Sports columnists know sports. The road most traveled to their coveted jobs winds through countless hotel rooms and mundane midseason practices as beat reporters. By the time a select few receive license to splash commentary across sports pages or even onto television broadcasts, they typically have covered thousands of games, matches, and scrimmages—and covered them straight. They’ve paid their dues.
As the rural sage has it, these crowned kings of athletic opine should “dance with the one that brung ya.” But some sports journalists reject that bit of country wisdom, and figure that their expertise on fields of play transfers to the similarly adversarial arena of politics.
Sportswriter Jason Whitlock has made a career out of that calculation, earning multiple media platforms via his knowledge of athletics only to fill his column inches with thoughts on all things political. He was at it again in early December after Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend and then killed himself. Wrote Whitlock: “We’d prefer to avoid seriously reflecting upon the absurdity of the prevailing notion that the second amendment somehow enhances our liberty rather than threatens it. … What I believe is, if he didn’t possess/own a gun, he and Kasandra Perkins would both be alive today.”
Later that same day, sports broadcaster Bob Costas quoted Whitlock’s contention in making the same argument for tighter gun control during the halftime show of Sunday Night Football. Costas received a rash of criticism for the comments, not so much for their content but for their placement on a national sports broadcast.
The following day, in an interview with CNN contributor Roland Martin, Whitlock defended the practice of sports journalists wading into political waters: “Sports gets so much attention, and so many people tune out the real world, that I try to take advantage of the opportunities to talk about the real world when sports lends itself to that, and try to open people’s eyes.” Moments later, Whitlock dropped an eye-opening bombshell: “I believe the NRA is the new KKK.” Two weeks later, in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting, Whitlock claimed vindication via Twitter: “Bob Costas and I look real stupid for mentioning we need to re-evaluate our love affair with hand guns.”
Sports journalists using their platform for political comment is not new. But the latitude their media outlets afford them may be increasing. When ESPN golf analyst Paul Azinger criticized Barack Obama in September 2011 for playing too much golf and not creating enough jobs, ESPN reprimanded Azinger and advised him “that political commentary is best left to those in that field.” Indeed, the official ESPN employee policy states that “correspondents, producers, editors, writers, public-facing talent and those involved in news assignments and coverage must avoid being publicly identified with various sides of political issues.”
But ESPN selectively enforces that policy. ESPN talk show host Stephen A. Smith routinely airs his political leanings. And ESPN Radio personality Mike Lupica has written an openly leftist political column for the New York Daily News for many years. He covered the Belcher murder-suicide with a column on gun control. And commenting on the Newtown massacre, Lupica wrote, “If these children and the others murdered by Adam Lanza with his mother’s big guns don’t change things now in this country and its laws relating to guns and gun owners, then nothing ever will.”
Much of the public consternation over such political commentary from sports journalists has to do with the historical function of sports in American society. They have long provided relief from graver concerns. American soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan relied on sports for a bit of normalcy amid the trauma of war. But that opportunity for reprieve may be fading. When the sports pages carry stories of murder and suicide, all notions of fantasy and escape are lost—no matter if sports journalists go political or report it straight.