The arrogant thinking of liberal sports writers
"Today, sports writing is basically a liberal profession, practiced by liberals who enforce an unapologetically liberal code," writes Bryan Curtis at The Ringer. He's right.
You can see it in the way sportswriters police a consensus against the Washington Redskins' name, or for on-field political activism. They tweet against President Trump, and for undocumented immigrants. They pile on populist loudmouths like former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, and may even be punishing him for his politics with their Hall of Fame ballots. They proudly admit that they are at a remove from their readers. HardballTalk's Craig Calcaterra owns it: "It's folly for any of us to think we're speaking for the common fan."
Curtis is generally pleased with sports journalism's leftward shift, and treats the possibility of non-conforming writers as a potentially amusing but unnecessary curio. "Would it be nice to have a David Frum or Ross Douthat of sports writing, making wrongheaded-but-interesting arguments about NCAA amateurism?" he asks. "Sure. As long as nobody believed them."
Well, I think I may be this curio myself.
I run a subscription newsletter about baseball — The Slurve — that is deliberately constructed to be an escape from politics for my readers (and for me). But I'm still a conservative who does a lot of sports writing. Besides The Slurve, I've written a few sports pieces in ESPN Magazine, and occasionally inflict my wrongheaded (but interesting!) sports arguments on readers here at The Week.
Predictably (and perhaps self-interestedly), I think the increasing ideological uniformity of sports writing is bad for sports journalism and for sports themselves. And in the way that it encourages conformism and intellectual laziness, it is probably bad for causes dear to liberals in sports.
Calcaterra is right that liberal sports writers aren't speaking "for the common fan." More often they are speaking at the common fan, or even just at a caricature of a fan that they assembled from the most voluble sports talk radio callers and the obscure Twitter accounts that jeer their work. The liberalism on offer on sports pages is rather infatuated with the norms and aspirations of the class of people from which journalists are drawn. And this narrowness usually puts them in an antagonistic position not just with fans, but with the entire sports culture beyond journalism.
The recent self-consciousness of progressive sports writers also misleads many of them into thinking all their quarrels are with conservative ideas, when they are in fact just arguing with the voluble and inarticulate. Sports radio hosts and their callers are often (wrongly) taken as the stand-in for opposing ideas.
Some of the debates in baseball in particular are given ideological or racial names, when in fact they are generational. Take the debate about bat-flips, which is often cast as one between stodgy white conservatives and fun multicultural liberals who prefer a Latin game. There is a reason why older Baby Boomer writers, who are themselves veterans of a deeply hierarchical system that rewarded time-serving veterans who spent decades writing formulaic gamers, are more likely to admire and defend the hierarchical culture among athletes that includes hazing a rookie, or letting expressive or cocky young players know they have to earn their place in the pecking order. And it's not a surprise that younger writers who smashed through to national audiences through opinionated new digital platforms admire the more expressive players.
But there's only so much that this new crop of sports writers can truly identify with in the players they admire. Socially cosseted with other journalists, liberal sports writers increasingly identify with the only set of actors in the sports world that come from a cultural milieu relatable to their own: the new class of rationalizing, brainy executives. In another generation, sports writers dreamed futilely of being Willie Mays or Gordie Howe. Now they want to be Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. And their copy and concerns increasingly seem to be written for each other and for these analytics-loving general managers.
Sometimes the problems this produces aren't strictly political. Brian Kenny, the loudest of the sports rationalizers, once asked if anyone should care about no-hitters anymore. After all, nine innings is just a small sample size, and throwing a no-hitter can be a bit flukish. No one thinks that the last person to throw a no-hitter is, by definition, the best pitcher in the game. Kenny used the political-ish rhetoric of liberals to make this point. He was advocating a modern, progressive, and data-driven view of baseball against "antiquated" and misguided "values."
Kenny's argument wasn't wrong as much as it was wrong-footed. He wasn't advocating a progressive view, just the general managers' view that a single game isn't useful for ranking a player or determining his next contract or his trade value. But fans (and players) can still enjoy games as individual dramatic events, apart from the fact that they add a marginal amount of new data to an evaluative spreadsheet. And don't forget, a big story of the last decade has been the humbling of the clever-dick sabermetricians and the journalists who championed them, as new forms of data and deeper insights into front offices confirm some of the once-scorned wisdom of the ages.
The pattern of over-identifying with general managers is endemic to liberal sports journalism, and the not-so-secret truth is that liberal sportswriters increasingly hold the culture that produces athletes and their fans in contempt, or even find it dangerous and threatening. Fans are treated as a distracting nuisance, in thrall to their tribal affinities and over-invested in homegrown players or even in winning itself. How quaint.
The culture of athletes is treated as alien and toxic, a kind of pit in which womanizing bros, aggressive rageaholics, and icky religious freaks are allowed to flourish and enjoy a high income and status that would be justly denied to people who act and think in this way in any other profession. When macho athletes like Yasiel Puig are profiled, it is often in a superficial way in which their background is mined for all political resonance and dramatic tension, but the actual personality is carefully obscured. Athletes are famously hard to get to know, but sportswriters often just seem incapable of getting their head into a macho, competitive, aggressive culture. And sometimes, sports writers seem to be appealing to the general manager or team HR departments to enforce liberal norms on their highly paid assets.
The smaller portion of athletes who happen to share cultural affinities or political commitments with liberal sports writers are given glowing, intimate, get-to-know-you portraits. Stories like "How Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin — a bike-riding, socially conscious, Animal Collective-loving hipster — is redefining what it means to be a football player." I wonder if there was a follow-up asking all other football players whether they were redefined by Barwin's presence. It's notable that journalists who do seem to get along with average athletes, like Bill Simmons or even Stephen A. Smith, are treated with a little bit of suspicion by the rest of the sports writer tribe.
The almost hegemonic liberalism in sports journalism is due to many factors. It's a product of the culture of prestige journalism, which is becoming more rarefied and conformist. It's also a product of the digital age, in which straight-down-the-line game stories aren't enough to feed the content maw of the internet. It's a product of athletes partially retreating from journalists for fear of being hurt with their sponsors, and journalists needing more than ever to create more colorful human interest stories without that access.
It's also true that conservative ideas tend to be slower off the block. Because they are defenders of tradition, conservatives' arguments often strike liberals as either an unreflective devotion to the way things are (or were), or as being too subtle to be credible. One progressive baseball writer confessed to me privately that my traditionalist argument against expanding the designated hitter to the National League struck him as "koan-like" and that he had trouble deciding whether it was inarguably true or pure nonsense.
The lack of intelligent conservatives in sports, or at least their relative shyness about their ideas, also allows progressive sportswriters to advance ideas without challenge, sometimes all the way into dead ends. Take the debate about Native American mascots in logos. Of course it makes perfect sense to remove or alter any logos that offend people. But all mascots are reductive caricatures. Was the problem that the logos were offensive or that there is so little representation of Native Americans in our culture that their presence as mascots seems mocking by default? Has no one stopped to notice there is something odd about an anti-racism that will cause an evermore diverse country to declare rooting for white-faced mascots the only safe thing to do? How will this deletion of all non-white faces look in 50 years?
The more astonishing piece of conventional wisdom generated by younger self-styled progressive sports writers was their argument against "PED hysteria." Many writers simply said fans didn't care enough, and many liked the results of a juiced game anyway. Some even took it to the logical conclusion: that sports leagues should preside over a free-for-all with performance-enhancing drugs. This is a strangely anti-labor and anti-regulation stance for liberals. It gives tacit encouragement for athletes to ignore both federal laws and their own health interests because of what the market demands. And it wouldn't solve the problem of marginal players taking PEDs to hang on. It would only make them turn to more exotic and dangerous drugs.
And that brings us to a stranger irony for progressive sports writers. Having committed themselves so thoroughly to arguments against "moralizing" or against "tradition," they actually become handmaidens for the interests of owners and capital. Having demythologized all values that are not purely rationalistic, making themselves deaf to arguments for some abstract "integrity of the game," they can mount no principled objection to, for example, commercial advertising being imposed on the bases in baseball. They will be met with their own favorite arguments that "the sky didn't fall" the last time traditionalists objected to some alteration. And in this respect it is notable that the NBA, whose writers tend to be even more progressive than the norm among sports writers, was the first major American sports league to announce that it would sell advertising space on player jerseys.
Similarly, if MLB commissioner Rob Manfred says that a pitch clock and starting a man on second base in extra innings would be good for the game, liberal sports writers would have already debarred themselves from the kind of arguments that would preserve continuity between the game of Mel Ott and Mike Trout.
Liberal sports writers do a lot of good. But they should be a little more analytical when it comes to their own position, and their own culture, and whether it is encouraging sloppiness and arrogance in their thinking, whether it is causing them to broadcast their disdain for the very people they cover, and whether it is fostering in them a charmless contempt for a huge portion of their readers that they can't hide and we can't unsee.