Since the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States sports and politics in the USA have become more and more intertwined; it is symptomatic of a nation divided by ideology, one where people are supporting their political positions as they would a sports team: unwaveringly and unquestioningly. ESPN, the leader in American sports media, has taken to using one of their websites to spread political messages (from one side only, it should be noted) while ESPN writer and vice president Roxanne Brown was solicited by CNN to provide her opinion on President Donald Trump’s inauguration:
No day in our nation feels more patriotic than Inauguration Day — the Marine Marching Band, the past presidents, politicians and power brokers braving the cold to flock to our nation’s capital. But it was hard not to look at the sea of white faces in the crowd, gathered for President Donald J. Trump’s swearing-in, and not see represented a shockingly different America than we saw on this same day eight years ago when President Barack Obama was sworn in. In fact, this was the whitest inauguration I’ve witnessed in my lifetime.
Apparently, judging by the last sentence, she was unaware that most African-Americans boycotted Mr. Trump’s inauguration. This absurdity aside, of course, it is notable that a sports reporter should be given such a space in mainstream American media. It shows just how sports has become a space of contention within the cultural civil war that the United States is experiencing.
ESPN Now Sells Politics With a Side Of Sports. Image Courtesy of: http://www.breitbart.com/sports/2017/01/21/espn-offers-social-media-sites-platform-leftist-activists-womens-march/
ESPN, for so many years a channel devoted to sports programming alone, has recently completed a turn to the field of culture. The new SC6 (the 6pm/18:00EST) edition of ESPN’s flagship highlights program Sportscenter will debut on 6 February 2017. Senior vice president of Sportscenter and news Rob King had this to say about the show in an interview:
This show will be unique because it is an opportunity to look in on a conversation among close friends, colleagues and the people who they bring into their orbit by virtue of the topics they choose and the interests they have. Since we launched the midnight show with Scott Van Pelt, it’s been really clear that SportsCenter can be distinguished when it’s built around unique personalities and unique conceits, especially those ideas, personalities and conceits that work for specific audiences.
The Anchors of ESPN’s Newest Show. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.espnfrontrow.com/2017/01/expectations-excitement-permeate-kings-view-sc6-michael-jemele/
The focus on “conversation”, “unique personalities”, and “unique conceits” [Author’s Note: An odd choice of words] suggests a larger role for the personal element than the traditional sports program would present. Sports reporter Andrew Bucholtz adds that
there seems to be less and less interest in straight news and highlights, and both ESPN and Fox are adapting to that. Fox went with the drastic move of killing the news-and-highlights version of Fox Sports Live and turning it into more of a comedy-focused late night show, while ESPN has focused instead on making highly identifiable and individual versions of SportsCenter, from Scott Van Pelt’s show to SportsCenter A.M. and more […]
Most importantly, Bucholz notes the change that this program represents; for him it “is interesting because in some ways it seems to be trying to walk the line between a debate show and the traditional SportsCenter. Smith and Hill certainly have backgrounds in opinion programming too (in addition to their journalism and reporting backgrounds, which King also notes)”. The fact that sports programming in the USA is moving to a “late-night show” or “debate show” format means that the personal opinions of hosts will come more to the fore, replacing the traditional format of the sports show which presents the “facts” in the form of highlights. Inevitably, this will allow for more discussion regarding the field of culture; it would be naïve to think that ESPN—a large part of the American “culture industry”—would refrain from putting politics into their new show as well. This type of format allows ESPN to seem apolitical while being just the opposte. French Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu explains how this works in his book “On Television”:
Pushed by competition for marketshare, television networks have greater and greater recourse to the tried and true formulas of tabloid journalism, with emphasis (when not the entire newscast) devoted to human interest stories or sports. No matter what has happened in the world on a given day, more and more often the evening news begins with French soccer scores or another sporting event, interrupting the regular news […] the focus is on those things which are apt to arouse curiosity but which require no analysis, especially in the political sphere […] human interest stories create a political vacuum. They depoliticize and reduce what goes on in the world to the level of anecdote or scandal.
(Bourdieu, 1998: 44-56)
Here we can see that ESPN may be attempting to use an ostensibly apolitical program so as to insidiously—and indirectly—send political messages in a way that a traditional news program would not be able to. After all, a sports program is—usually—just a highlights program, presenting “facts”. SC6 strives to be much more, and it is important that we—as consumers of the culture industry in modern industrial society—are aware of what is actually happening.
My favorite American football team, the New England Patriots, has not been immune from this newly emphasized connection between sports and politics. (State) media’s New York Times profiled the close relationship between President Donald Trump and Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady, calling it an “uncomfortable love affair”. To further drive home the message, The Huffington Post published an article by Professor David Dennis Jr., who made one of the more ridiculous claims I have ever read (or heard): “Tom Brady’s Politics Are More Un-American Than Colin Kaepernick’s Have Ever Been”. I have written before about Mr. Kaepernick’s protest against the American national anthem (which cost the NFL millions of dollars because—shocker here—the NFL has many fans who actually like the United States). Professor David Dennis Jr.’s piece—due to its sheer absurdity—deserves a little bit of air time here. First the New England star Tom Brady is quoted in his own words regarding President Donald Trump:
“I have called him, yes, in the past. Sometimes he calls me. Sometimes I call,” Brady said. “But, again, that’s been someone I’ve known. I always try to keep it in context because for 16 years you know someone before maybe he was in the position that he was in. He’s been very supportive of me for a long time. It’s just a friendship. I have a lot of friends. I call a lot of people.”
Here, Tom Brady’s words seem pretty normal. Like say, something someone would say about their friend. And, since the United States is a free country, it would seem normal that one is allowed to choose who their friends are. Apparently, Professor Dennis Jr. doesn’t agree, adding a gratuitous racial comment by invoking “white privilege” in his commentary:
Brady was confused as to why his relationship with the president was even a relevant topic of discussion.
“Why does everybody make such a big deal? I don’t understand it.”
Brady’s obliviousness reeks of white privilege and dismissiveness; a #MAGA trait if there ever was one. But what’s most troubling is the way Brady’s Trump endorsement has been treated compared to Kaepernick’s political statements.
Professor Dennis Jr. then drops his bombshell claim:
Brady’s Trump endorsement, however, has been largely ignored when, in fact, supporting Donald Trump as President of The United States is far more threatening to America than taking a knee during the National Anthem.
I have no idea why merely voicing support for a candidate who was supported by almost half of the country could be “threatening” or even comparable to insulting all those who believe in American nationalism, but such is the absurd climate in the United States currently.
A Picture of What State Media’s New York Times dubbed “the uncomfortable love affair”. Image Courtesy Of: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/01/magazine/the-uncomfortable-love-affair-between-donald-trump-and-the-new-england-patriots.html
At least former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka offered some choice words defending Mr. Brady telling the country to “grow up” and adding “Dammit. I thought this country was a country of choice!” On a separate show he called journalists “assholes” and criticized former President Barack Obama for “showing no leadership at all”. I can agree with Mr. Ditka’s last claim, seeing as how the United States—under President Obama—dropped on average a staggering 72 bombs a day in 2016 on foreign countries, leading to the odd situation where Mr. Trump is called a racist while Mr. Obama’s imperialism goes ignored.
The Indomitable Mike Ditka, Sweater et al. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.pbtalent.com/blog/speaker/mike-ditka
Sorry, I just Couldn’t Resist. Image Courtesy of a Friend Via Social Media.
Mr. Ditka’s point, regarding the need for Americans to “grow up” is one that is directly relevant to the spat between basketball analyst Charles Barkley and basketball star Lebron James. A longtime NBA analyst and former player, Mr. Barkley criticized Mr. James for his comments regarding his team’s front office when he asked for another player to help his team win the championship (they won last year while—somehow—managing a loss of forty million USD). Barkley said Mr. James’ comments were:
Inappropriate. Whiny. All of the above. The Cleveland Cavaliers, they have given him everything he wanted. They have the highest payroll in NBA history. He wanted J.R. Smith last summer, they paid him. He wanted [Iman] Shumpert last summer. They brought in Kyle Korver. He’s the best player in the world. Does he want all of the good players? He don’t want to compete? He is an amazing player. They’re the defending champs.
Mr. James responded with personal attacks on Mr. Barkley, calling him “a hater” and asking the rhetorical question “what makes what he says credible? Because he’s on TV?” Mr. James here seemed to forget that his open endorsement of U.S. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and insult directed at those who voted for Mr. Trump (Mr. James called them “goofy” even though the majority of voters in Mr. James’ state voted for Donald Trump) were only made credible because he is on TV himself! Mr. James’ diatribe, however, continued (for video, please see nba.com):
I’m not going to let him disrespect my legacy like that. I’m not the one who threw somebody through a window. I never spit on a kid. I never had unpaid debt in Las Vegas. I never said, ‘I’m not a role model.’ I never showed up to All-Star Weekend on Sunday because I was in Vegas all weekend partying.
All I’ve done for my entire career is represent the NBA the right way. Fourteen years, never got in trouble. Respected the game. Print that.
Later Mr. Barkley laughed it off, saying “I was laughing, clearly he did some homework … he Googled me and found some things … He was young when I was playing, so I appreciate that, but I’m not upset about it. … My criticism was fair, and I’m good with that … Some of the stuff he said about me is correct — doesn’t make the message I said about him incorrect. Some of them are intimidated about LeBron, [but] I’m not intimidated at all.”
A day later Mr. Barkley added that “It’s a different generation. If we don’t say everything positive about them all the time, we’re a hater. But I’ve gotten more support than I saw coming. To be honest with you, it’s been great. Especially the guys in the media who are like, ‘Thank you. I can’t say it because I need to talk to him.’ ” Here Mr. Barkley touches on a very important point, one that makes this odd exchange indicative of the current state of culture in the United States.
Lebron James really is of “a different generation”. It is one that, for starters, clearly has no respect for those that came before them. If it weren’t for players like Charles Barkley making the NBA popular in the 1990s, it is probable that Lebron James wouldn’t be the star he currently is. It is the same kind of lack of perspective that allowed Colin Kaepernick to take a shot at the United States…even though the sport he is paid to play is mainly played in the United States. Secondly, Lebron James’ generation is one that also has no self-respect. It is a generation that is all about “Me, Me, Me” and never “We, We, We”. It must always be praise and compliments; criticism cannot be accepted. Unfortunately, the current culture in the United States has become a culture of being “offended”, where comments one doesn’t like are deemed to be “offensive”. It is the same culture that does not accept the outcome of a presidential election because…the candidate they wanted did not win. Its an odd state of affairs, but the spat between Mr. Barkley and Mr. James goes some way to explaining how deeply engrained the cult of the individual has become in American society. If the country—and its culture—is to move forward we must at least attempt to move outside of our own personal selves and try to understand other perspectives. Otherwise, we are doomed to living in a fragmented and rudderless society where criticism—and therefore debate (whether about sports or politics)—is impossible.
Sir Charles, Pictured With the Classic Phoenix Suns Jersey. Image Courtesy Of: https://www.casino.org/news/charles-barkley-says-lost-millions-gambling-dozens-occasions