There has been a lot of buzz lately about sportswriting’s shift to the left. Last month, Bryan Curtis wrote in The Ringer, “There was a time when filling your column with liberal ideas on race, class, gender, and labor policy got you dubbed a ‘sociologist.’ These days, such views are more likely to get you a job.” Not only have liberal ideas found a foothold in sportswriting, Curtis claims, “Now, there’s at least a social price to pay for being a conservative.”
Curtis has been far from the only one to examine the supposed leftward shift in sportswriting. Michael Brendan Dougherty, a conservative sportswriter writing in The Week, denounced the “arrogant” thinking of progressive sports writers. Inspired by these articles, outlets like Poynter, Esquire and the National Review have all weighed in.
But none have been louder than Fox Sports’s Clay Travis, one of the most outspoken conservative sports columnists in the country. At his blog, Travis paid special attention to ESPN, citing the company’s choice “to embrace left wing liberalism,” and decrying how it has “given awards to Caitlyn Jenner for becoming a woman, celebrated Michael Sam’s bravery in coming out gay like he was a modern day Jackie Robinson, and covered Colin Kaepernick like he’s a modern day Rosa Parks.” Travis, utterly baffled that anybody in sports could genuinely harbor left-of-center beliefs without ulterior motives, believes he has unearthed the conspiracy at work here: Disney CEO Bob Iger is moving ESPN’s programming to the left as part of a run for the presidency in 2020.
Whew. Heavy stuff. There are a lot of assumptions at work in Travis’s argument, and I think it’s worth laying them all out. In order to arrive at these conclusions, you need to believe first that sports media has always been apolitical and second that sports media, within the last five years or so, has morphed into the equivalent of the Daily Worker. You need to believe that this leftward movement is somehow a problem, which Travis justifies by claiming it “alienates at least 75% of its core sports audience”. You need to believe that not only is Iger plotting a run for president, but also that he believes the best way to do it is by “turning ESPN into MSESPN.”
Travis’s most pernicious claim, and I believe the lynchpin of his entire argument, is the idea that a full three-quarters of ESPN’s sports audience either doesn’t care or is actively opposed to the intermingling of leftwing politics and sports. A Gallup poll from 2015 showed that 60% of Democrats and 58% of self-identified liberals consider themselves to be sports fans. And, critically, 51% of women and 62% of non-white respondents said they consider themselves sports fans. No matter how you slice it, you can’t come up with “75% of ESPN’s core sports audience” without including some of these people.
Yes, this runs counter to stereotypes that suggest that sports is a man’s world, and that women would rather watch soap operas. It also forces white, male sports fans to acknowledge that a space that they have used as an escape from political issues for years is in fact as political as the rest of the world. Other fans have not had that luxury. Writing for ESPNW, Kavitha Davidson breaks down this reality perfectly:
Watching sports with no eye toward the political, or the racial, or the gendered, or what have you, is a privilege many of us have never been afforded, simply because we were perceived as outsiders to mainstream institutions. And it’s not limited to sports. It’s no more possible for a survivor of sexual assault to unemotionally watch her team bring on a player accused of rape than it is for a descendant of Irish immigrants to unemotionally read Angela’s Ashes. Nor should it be: Recognizing the importance of sports beyond simple escapism serves to elevate this thing that we love and feel, at times beyond the point of rationality.
All that said, the leftward shift of sports media is vastly overblown. Lest we forget, the entire marketing campaign of Fox Sports 1 has revolved around poaching ESPN’s loudest, most explosively conservative personalities – Colin Cowherd, Skip Bayless and Jason Whitlock, primarily – and pitching them to sports fans by showcasing how offensive they are willing to be on the air. The entire conceit of “Speak For Yourself”, the debate show featuring Cowherd and Whitlock, is that they won’t stand down to the Twitter trolls and the SJWs. It is a show specifically marketed to what Travis thinks is the core sports audience.
Sure, ESPN may alienate some white sports fans by acknowledging uncomfortable political realities like the rampant sexual assault problems in sports or Colin Kaepernick’s protests against social injustice. But for every angry man who changes the channel, how many others will turn to ESPN because they finally see a space in the sports world where somebody cares about them and their concerns? How many people who love sports but hate hearing men like Cowherd scream about how Dominican baseball players are stupid or how black basketball players lack character because they grew up fatherless will rediscover the part of themselves that loved sports now that ESPN is a more welcoming environment?
If ESPN is indeed pivoting leftward, that pivot is mostly about trying to differentiate itself from Fox Sports 1 and trying to capture a sports audience that is making it clear that it doesn’t just want apolitical, safe sports coverage. Travis says that ESPN’s shift left is contributing to what he calls a “continuing ratings slide.” Indeed, ESPN’s subscriber numbers are dwindling, but that has nothing to do with politics. All the Fox News watchers with basic cable subscriptions are also subscribers to ESPN, thanks to the lack of a la carte cable options on the market. In reality, ESPN’s ratings slide is a product of the increasing number of people cutting the cord – primarily millennials. This is a group that skews both less white than and politically to the left of the general population. Perhaps ESPN sees somebody like Jemele Hill, who is one of the lead anchors on ESPN’s new 6pm SportsCenter program and who Travis calls “one of the most publicly liberal people on ESPN’s staff”, as somebody who can appeal to the generation of cord cutters and convince them ESPN is worth their money.
I don’t disagree with the argument that sportswriting contains more leftist and liberal voices than in years past, but what’s happening now isn’t unprecedented. Harry Edwards wrote about the nature of sports and social change in his 1973 work Sociology of Sport, and much of his assessment of dissent within the sports world of the 1960s and 1970s will sound familiar:
Today not only is there an increase in the amount of publicity or notoriety granted athletic dissenters but there are changes in the sources of dissent and in the character of dissent. In the past, the chief critics of sport’s traditional functioning have been for the most part a few middle-aged journalists and social reformers, and faculty members and academic administrators… Today the situation is quite different. For not only do dissenters receive greater public exposure, but they are younger people, more numerous and they are demanding changes in athletics at all levels that would effectively alter the institution of sport as we know it today… What is happening in sports today results from the impact of the twentieth century, with its affluence, its speed, its mass communications – all of which have combined to create a much smaller world and new definitions of reality. As tradition has become less and less relevant to contemporary perceptions of reality, tremendous strains have resulted.
Edwards’s assessment of the communication explosion of half a century ago, referring to the penetration of television into a majority of households, the rise of alternative print media and the increasing ease of transportation thanks to the jet plane, sounds very similar to how many cultural commentators have described the internet’s impact on the world. Indeed, I would argue that ESPN has not organically decided to move to the left, but rather has been dragged kicking and screaming, forced to change by the rise of online alternative media sources like Vice Sports, The Shadow League, Outsports, Excelle Sports and many, many others – outlets that refused to believe that politics and sports needed to be separate and showed sports fans that ESPN’s antiseptic, apolitical approach to the craft is not the only way.
So, is Bob Iger actually planning on running for president, and is he using ESPN as a tool in that hypothetical campaign? I suppose in a world where it looks like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is gearing up for a run, anything is possible. But I find it hard to believe in this country, where Donald Trump just won a national election, that slanting your sports channel’s programming to the left is the move that will win you votes. In the last election, conservatives not only took the White House but swept both houses of Congress and continue to nab more and more seats in state legislatures and governor’s mansions as well.
But if you listen to Clay Travis, you would think that conservative values are under fierce attack. He writes about his concerns of conservative opinions getting drowned out at ESPN by Iger, and about his fear that ESPN will become “just as partisan as the rest of the country.” Despite the political power he and his ilk have, he still sees himself as threatened. This constant defensiveness and fear of loss is a defining characteristic of conservative politics, as Brooklyn College professor of political science Corey Robin wrote in his book The Reactionary Mind.
And that’s what’s really at play here. Travis can lament the fate of what he calls “regular guy or girl” who looks to sports as an escape from the political world, but what he’s really afraid of is the thought of people like him losing the power to define who we consider the regular guy or girl in sports, or the power to decide which stories in the sports world we consider to be important. And honestly? Travis should be scared. Those of us who refuse to stick to sports aren’t going to shut up or go away anytime soon.