“There’s no bigger indication that the times have changed,” Jim Miller, journalist and co-author of the 2011 book “Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN,” told CNN Business.
“Sometimes, as African Americans, we know being on the side of right there has to be some uncomfortability for people to actually pay attention to it,” Smith told CNN Business when he reflected on his walkout. “I wish there was a society where you don’t have to do things to get attention, but that hasn’t been the case in any form for our communities.”
The media has long struggled with how to cover the intersection of sports and politics, with management at ESPN and Deadspin opting to concentrate on the former and shy away from the latter. But amid a pandemic that forced sports to go dark and a national reckoning over race, sports journalists are learning that the firewall between sports and politics has vanished, if it ever existed.
“Stick to sports”
In some cases, the “stick to sports” refrain comes from readers rather than management.
During her more than two decades covering sports, USA Today sports columnist Nancy Armour said she has received feedback from readers asking her to keep politics out of sports whenever her columns touch on social issues.
Armour said she has been writing about sports and activism with increasing frequency lately, but the intersection of sports and politics is nothing new.
“Jackie Robinson was the face of desegregation. That was political. Billie Jean King fought for equal pay and equal rights for women. That’s political. The NFL got money from the service branches to have their representatives at games. That’s political,” Armour said.
“They had all this quote unquote research that suggested the viewers didn’t want to hear any of it,” Miller said. “They put that all on the audience, but it was clear that they were more comfortable.”
ESPN spokesperson Mike Soltys insists that the company’s stance on political coverage is “often mischaracterized.”
“We have said we aren’t covering pure politics, but clearly we cover it when it intersects with sports, including in the last 24 hours as the sports world became a focal point of social unrest,” Soltys told CNN Business last Thursday during the NBA strike.
“Deadspin’s mandate is to do sports stories we think matter, whether it be on racial injustice, gender disparities, LGBTQ rights, the environment, or who won the game last night,” a G/O Media spokesperson told CNN Business. “Where sports meets life, essentially, is what we want to explore, examine and question.”
She said former colleagues in previous newsrooms where she worked have dismissed sports reporters by saying they should stick to game recaps and player performance.
“There’s this version of stay in your lane,” Moskovitz added. “If some real news happens, don’t worry we’ll call one of the White House correspondents because they’re the real reporters.”
“They’re tired of asking nicely”
“They’re tired of asking nicely,” Armour said. “What more can they do? This is it. They said we’re going to take our ball and we’re going to sit this one out until we get at least an effort to get the kind of action we want.”
Black Lives Matter taking center stage in sports should come as no surprise since sports are played by “human beings, American citizens,” Moskovitz said, noting that the athletes in some leagues, such as the NBA and the NFL, “the vast majority are Black.”
“Police brutality affects their everyday lives,” Moskovitz told CNN Business. “Even if they are millionaires, they are still Black. Of course, they’re going to talk about that because how could they not?”
Hill wasn’t available to comment for this story, but she made similar remarks to CNN’s Jim Sciutto last week.
“They want America to listen to what it’s like to really be Black in America in this country, and to understand the racism that they still even face despite being pro-athletes, despite having these platforms and making millions of dollars and often, in many moments, they’re reminded that they’re Black,” Hill said.
And it’s not just the Black Lives Matter movement. Athletes have spoken out against “inequality, sexism and misogyny, especially in women’s athletics,” Moskovitz said. “To tell them to not talk about that with the platform they have is just denying them their humanity.”
It’s also clear that some reporters will not stay silent about politics and social issues, either.
“You have so many instances where you’re gunned down just because of the color of your skin,” he added. “As a Black man, I’m tired of this. I’m tired of waking up and seeing stuff like this.”