I’d imagine that “stick to sports” is one of the most ubiquitous and historically blind phrases that have ever graced the lips of sports media executives. It’s a phrase that emphasizes leaving everything but sports off the court, especially politics.
Controversy about “sticking to sports” seems to pop up every few months. An NBA executive sparks an international incident that raises legitimate questions about how corporations should balance financial success and free speech: The call rings from the network offices, “stick to sports.” A prominent athlete uses his platform to protest a political climate that encourages and exacerbates racism: “Shut up and dribble,” cries the cable news pundit. A football player takes a knee to protest police brutality: “Get that son of a b— off the field,” yells the president of the United States.
I completely understand why some people might appreciate a complete separation of athletics and politics. Sports offers a subject of conversation and debate that has no actual ramifications on the well-being of anybody but the athletes involved. In this way, it offers an escape from the everyday stresses of real life. I can picture many a person who, upon returning home from work and and dropping onto their couch, would like nothing else than to block out the fighting between factions dominating Washington D.C. with the fighting between factions on Thursday Night Football.
I feel this temptation myself, from time to time. When I want to watch political coverage, I turn on CNN. When I want to watch sports, I turn on ESPN. Very rarely do those two desires arise at the same time.
That’s probably the understanding G/O Media had last week when, in the wake of President Trump’s hostile reception at the World Series, it told its subsidiary, Deadspin, to stick to sports. The employees at Deadspin, a sports blog famed precisely for not sticking to sports, responded immediately with articles about anything but sports. Kelsey McKinney wrote about acceptable wedding dress codes, Tom Ley shared his account of three dogs he met in Mexico, and Dan McQuade posted a video of a pumpkin thief who could have easily ran a 4.4 or faster at the NFL combine. All three stories, quite obviously, had nothing to do with athletics.
The very next day, G/O Media fired acting editor Barry Petchesky for “not sticking to sports.”
In the days that followed, Deadspin employees lived out the ultimate workplace fantasy—by Nov. 1, every Deadspin writer and editor had resigned. Last Wednesday saw even more carnage with the departure of Paul Maidment, the executive who penned G/O Media’s “stick to sports” memo.
In the context of this current sports media market, where even the venerable Sports Illustrated is cutting costs by supplanting salaried journalists with unpaid contributors, this was a remarkably courageous step to take. It’s far from guaranteed that the ex-Deadspin staff will find gainful employment in the industry anytime soon. However, with its dying breath (no pun intended), Deadspin serves to reaffirm why sports journalists all across the country cannot—and never have been able to—stick to sports.
Journalism is inherently challenging to those in power. As a consequence, or even perhaps a goal, of their investigations, journalists often uncover truths that societal leaders would prefer stay hidden. While the topics sportswriters cover may not approach the level of seriousness as the investigations detailed in “All the President’s Men” or “Spotlight,” the powerful figures of the sports world still have secrets that they would prefer not be exposed. I’d be shocked if Bud Selig was pleased with the coverage about the performance-enhancing drug scandal in baseball, and I’d doubt that Roger Goodell called to congratulate Bob Ley after ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” focused weeks on covering concussions in the NFL. True journalism, in sports as well as other fields, has always been focused on telling complete and unvarnished stories to readers, regardless of whichever politicians or leaders might disapprove.
And, like it or not, sports has always been political. Athletes will invariably use their massive platforms to try to bring about social change. Think about it: If you were a household name with the opportunity to be seen by thousands day in and day out, wouldn’t you try and champion a cause you’re passionate about as well? From Muhammad Ali to Megan Rapinoe, from Jackie Robinson to Colin Kaepernick, from Jesse Owens to Pat Tillman, athletes have and will continue to fight for what they believe in. To suggest that networks can cover sports in a manner that avoids politics would be a display of either ignorance or willful self-deceit.
So when a journalist, dedicated to exposing the truth and standing up to powerful interests, is assigned to cover an athlete expressing their political beliefs, the only possible outcome that stays true to the spirit of both journalism and free speech is to publish a political story. This might annoy your readers, or anger your boss, or even cost you your job, but it also allows you to go to bed at night knowing you lived up to the ethical standards of your profession.
There will still be times where I’d rather watch Tobias Harris over Kamala Harris, or Rudy Ruettiger over Rudy Giulani, or Cory Booker (tight end, Stanford, 1991) over Cory Booker (U.S. Senator, presidential candidate). But if you work in the sports media industry, please don’t change your programming on my account. Be brave, be thoughtful, and, if you’re anything like the Deadspin staff, know when to stand by what you know is right.
Drew Kushnir can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.