was mostly anti-free agency in baseball, with columnists like Jerry Green writing in the Professional Baseball Yearbook in 1979 that giving athletes more rights would either bankrupt baseball or lead to a league in which “only the Arabs and Japanese will be able to afford to own a major league baseball franchise.” The white sports media was largely skeptical of black stars like Ali and Reggie Jackson, more sympathetic to the owners and coaches around them who were, incidentally, primarily white. Black writers were mostly relegated to black newspapers. Women, meanwhile, were largely shut out of the locker room, unable to cover sports at all. There wasn’t as much space then as there is now to talk specifically about the intersection of sports and politics, but in areas where sports and society naturally overlapped, the sports media has historically been more sympathetic to the status quo than it was willing to challenge it, whether on race, athletes’ rights, gender, or other fronts.
Compared to that, the sports media is obviously more progressive and the viewpoints more diverse than in the past. As I told Lewis, the democratization of the sports media has opened the door to voices and topics that it previously didn’t entertain, many of them more progressive in nature. One bit of evidence for that is that there are progressive outlets like ThinkProgress and The Nation devoting coverage to sports and employing full-time sportswriters like myself and Dave Zirin. Another is that many online outlets, places like Deadspin for instance, tend to take on a more anti-establishment and, at times, progressive tone, even if most of the writers aren’t coming from a purely political or ideological place. The proliferation of online media has also expanded opportunities for young people, minorities, and women to provide points of view that vary from the largely older white male establishment that has existed for so long. And it has also allowed for more skepticism and cynicism about the people who run sports than was typically present in establishment media outlets, as well as more room to talk about the ways sports impact and shape society, which naturally leads to more talk about bigger issues inside sports. And on that front, progressives are now participating in ways they never have.
That shift is what has caught the attention of conservatives, because sports have for so long been a place where they didn’t have to worry much about hearing the progressive point of view, as Lewis notes:
And if conservatives are upset about this, it may be because this is all they have left. Progressives have long owned Hollywood, and (except maybe for Nashville) most of the popular music industry. Sports were perhaps the bastion for conservative entertainment — the final refuge for the patriotic, beer-guzzling, macho male who just wants to forget about his day job and watch a game — without hearing a lecture. Those days may be over.
But just because progressives are participating doesn’t mean the sports media is itself progressive. I’d argue that it still approaches racial and gender issues from a more conservative perspective, and that it generally favors the establishment both in how it covers issues like labor and in its overall tone. It seems to me that the sports media still takes a more socially conservative approach when it comes to how athletes exist as role models in our society. And there also remains a relative dearth of black and/or female sportswriters and editors in all parts of the media, meaning many of the issues that affect those populations are still covered primarily by white men (that’s the case even at progressive outlets and at the places we think of as more anti-establishment), limiting the points of view especially from groups that tend to be more progressive.
Sure, there are places where the sports media has shifted in a definitively progressive direction, sometimes even to a near consensus, like on LGBT rights and equality. But on most, there is still plenty of debate. The idea that we should prioritize equality in sports for women, for instance, is still far from accepted on all fronts. And on most fronts where there are definitively progressive points of view — like when Bob Costas talks gun control or media outlets drop the name of Washington’s football team — there almost always exist sportswriters providing the opposite viewpoint too. And, though we have shifted toward talking about substantive issues more, they still make up a relatively small amount of sports coverage.
Calling it a “takeover,” then, probably exaggerates the significance of what has changed. Lewis seems to acknowledge that at one point, saying that “it does seem like we are moving toward more ideological parity.” I’d say that’s what this actually is. The sports media may be more progressive today than it ever has been, but it’s not because the left is taking over anything. Rather, it’s because progressives are finally starting to talk about their issues in a context and in an area of society they’ve mostly ignored in the past.