In recent years, preventing sports and politics from overlapping has become increasingly contentious.
Between a global pandemic, civil unrest, international war, and intense domestic polarization and animosity, athletes have become more outspoken about political and social issues than ever before. This trend is well documented.
However, where do sports journalists find themselves in this balancing act between sports and politics? Where should they be? What do the journalists themselves think?
“This is a somewhat tricky question because if you are talking about the person, then the obvious answer is ‘yes,’ in my opinion. However, if you are talking about the role (journalist) then it is more complicated,” says Tim Mirabito, an assistant professor of journalism and sport media at Ithaca College and a sports journalist. “In the former, no one should be precluded from engaging in public discourse — political or otherwise — which is protected by the First Amendment. That does not mean there won’t be repercussions of voicing political views, but the freedom to do so is there. The people who are sports journalists are entitled to hold and share their viewpoints like any other person in this country.”
Robert Herzog, who retired in 2018 after a 46-year career as a sports journalist, has a slightly different take.
“My personal policy is to never share political opinions publicly,” he says.
In 2017, ESPN suspended Jemele Hill after two separate instances of her wading into the political world. She first stirred controversy when she referred to then-President Donald Trump as a “white supremacist” in a tweet. The latter tweet prompted Trump to call for her firing, and Hill noted that her actions “painted ESPN in an unfair light.” Shortly thereafter, Hill was under fire again after she tweeted that people should “boycott” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ advertisers. This incident came amid the vitriolic debate surrounding Colin Kaepernick’s protest of kneeling during the national anthem, which Jones publicly criticized and forbade within his organization.
My personal policy is to never share political opinions publicly.
“I fully respect Hill’s right to express her opinion and to create dialogue around important social topics, especially within sports. At the end of the day, though, sports and media are businesses. The powers that be in the NFL, ESPN, etc., have a relationship that is very profitable. Any dialogue that could be harmful to that relationship is not good for both of those businesses,” says Eric C. Esterline, the Director of Sports Journalism and Communication at the University of Florida.
“I hated it,” Mirabito says. “This was an example of ESPN, at least from my standpoint, purposefully moving to the middle ground on a topic that they did not want to engage with. That is a corporate tactic.”
SPORTS & POLITICS
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic, the murder of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement and the summer of social unrest that followed forced the intersection of sports and politics into the limelight. Athletes protested with average citizens, shared their experiences of racial discrimination, and shared their opinions on what had been done correctly or incorrectly about the pandemic.
During the first round of the 2020 NBA playoffs in the Disney “Bubble,” when the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play a game against the Orlando Magic after video emerged of police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shooting Jacob Blake, CNN published a piece that essentially declared the end of the “stick to sports” era for sports media members. The tension and fervor of that moment were undeniable, but three years removed from those moments, there are many shades of grey.
‘IT IS THE ORGANIZATION’S BRAND’
“As a news organization, they have every right to forbid journalists from using their platform to move their personal political agenda forward. Ultimately, it is the organization’s brand. If a managing editor, news director or program director said don’t add your commentary to this story because it detracts from objectivity, then journalists should adhere to that. They may explore ways to engage with the topic in their own ability, but not on the news organization’s pages or airwaves,” Mirabito says.
The problems we face as a country and as a global population are not going away soon. War is raging in Europe for the first time since the end of World War II. Tensions between the United States and China, the two great world superpowers, are higher than ever. The climate crisis has arrived and is already beginning to affect lives worldwide. Perhaps the most consequential presidential election in American history is merely 15 months away.
Conversations about such topics are difficult because of intense polarization between deeply entrenched camps, who view any comment on these issues and others as making a kind of political declaration. In all likelihood, sports journalists will broadly seek to avoid these issues, but it will become increasingly difficult. They are citizens like anybody else and undoubtedly have strong beliefs about these issues and others.
They are within their rights to speak on these issues. However, at one point, does their freedom of speech impede their employers’ bottom line? At what point does their speaking out cross the line? Like all those aforementioned problems domestically and abroad, the issue concerning the place of sports journalists speaking out on political and social issues is far from being resolved.