The Lyin’ Biased Sports Media

Bryan Curtis of The Ringer asks (and answers) the question: How Sportswriting Became Such a Liberal Profession?

The piece is interesting both for its open admission of journalistic bias – Curtis himself identifies as a “liberal” i.e. a Progressive, who approves of the takeover – but even more so for the question it doesn’t ask: what took so long?

For Curtis, sportswriting became progressive basically because everyone else was doing it. Curtis’s self-assurance is remarkable (to me) though because the sports world challenges every thread of the Progressive narrative, from race to economics to governance and to values. It’s amazing that sportswriters (like Curtis) could become so unapologetically “liberal” despite, y’know, sports.

Curtis is emphatic that sportswriting skews way Left:

Today, sportswriting is basically a liberal profession, practiced by liberals who enforce an unapologetically liberal code.

It’s not an accident; it’s what the folks doing the hiring want to see:

There was a time when filling your column with liberal ideas on race, class, gender, and labor policy got you dubbed a “sociologist.” These days, such views are more likely to get you a job.

Bias has gotten so pervasive, it’s actually become difficult to find commentators that don’t repeat the Progressive party line:

Last year, Slate’s Josh Levin went searching for the voices who were dinging Colin Kaepernick for his national anthem protest. Levin found conservatives like Tomi Lahren and a couple of personalities from FS1. In the old days, such voices would have filled up half the sports columns, easy.

[Update: I’m not entirely convinced that sportswriters are all that biased. I agree that they’re generally more skewed Left than their audience (or the population at large) and that thinking the wrong stuff gets people fired (Schilling) and suspended (Clevinger), but sportswriters are better than politics or economics writers when it comes to even-handedness, perhaps for the reasons set forth below. But it’s Curtis’ story that I’m responding to specifically, so I’ll give him the floor.]

Later in his column, Curtis offers a number of reasons why things have changed – social media, Obama, evidence-based reasoning(!) – but I won’t go into them at length because (a) that’s what Curtis is for; and (b) my interest is that they are all iterations of the same basic point:

there was once a social and professional price to pay for being a noisy liberal. Now, there’s at least a social price to pay for being a conservative.

Bear with me while I editorialize a bit, but Curtis’s argument is essentially that sportswriting became progressive because the cultural elite wouldn’t tolerate anything else, and in the era of Obama’s Progressive triumphalism, they didn’t have to. (Curtis fondly notes that the “Obama administration was a dream time for liberal sportswriters, who had a president who talked about sports like they did“.) As Curtis himself proudly puts it, sportswriting became progressive because:

revolutionary ideas [became] a ruling philosophy  . . . [and] the former insurgents g[ot] the run of the place.

Well then.

According to Curtis (sort of), the president and social media gave progressive sports journos the assurance that they were not alone in their moral superiority. The long arch of justice required that rigid ideological commitment should be rewarded – nay, demanded – of athletes, fellow writers, league executives – whomever – on pain of social, professional and legal censure. Just ask back-up no-name catcher, Steve Clevinger, what happens when you speak improvidently of the wrong protesters or president.

That Curtis proudly wears his Thought-Police Badge, while celebrating the ideological purge of his industry is sadly unremarkable (but that won’t stop me from remarking). It’s (yet another) testament to the toxicity and power of Progressive cultural ascendancy, but that’s a given at this point.

What’s really amazing is that sports itself is so un-Progressive, but that still didn’t (a) stop the purge; or (b) dampen Curtis’s victory dance in the slightest.

For example, sports suggests that everything Progressives tell us about race is wrong. Minorities are wildly “over represented” relative to the population. Black athletes somehow overcame outright bigotry to become not only wildly successful, but globally iconic (even in flyover country). Indeed, sports shows that naked self-interest and a desire to win (and profit) are highly effective at overcoming racial animus. A sport like hockey also demonstrate that racial disparities can involve self-selection and culture, and not necessarily racism.

Hell, sports is one of the last true bastions of viewpoint diversity where country-boys meet the city kids and city kids meet the religious kids and the religious kids meet everyone else. Athletes know something about the world outside their upbringing, and they understand how having money can make you a target (and not necessarily a bad person). Athletes emphatically understand that the Press is not your friend.

Sports is meritocratic, hard-working and winner-take-all. To the determined and talented go the spoils and only losers blame bad luck. There is no shortage of physically gifted flameouts that never put in the time or effort to play past their rookie contracts. Sports celebrates strength, achievement, fair play, rule-following and most of all *gasp* fierce and unrelenting competition. Dum dum dummmm.

Even some of the examples that Curtis cites of an emerging Progressive consensus are in fact free-enterprisey (i.e. very un-Progressive). Underpaid (and unpaid) athletes? That’s what happens when a cartel controls a labor market [or any market], dummies. Sports drafts as something akin to slavery? Well, that’s how the medical profession and the academy operate . . . say no Progressives ever. It’s not A-Rod’s fault for signing with the highest bidder? No shit, comrade.

Curtis himself notes the conflict between the Progressive desire to condemn and destroy the scourge of sexual assault at any cost, and their desire to protect young Black men from the living hell of criminal prosecution. Goodness it’s confusing when you’re confronted with consequences that aren’t supposed to exist. Pondering the two outcasts, Michael Vick and Ray Rice, Curtis wonders:

And there’s another liberal ideal at stake here: that criminals who’ve paid their debt to society ought to have a chance to re-enter it. In 2010, Barack Obama congratulated the owner of the Eagles for giving Michael Vick a job after he was released from prison. Rice’s bad acts were very different from Vick’s. But say Rice got another NFL job after his apology tour. Would a sportswriter have written an encomium to the owner who signed Rice? Should they have? It’s an awfully tough question.

What’s even more astonishing is that sportswriters could go so Whole-Hog Progressive even though they’ve been remarkably good at separating narrative from evidence – at least as journalists go. There are still some holdouts, but the blogger nerds with their spreadsheets long ago showed that virtues like grit, veteran leadership, clutchness, hot handedness, hard-fistedness, etc. were often, if not exclusively, supported with anecdotal evidence and whole lot of myth-making (confirmation bias, recency bias, etc.). They also demonstrated how statistics can be used very badly, if for example the thing they count is not all that meaningful in real life, like batting average or ERA.

Curtis describes sports journalism’s predilection for data as follows:

If liberals have a long-standing delusion, it’s that the presentation of hard data (about everything from climate change to “voter fraud”) will win the masses to their cause. But within sportswriting, this is actually true.

I’m biased, but I think it’s more accurate to describe the Progressive “delusion” as the same one that afflicts the Old School sports guys who insist that “hard data” like Saves and Wins tell you something interesting about the quality of the pitcher. Sportswriters have been hard on the Old School types, so it’s surprising that sportswriters wouldn’t be more skeptical of Progressive statistical claims made about wagespolicing or rape culture.

Anyway.

I suppose one thing that sportswriters and Progressives (and ALL political parties) have in common is that they both sell team sports. Electoral politics and sports reward dedicated coalitions of single issue customers. If you’re a sports fan, just listen to the home broadcast of the opposing team. It’s like Fox News to the MSNBC crowd – the announcers will be describing the same game you’re watching, but it won’t sound the same. Politics and sports also involve zero sum, winner-take-all games, where increasing your own stature (offense) is just as beneficial as reducing your adversaries (defense). Both sports and political fans root for their team and genuinely loath the bad guys. It’s weird and tribal.

But that’s always been true, so I’m going to agree with Curtis that the overriding power of the Progressive cultural war is what ultimately forced sports journalism into the herd.

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