Politics in Sports: A Sports Journalist’s Perspective

By Isaiah Blakely

Politics have always been intertwined in sports, but recently, it has been a major topic of discussion in the NFL and NBA specifically.

President Trump paid attention to the NBA during the summer when the Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry said he was not going to the White House, and then Trump revoked the Warriors invitation.

The bigger story this season has been Trump’s reactions to NFL players kneeling during the anthem. He called the NFL players “SOB’s” and told the NFL owners to fire anyone who kneels. Trump also called for the firing of ESPN anchor Jemele Hill after she tweeted calling him a white supremacist.

Coverage of sports has changed, and I asked three established sports journalists their thoughts on politics being a bigger focus in sports.

Steve Wyche: Reporter, analyst and host for NFL Network

Kimberley Martin: Former Buffalo News columnist and current Washington Redskins beat writer for the Washington Post

Marc Spears: Senior NBA writer for ESPN’s The Undefeated

General thoughts on the amount of attention the President of the United States has paid to sports, specifically the NFL and NBA.

Wyche: “I don’t know if he’s spent more time paying attention to the NFL and NBA than other presidents. What he has done is spent more time Tweeting and remarking on them in a controversial manner. Most leaders, when they’ve commented on sports teams, have expressed fan-type support or admiration or, spoken up in times of controversy to try to spur progress. This president seems to use some of the issues, whether real or concocted, to gin up controversy.”

Martin: “The amount of energy the President has used to disparage the NFL/NBA and its players is alarming, considering the major issues that need his attention, like the threat of nuclear war, the economy, healthcare, etc.”

Spears: “It’s surprising. It should be surprising that the leader of the free world cares that much about sports. One might think it is a ploy to distract from what’s really going on in this world. There’s probably a method to the madness so far the tail is wagging the dog. Typically, in my lifetime one such is the case it’s been more light-hearted stuff like celebrating a champion or attending a game or throwing out a first pitch. Rarely is it from a political standpoint. Usually leave that up to the fans and the people that run the sports but it’s obvious that this is a different world now.”

When you see and hear the president calling on news organizations to fire employees, how concerning is that to journalists?

Wyche: “It is a major concern. It leads to journalists wondering how much support they have from their employers and creates a fear that our nation’s leadership is trying to transfer our great press freedoms into state-run propaganda. Journalists and good journalism is the ultimate check-and-balance mechanism to inform the public. If a leader can influence the narrative or media companies to shield truths, our country will suffer. If a journalist does something improper, it should be left to his or her employer to decide if discipline is necessary.”

Martin: “The President calling for law-abiding citizens to be fired from their jobs should frighten everyone, not just journalists.”

Spears: “That’s very concerning because that’s my coworker. I don’t want one of my favorite people to lose her job. Definitely stunning, and I guess it shows how much power she has that the president would even pay attention to her. The biggest thing as a journalist it’s important to fight for free speech. Nobody should ever have to be muzzled no matter what they have to say. Even if the KKK wants to have parade or want to speak you have to let them speak. It’s part of living in America. You don’t necessarily have to pay attention to it. It can take away a lot of the stress. I think the fact that he is paying attention to her, definitely shows how strong her voice is.”

What impact has Trump’s comments had on the way you cover sporting events, the way you see the industry?

Wyche: “Well, since I deal with the NFL, I’ll stay in that lane. When he called players ‘SOBs’ and said team owners should fire players who don’t stand for the anthem, it caused the media to ask players about his remarks and it led to wide spread counter-reaction from players. That re-directed the focus of normal sports coverage into more news coverage. Sports and news often mix but the tenor or anger and distrust and divisiveness is like nothing I’ve ever experienced.”

“Much of what is happening in sports and the president’s remarks mirror what is going on in society, which is why emotions have become so inflamed when he decides to chime into athletic/business/societal and economic matters.”

Martin: “As a result of this administration, I found that I watched players more closely during the singing of the national anthem than I ever had. I talked to players and football fans more about politics, the presidency, the role of government and the responsibilities of athletes than I ever have before. And as a result of this administration, I’ve seen more and more journalist friends and colleagues express their political leanings on Twitter than I’ve ever seen before.”

Spears: “He had an impact because it certainly involved the NBA. I cover the NBA for ESPN and I’m also down the street from the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors visit to the White House was in debate and eventually taken away. I was there when (Stephen) Curry said he didn’t want to go, and I was there when the President told the Warriors they weren’t invited anymore. So I got to hear a lot of choice word, laughs or concern from the Warriors side about the whole ordeal. I was in the ESPN studio in Los Angeles when Lebron had his press conference where he certainly had some choice words about the President. So it certainly has affected my job because the first couple weeks of training camp it was a hot topic.”

 How do you separate your own personal opinions on matters, from opinions that might reflect on the company you work for? Is there a way to separate the two?

Wyche: “Absolutely. We all have our opinions and beliefs but they never spill into my coverage. I report and try to always bring all perspectives into play. It is not my job to interject my personal feelings into my reports and frankly, I don’t think anyone would care.”

“However, as a minority, I can offer points of view that might not typically be reported or generated because of my experiences. I also can use different historical reference points that often get overlooked or ignored. There are also periods each year when coaches and GMs get fired. Most of the mainstream media, which is majority white, will list potential candidates for jobs. Most of those candidates they list are white. However, if I talk to the right informed people, there also are minority candidates whose names and credentials I mention just as prominently.”

Martin: “As journalists, we’re supposed to be objective and accurate. My personal opinions don’t color how I approach, deal with or try to understand the players and coaches I cover. But when the players you see every day in the locker room start talking about politics and the President challenges and insults a subsection of athletes and targets specific players, the lines become blurry for all and it becomes increasingly difficult to consistently police the opinions of journalists. (ESPN’s handling of Jemele Hill’s suspension is a perfect example.)”

“The divisive climate of the country is unlike anything this country has seen in more than 60 years and, as a result, it’s difficult as a person of color, a woman and the daughter of immigrants to check my opinions on social media. With that said, I do think twice — even three times — before I tweet. I recognize that I’m not a CNN or Fox News commentator. I’m a sportswriter and many of my followers want to be kept up to speed on NFL news. With that said, as a person of color, a woman and the daughter of immigrants, I also recognize that representation matters and that if I don’t use the platform I have, however small it might be, to bring attention to certain issues that I believe are important — who will?”

“Certain things — like nazis, racism, sexism — are wrong. Plain and simple. And there are certain concepts I’d imagine all decent humans can get behind — like, racial equality. So, I retweet articles as a way of sparking thought and discussions among my Twitter following and as a way of providing a different perspective for people who may not look or think like me. I find that it is (at times) possible to engage in constructive, healthy dialogue on social media. But in no way, am I ever offensive, nor have my tweets ever reflected poorly on my company. That being said, I’m not sure how we, as an industry, can consistently determine the dividing line between journalists representing themselves vs. journalists representing their companies on Twitter. Especially now, in these tense times, when political and social issues are dominating sports news. Like I said, it’s a slippery slope.”

Spears: “You got to be careful because we do have a social policy. You want to be edgy as a journalist and say things, but you can only go so far because you are representing a company. If I was just Marc Spears regular dude on the street I could say whatever I want but because I am working for a global company I have to be more careful about what I say.”

What do you say to people who tell journalists to “stick to sports?”

Wyche:” I tell them they can say whatever they want but it is impossible to at times because so much of life, news and sports intersect. How can some journalists stick to sports when they have to report on Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt raising millions for hurricane relief to help those who’ve been displaced or lost loved ones? How can you tell some journalists to stick to sports when an athlete is detained for no wrongdoing or is charged with domestic abuse? It is interesting, though, how some reporting can skew perception.”

“Watt’s work was heroic and correctly praised for being as much. Meanwhile, the civic work of Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett, who also raised money and school supplies for kids in Houston – his hometown – barely received a blip of attention. Instead, Bennett is more recognized for not standing for the National Anthem in order to bring awareness to those that might have suffered.”

Martin: “Sports are seen as an escape for most people, a brief respite from the stress of everyday life and what’s happening in the “real world.” People who say ‘stick to sports’ often argue that sports should remain an unadulterated space. But in doing so, those individuals forget (or choose to ignore) the many instances in which athletes helped to shine a spotlight on important social issues and managed to spark important dialogue via their platforms.”

Spears: “You don’t want to read it don’t read it. No one is forcing you to read it. Perhaps I could see where it can get overkill to some people, and they just want to hear about the game. But that’s the good thing about conversation and the good thing about these stories is it forces people to talk about things they don’t want to talk about. It pushes the uncomfortable. I love it, through all of this it will eventually make the world a better place because it forces people to face the truth. You are not going to change every everybody people are who they are. But hopefully the younger generation through education on racism, sexism, classism they will have a better feel for how the world should actually be.”

Do you feel that politics have become intertwined with sports much more than it was, say five years ago?

 Wyche: “Not really. Maybe more so in a controversial way but there always has been some form of political involvement, from local communities having their tax-dollars being leveraged to build new stadiums to retain or lose teams. Presidents have invited teams to the White House. Politicians have fought against/for integration in sports on college campuses. There is a constant battle for women’s equality in sports and at the collegiate level, forced political intervention. There’s always been some realm of cross-culture in sports and politics.”

Martin: “This isn’t the first-time sports and politics have collided, but the minute the President fired verbal jabs at athletes and professional sports leagues, we entered uncharted territory.”

Spears: “Yeah, definitely so I think it all started with what happened in St. Louis, what happened in New York and what happened in Florida. I’m talking about people who were affected by police brutality. I think it’s the constant fight, struggle that blacks have had with police brutality that has kinda sparked all of this in recent year. The funny thing about the whole Kaepernick deal is that his protest is about fighting against police brutality toward black men.”

“But yet that’s never talked about. It’s always the flag. It drives me nuts. It’s a terrible smoke screen. I had some time with Kaepernick last year and I wish he talked more so people could understand where he’s coming from because he’s a really intelligent guy. I work for The Undefeated and it couldn’t have come at a better time. I think 5 years ago we may not have had as much to write about. Now shoot just walk outside all the stories are sitting on the curb for us. It’s sad but it’s the reality of the world today. “

“I do have hope that long term all this talk all the stories all the debates all the pain can hopefully make for a better world for the younger generation. I don’t think the younger generation cares more the most part about color about race about whether somebody is gay or not. There’s so many mix kids now, it’s hard for you to be racist towards to your friends because everybody is something. There’s going to be so much more diversity in the coming years where so many people are related to somebody black, somebody Mexican, somebody Asian. You could talk to somebody that’s white and they brother in law could be black, and you don’t know it and that’s going to make them angry. I do believe there is a better world coming”

There has been less political talk in recent weeks, but athletes are using their platforms in an abundance of ways and I wouldn’t expect that to stop anytime soon.

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