Thursday, June 13, 2024

The media’s role in fracturing sports

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The night before Muhammad Ali’s funeral, a handful of sportswriters gathered at a bar in downtown Louisville. We drank bourbon cocktails and contemplated our enormous assignment the next day. As we talked, the room filled with celebrities, boxing legends and civil rights leaders.

“No pressure, y’all,” I said to our group. “Just don’t screw up Ali’s story.”

We laughed and tried to transport ourselves back to the press hat and typewriter days of the 1960s, when Ali began challenging the nation and influencing our profession. In trying to tell his Homeric story, in grappling with consequential issues such as war, religion and civil rights, sports reporters made a full transition from covering games to practicing journalism. They couldn’t screw up Ali’s story, either. Even when it seemed they did, Ali kept coming back, providing opportunities for revision. He kept reclaiming the heavyweight title, kept verbally sparring with media members and kept revealing his humanitarian soul until they understood him. It resulted in a trove of great stories about “The Greatest” and about the American society he was helping to reshape, some of the best sports journalism ever produced.

I often think about that June night in 2016. It felt like we had a responsibility to honor our craft with one final Ali account. Eight years later, I wonder how many in the sports media still feel that broader sense of duty. At a time when societal grievance and division spill into the ring, I wonder whether we will adjust to meet this moment or continue to get trampled by it.

Muhammad Ali’s funeral procession marked a symbolic end to a golden era of sportswriting. (Ty Wright/Getty Images)
Ali’s career, which included verbal sparring with media members, helped change the industry. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
Prominent sportswriters of the 1960s were open in their disdain for Ali. (Ty Wright/Getty Images)

In exploring the friction that plagues sports, it would be dishonest to omit media complicity. Some of my people — the ink-stained, mic’d-up, silver-tongued, hot-take-spewing, bad-faith-acting, mayhem-kindling supposed truth seekers — have propagated the nasty discourse. Long before every bouncing ball became politicized, a rage culture had developed within sports, spurred by social media, debate-show television and the financial collapse of the mainstream media. It led to an obsession with engagement, a decrease in curiosity and an abundance of empty communication delivered in the noisiest manner possible.

Acting on the impulse to be louder, some messengers hankered to build their personal brands. It made them less interested in accuracy, logic and fair-mindedness than in being noticed. Sometimes it required them to become merchants of dissension because it’s more beneficial to rile the crowd.

The cacophony attracts political manipulation. Is there a better place to sow division? In a media habitat that elevates cheap debate and stymies contextualization, the ground becomes lush for culture wars to invade, spreading petty but harmful disagreement and mirroring a country that screams better than it listens.

It makes me long for a better — or at least more responsible — time.

“But back then, we were searching for something similar,” said Robert Lipsyte, an award-winning journalist and author.

In 1964, Lipsyte was 26 years old when the New York Times assigned him to cover the Sonny Liston-Cassius Clay heavyweight title bout. Sixty years have not diminished Lipsyte’s memory of the baby-faced, 22-year-old Clay, who would soon change his name to Muhammad Ali, shouting to reporters, “Eat your words!”

Forty-three of 46 sportswriters had predicted Liston would win. That was the first time they were wrong about Ali.

“The most prominent sportswriters of the 1960s — the likes of Jimmy Cannon, Red Smith and Jim Murray — those guys were flagrantly anti-Ali,” Lipsyte said in a phone interview. “Their language was bitter. They didn’t like what he represented at first. They just wanted to cover sports their way, and a lot of them were highly conservative. Then there were younger sportswriters who were more affected by the turbulence of those times and had some sense of themselves as journalists. There was a real dichotomy of sports journalism. It’s amazing to go back and think about how much changed — and all of it for the better, if you ask me.”

We are desperate to evolve again, this time away from debate and toward understanding. If we can’t, the consequences seem dire.

Before February’s Super Bowl, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was asked about conspiracy theories involving Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

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In 2003, I was a rookie columnist who needed direction. An editor told me to write an opening paragraph with more edge. “If I were you, I’d start with, ‘Just shut up and play,’ ” he said.

“If you were me, you’d know better,” I replied.

I didn’t know much about writing opinions then; I was three years out of college. But I knew I didn’t want to be angry and incurious. I didn’t want to scream. In sports, it doesn’t take much to provoke strong emotions. But there is no integrity in doing so simply for attention.

The pursuit of truth now competes with the desire for attention. It’s no contest, sadly. Instead of reporting, instead of wondering and scrutinizing, instead of building trust and gaining insight and providing context, we exhaust too many diminishing resources to facilitate screaming. There is seldom enough fresh information to react to, so we regurgitate arguments, only louder, all in the name of provocation.

It’s annoying when someone goes low to split hairs about the greatness of LeBron James or Patrick Mahomes. It’s destructive when the same cavalier approach collides with weighty topics.

At worst, it creates “a grievance industry for fans who love sports but hate the people who play them.” That’s the perspective of Dave Zirin, a journalist and author who lives at the intersection of sports and politics.

Media members surround Colorado football coach Deion Sanders and 98-year-old fan Peggy Coppom at the school’s 2023 spring game. (Michael Ciaglo for The Washington Post)
The destruction of journalism’s business model has altered the sports media landscape. (Michael Ciaglo for The Washington Post)

With the traditional journalism business model reduced to shards, echo chambers have blossomed in sports, reflecting the rest of the media landscape. The mainstream, or what’s left of it, has been cast as too liberal, out of touch with the predominantly White male sports fan base. An expansive and sometimes noxious right-wing sports media has filled much of the vacuum. Tired of jockeying for position, women are creating their own media companies. Fed up with being marginalized, the LGBTQ+ community has created its own news platforms. Determined to strengthen their brands, leagues, teams and even individual superstars have turned their house organs into complete orchestras.

We’re more intentional than ever about sitting in different sections of the stadium, viewing the action from vastly different angles and pressuring rabid followers to experience sports our way. Superimpose the issues causing national fissures, and conversations already hemorrhaging nuance turn hostile.

“Yesterday’s venom is today’s champagne,” said Zirin, the sports editor of liberal magazine the Nation who also anchors a weekly “Edge of Sports” column. “The fight has become hegemonic. It has become ideological. It’s a fight for who’s going to control how sports are consumed.”

Former LSU star Angel Reese and her teammates landed in the middle of a political storm after an Elite Eight loss to Iowa. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

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The resurrection needed only a 20-second video from press row. Out of nowhere, minutes before another banner NCAA women’s basketball tournament game in April, the dead issue rose. It was a recording of the Iowa team standing and holding hands during the national anthem. In his social media post, the reporter noted the Hawkeyes’ opponent, LSU, was in the locker room.

Nine million views later, it was 2017 again.

Louisiana Gov. Jeff Landry (R) decided to Trumpify the attention, threatening to compel the Board of Regents to make scholarships dependent on athletes being present for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” His social media post received 2.5 million views and 2,000 polarizing replies. Later, Landry brought his performance to Fox News.

Exploitation has its perks.

Landry took advantage of a common, benign part of LSU’s routine. Unlike pro leagues, the NCAA doesn’t have a policy requiring teams to be present during the anthem. The Tigers always leave for their locker room at the 12-minute mark. There was no defiance in their actions, only habit. The reporter who posted the video, Dan Zaksheske of conservative website Outkick, asked about LSU’s absence after the Elite Eight game. Coach Kim Mulkey gave the explanation and said in conclusion, “I’m sorry, listen, that’s nothing intentionally done.”

“I’m sorry, listen, that’s nothing intentionally done,” LSU women’s basketball coach Kim Mulkey said of her team’s pregame routine. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

The story should’ve ended there, but the selective outrage was too intense. On a night when women’s college basketball shattered another viewership record, it made for a convenient wedge issue. There was no need for context and no room for grace, only maddening nonsense intended to elicit more nonsense.

As an industry, we’re stuck in this mud, wrestling for relevance. We manipulate — and get manipulated. The mainstream jobs shrink, but the appetite for content increases. The struggle for financial viability tempts us to either mollify the masses or foment controversy: about protest, about race, about gender. Too often, the full story is no match for an incomplete irritant.

The misleading LSU anthem saga proved to be a gross form of dehumanization. A team of mostly Black women was made to seem mutinous while a mostly White team was presented as a paragon of patriotism. From press row to the governor’s mansion, the moment called for a conscientious approach. But once again, the trope of the ungrateful, unpatriotic Black dissident athlete was too pugnacious to resist.

Defensive end Michael Sam became the first openly gay NFL draft pick in 2014. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

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Lipsyte served as the ESPN ombudsman when defensive end Michael Sam became the first openly gay NFL draft pick in 2014. Before the historic selection, Lipsyte was receiving messages about the liberal bias of sports coverage. After the draft broadcast, he was flooded with reactions to ESPN airing a kiss between Sam and his partner.

“There was a tremendous amount of email from people who really felt sports was their last sanctuary,” Lipsyte said. “The way they wrote, it gave me the feeling that men were leading their wives and children to a giant rec room, and all of them were confronted with Michael Sam giving his partner the longest kiss since ‘The Princess Bride,’ and they were incredibly offended. And I wasn’t sure they were wrong to feel that way. They had been sold a bill of goods by ESPN that this wasn’t a place they would have to be afraid of real life interfering with their entertainment.”

In his ESPN.com critique, Lipsyte gave the company mostly positive reviews. But the email interactions crystallized something he had assumed for a long time.

“The average sports fan is, at best, at the center politically. If not, they’re certainly to the right of the average sports journalist,” Lipsyte said. “They still believe in the old, traditional values of sports that, when you investigate them, never really existed.”

Fans emailed ESPN after its draft broadcast to complain about the sight of Sam kissing his partner. (ESPN/AP)

It’s the steadfast belief in a comfortable, apolitical environment that actually fuels the grievance politics in sports. As resentment builds over the inability to escape, the liberal agenda is cast as a threat to enjoyment and a new, engagement-heavy area of coverage bubbles to the surface.

It is good business, but are we all acting in good faith?

Journalism is not some kind of grift. Yet there are plenty who profit in bad faith, making money, acquiring fame or basking in intentional infamy. They inspire copycats who sink even lower to get noticed.

This urge to pander to a particular audience transcends political affiliation. Liberal-leaning media members bark to their bases, too. Four years ago, Orlando Magic forward Jonathan Isaac cited his Christian faith when discussing his decisions to stand during the national anthem and not wear the Black Lives Matter T-shirt that the rest of the NBA donned during warmups. The criticism of some reporters veered toward ridicule. The eagerness to vilify “the other side” — usually on social media — complicates the less reactionary work that defines our mission.

In general, media democratization — made easier because of technology — has been beneficial. But it also spreads radical, fringe ideas that once died quickly because no infrastructure existed to distribute them with ease. Now, trouble can arrive with the push of a button.

Magic Johnson’s first retirement in 1991 prompted difficult conversations for NBA fans. (Craig Fuji/AP)

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Sport is a language to me. It is an essential form of communication, the one thing that could penetrate my childhood shyness and allow me to forge a genuine father-son relationship with my stepfather.

We bonded first over baseball. He tolerated my Chicago Cubs fandom. He introduced me to college basketball and the Louisville Cardinals. We developed trust over countless hours talking sports as the games on television drifted into background noise.

When I came home from school Nov. 7, 1991, my dad called me into my parents’ bedroom. I was 13. We watched Magic Johnson, my favorite athlete, announce his retirement from basketball because of “the HIV virus that I have attained.” Afterward, Pops stammered through a talk about sex for the first time.

Three years later, I fell in love with journalism, the perfect outlet for a high school sophomore who leaned on curiosity to socialize. I knew my purpose before I had a driver’s license.

End of carousel

The dream hasn’t always been sweet. Business keeps forcing change. I ponder our survival almost as much as our mission. The New York Times shuttered its sports department last year, relying instead on the Athletic. Sports Illustrated crawls toward its demise. In 1986, the Sporting News celebrated its 100th anniversary during a luncheon with President Ronald Reagan; in 2012, its final issue went to print. On the radio, most of sports talk is formulaic and lacks variety. On television, major networks such as ESPN may soon lose their independence as they pursue co-ownership with the leagues whose games they broadcast.

Journalism is not a synonym for media. It is a separate category, and most of us consider it our sacred responsibility to collect, distill and distribute information and commentary to the broadest audience. So all of these struggles feel personal.

“In some ways, I think the evil empire has kind of won,” Lipsyte said. “I think sportswriting has gotten a lot better, but I think there’s no real call for it anymore. Fans don’t really want real journalism. They don’t want to read the truth about their entertainers. They really don’t want to read the truth about how predatory everything around sports can be. They used to have to listen, but there are institutions happy to give them exactly what they want.”

An avalanche of credentials from Jerry Brewer’s decades pursuing his passion. (Jerry Brewer/The Washington Post)

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A friend wondered recently why I still do this job. He accused sports and sports media of being “a cesspool of ignorance.” He wanted to know what it’s like for me to be lumped in with colleagues who operate in a manner antithetical to my purpose.

I’ve wrestled with that question every day for several weeks. The search for an answer has left me ashamed, frustrated and confused. It has made me angry. At the moment, I am wistful.

Through reporting, I found empathy. If I showed sincere interest and asked the right questions, I could establish a powerful connection, often built on mutual vulnerability. Then my job was to do what I enjoyed most: retreat to solitude and write, making sense of the world one delicate, personal story at a time. When I realized sportswriting was an actual career, it felt like I would be getting paid to eat cake.

At 16, I could aspire to live a fantasy. But growing up means coming down. Perhaps I am 30 years wiser now. For certain, I am 30 years more troubled.

This is the only job I have ever had, and for a long time, it didn’t seem like work. It does now. But struggle verifies purpose.

There’s still little that moves me more than documenting the triumphs and failures of the sports world, on and off the field. The hook isn’t merely the constant stream of results. It is the striving. It is the hope that better is possible.

Through all the resentment, conflict and change, the games still compel us to tell stories about this hope. At times, we ignore it or mock it or misrepresent it. But before cynicism can get comfortable, something unimaginable inevitably happens, recycling the hope.

Then we do as Ali demanded. We eat our words.

I trust we can still be humbled.

About this series

Columns by Jerry Brewer.

Photography by Jahi Chikwendiu. Photo editing and research by Toni L. Sandys. Video editing by Joshua Carroll. Video graphics by Sarah Hashemi. Illustrations by Victoria Cassinova. Design and development by Brianna Schroer. Audio production by Bishop Sand.

Editing by Dan Steinberg and Akilah Johnson. Copy editing by Brad Windsor. Additional editing by Rushard Anderson, Brandon Carter, Matt Clough, Nicki DeMarco, Courtney Kan, Jason Murray, Matthew Rennie, Kyley Schultz and Virginia Singarayar.

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