Sportswriters and Politics

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Sportswriters and Politics
Apr 3, 2017

Last month, Bryan Curtis continued exploring the intersection of sport, media and politics for The Ringer with a piece called “Sportswriting Has Become a Liberal Profession.” Curtis writes that “changes in the architecture of sportswriting”—Twitter and other social media—have given professional sportswriters inclined to political commentary an alternative to sprinkling it into sports columns: “As the world burns, they turn in their power rankings and then they tweet about Trump.”

One scroll through a Merrill College student’s Twitter feed prove Curtis is right. But as writers continue to do this, their editors are often watching and asking them to hold back.

The ethics appear cloudy. Should sportswriters be allowed to express political opinions on social media? It’s a question that comes up more and more, but especially during the new administration of President Donald J. Trump.

Curtis is well aware of the problem newsroom leadership faces.

“I’m not sure what you’re supposed to do as a company nowadays,” Curtis said in a phone interview. “If you’d like to police your own sports pages or digital sports pages, are you really going to tell [an employee] they can’t be mad about something Trump did on Twitter?

“If somebody told me to do that, it wouldn’t be unreasonable, but we’re at such a moment right now and everybody’s at the barricades that I’m just not sure how effective it would be,” Curtis said.

Still, policies are in place to maintain journalistic credibility. Joe Sullivan, sports editor of the Boston Globe, says that some people in his newsroom “forget” the Globe’s policy that reporters and editors are not allowed to opine publicly about politics.

“Right after the election, there was an email sent out by one of our managing editors reminding people about the ethics policy, because with the election of Trump, people felt the need to vent in some way,” he said.

Sullivan has found it harder at times to regulate this in his own department.

“In fact, I had to send an email to one of my sportswriters yesterday telling him to stop talking about politics on Twitter,” Sullivan said. “He loves to get into political discussions on Twitter, sometimes about things like gun control, and I had to say, ‘Stop doing it. I don’t even know what you think you’re going to accomplish discussing gun control on Twitter. What could that possibly solve?’”

The Globe’s ethics policy, Sullivan said, was based on the New York Times’ “Ethical Journalism” handbook, because the Times owned the Globe when it was drafted. Jason Stallman, sports editor of the New York Times, said the Times’ sports department “abides by the same rules of the road that apply to the entire newsroom,” with minimal bumps.

“The Sports staff has been good about honoring these guidelines. There have been a few instances of missteps, but those were mostly cases of careless writing on social media that came across the wrong way,” Stallman wrote in an email.

The phenomenon is not exclusive to the coasts. As sports editor of the Kansas City Star, Jeff Rosen has witnessed an increase in journalists tweeting opinions too. The Star often re-examines and updates its social media policy, Rosen said, and he expects this issue will be on the table as 2017 marches on.

“Social media’s kind of changed the conversation because it’s more conversational,” Rosen said. “Having just gone through a very interesting election cycle, we saw the idea that in general, people in the newsroom should refrain from taking sides on political matters, tested more than we have in the past.”

Although the Star is located in Missouri, a red state, Rosen pointed out that not only do cities tend to lean further left, “newsrooms, too, are traditionally going to lean Democratic.”

This was Curtis’ thesis about the state of sport media from the start: that the profession is now so populated by liberal people that “there’s at least a social price to pay for being a conservative” in the press box.

His article provoked commentators on the left and right alike: “We’ve been here all along,” Shireen Ahmed wrote in Paste Magazine about liberal sportswriters, but they need to consider if their apparent hegemony “is encouraging sloppiness and arrogance in their thinking,” according to Michael Brendan Dougherty in The Week.

Worse, Ahmed also held Curtis up as a white man giving too much credit to white men, failing to mention online outlets like espnW (aimed at women), The Undefeated (a site focused on the intersection of race, sports and culture) and Outsports (a voice for LGBT athletes ) that “have committed resources to amplifying voices of sports writers and journalists who cover issues like race, culture, gender and systems of oppression in sports.”

For his part, Curtis said it was a great point, and that he “absolutely” should have included those examples.

“Sportswriting is less white and male than it was 20 or 30 years ago, even if it is still awfully white and male, and that is certainly part of what we’re talking about,” Curtis said.

The fact that Curtis’ piece begat these reaction essays may be proof that the sports-politics joinder won’t be undone—think of the sheer amount of content. Another factor, though, is the increase of outlets like the ones Ahmed pointed out and what they do. In part due to the rise of athlete activism in the new millennium, social issues and political statements seep into sports news coverage more than before, making the commentary on such things harder to avoid. (Colin Kaepernick is Exhibit A, but hardly the only evidence.)

Rosen acknowledged that if athletes want to stand up for a cause they believe in, they should, but the constant coverage of social issues within sport was trickier.

“A columnist that works for me may on occasion have a deep desire to write about social issues through the lens of sports, and on occasion, at the right moment, I think that’s appropriate,” Rosen said. “But then again, I don’t think that’s really what the readers are tuning in to get from us when it comes to sports on a day-to-day basis.”

Sullivan said he doesn’t buy into what he calls the “Trump hysteria,” and that news journalists should focus on the “bigger issues” of his presidency, “not the smaller, petty issues.”

“I think if we delve off in the sports area, I think that’s where we bind ourselves. It’s really unimportant in the larger context of his presidency,” Sullivan said.

There’s more to the socio political landscape than an unpopular president, though, and Curtis did write “there was always a coven of liberals in sportswriting.” Before the end of his phone interview, he recalled a lede Shirley Povich wrote after African American running back Jim Brown scored three touchdowns against the Washington Redskins, who in 1963 were the only NFL team yet to have signed a black player: “Jim Brown, born ineligible to play for the Redskins, integrated their end zone three times yesterday.”

“There was a ‘woke’ sportswriter if there ever was one,” Curtis said.

Adam Zielonka is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism.

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