That puts a different gloss on debates over whether the show should “stick to sports,” which started long before anchor Jemele Hill called Donald Trump a white supremacist.
On one side of that debate are people like Ben Domenech, who argues that “celebrities, comedians, and sportscasters” diminish an important good that entertainment provides when they express strong opinions. “When you ‘stick to sports,’ you are doing more than confining yourself to the field,” the conservative pundit reasoned. “You are providing a way for people who may have diametrically opposed politics to share a beer at a bar discussing quarterbacks instead of executive orders. This is valuable, particularly given that one of the factors that led to Mr. Trump’s rise is a market for outrage, on the right and the left … There is always another inch to be won, another point to be defended, and this hyper-politicization limits the space free from the culture wars Mr. Trump exploited to great effect.”
One counter-argument is that celebrities sometimes have a duty, or at least a compelling interest, to call attention to an injustice or an alarming political trajectory; that there is a reason we look back on athletes who spoke up on behalf of causes like civil rights as heroes; that staying mum in the face of evil is itself a political act; and that like it or not, millions of people look to athletes as role models. And many black athletes and much of the black talent at ESPN who cover them believe the Trump Administration poses a threat to their community, particularly in the way that it is weakening federal protections against civil-rights abuses.
The clash between those perspectives shapes the current moment, as do the decisions of individuals like Colin Kaepernick, who feels that the benefits of taking a political stand outweigh the costs. Insofar as figures within the NFL, MLB, and NBA inject themselves into politics, ESPN will get political even when “sticking to sports”––sports, it should be added, that incorporate the national anthem, flyovers by military jets, presidents throwing out first pitches, and all manner of other symbols and rituals that mark them as civic territory, not a separate realm of escapism.
But Curtis’s piece clarifies the degree to which an uptick in political content on ESPN isn’t a function of cultural elites deciding to politicize sports or to fight injustice, depending on your perspective; it is a matter of SportsCenter trying to remain what it has always been, a nightly sports show with hosts who are so up on what sports fans are talking about that they can distill the zeitgeist multiple times every evening; what’s changed is that many of those sports obsessives have spent all day in the milieu of social media, where sports is mashed up with politics and culture as never before.
To “just do sports,” even setting aside Tim Tebow praying or Lebron James wearing an “I can’t breathe” t-shirt, is to ignore what sports fans are talking about on their own initiative, and to seem out of touch on a program that has always thrived on knowing in-jokes.