From declining invitations to the White House and endorsing political candidates to touching upon the NBA’s relationship with communist China, professional athletes and organizations have increasingly tapped into politics over the last few years. Whether you want to attribute this change to the polarizing figure that currently holds the highest office in the United States or to the ever-expanding social pedestal that athletes may utilize, a question regarding the sports media’s role in covering politics has arisen.
Just last week, Deadspin, the popular sports blog notorious for its articles’ cultural and politically relevant sports coverage, made their decision regarding the question at hand. G/O Media editorial director Paul Maidment told the Deadspin staff, “Where such subjects touch on sports, they are fair game for Deadspin. Where they do not, they are not.” Maidment’s comments led to journalists preaching the importance of defending their literary freedoms — even when covering sports. However, I believe that sports and politics deserve their separate platforms, though overlap is inevitable and even necessary at times.
An owner of a publication, in my opinion, is within their right to modify their platform to whatever they believe is best for the brand and future of the platform. However, the majority of the staff at Deadspin resigned in protest following Maidment’s comments. “This isn’t what any of us signed up for,” one staffer said. Although the journalists at the sports-centered publication see Maidment’s requests as a harsh decree that infringe on their rights as journalists, I find that to be an exaggeration.
There remains significant room to continue covering political content so long as it pertains to sports. As Maidment mentions in his memo, there is a tremendous amount of ways in which sports and politics converge. He believes politics can and should be covered so long as pieces remain in line with the publication’s forte. This creates an atmosphere of consistency in content centered around sports in an on-brand, clean manner. And it still leaves space for political contextualization concerning sports, a practice that sports media conglomerates such as ESPN and NFL Network use.
While ESPN, NFL Network, and other major sports media entities do not necessarily avoid political-orientated stories, they generally only touch upon politics if there exists a direct link to sports or athletes. Straight news refers to media coverage that that is not meant to do anything more than inform its audience. Shows such as “SportsCenter” and “NFL Up to the Minute” are intended for straight sports news. When it comes to writing about the intersection between politics and sports, explain the implications of given scenarios, but avoid commentary or opinions on the subject matter. For example, Colin Kaepernick’s protests throughout his career and his recent media attention are covered by the major sports news programs because of their relevance to the NFL and athletes’ rights. However, opinions of Kaepernick’s actions would never be made on air by any ESPN analyst, except on shows directly intended for opinion-based sports commentary.
In 2016, ESPN urged their staff to avoid making any political comments ahead of the presidential election. This philosophy is melded into the ESPN brand and is largely accepted as the proper practice in sports coverage. According to NFL Network’s Rich Eisen, “Sports is the ultimate escape, the ultimate in reality programming. It’s true drama. You really don’t know what’s going to happen.” It is imperative for sports media companies to remember that many fans tune in to ESPN or NFL Network to escape from the stresses of politics.
Although sports media coverage should include political context in pieces that require it, optimal sports media involves remaining in the realm of sports. As Eisen claims, sports remains a sacred space that has kept consumers entertained and distracted for centuries. It is imperative for people to remain informed about current politics and aware of current events. However, there are other platforms intended for the receipt of that type of news. Content from one Sunday of NFL games is enough to fill NFL Network’s programs for a full week. There simply is no need to create space for politics in straight sports news programs unless there is a clear correlation between the news and the usual sports coverage. Journalists can and should have the right to cover politics in sports., But in a straight news environment, sports journalists should not go further than contextualizing and updating the audience on the sports-politics story.