I don’t read enough sports journalism to have an informed opinion about it. My interest in the more fine-grained, behind the scenes aspects of sports waned around the time this country geared up to invade Iraq and I suddenly had higher priorities. I still watch sports, although with less interest and intensity, but I hardly ever read about them. Still, I can discern a few things even from my remove.
One is that the leagues have become more international and diverse than ever. This is happening to the country at large, as well, but not at the same pace. As a result, the culture of your average NBA or NFL or baseball locker room is much more like the culture of Miami than it is like the culture of Dayton, Ohio.
If you want to cover these teams and these players, you need to understand and respect their values, which are both multicultural and millennial. And if they’re out of step with tradition or with their largely white non urban fan bases, that isn’t a knock on the players because they didn’t create this cultural gulf.
Now, Michael Brendan Dougherty may be a conservative sports writer, and that might make him more attuned to the worldview of the average fan of the Oklahoma City Thunder, but it doesn’t make him more attuned to the people who are out on the floor dribbling the ball.
His critiques of liberal sports writers probably have a lot of validity. I think the liberal writers are probably alienated from the players they’re covering, too. But the most recent debate in sports that caught my attention was over how fans of the St. Louis Cardinals treated their new free agent signee from the World Series champion Chicago Cubs. Dexter Fowler voiced opposition to President Trump’s travel ban because it impacted his family personally. His wife has family in Iran. His reward for speaking up was to be told to “shut up and play.”
Other athletes from the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots have been similarly criticized for refusing to travel to the White House because they are opposed to Trump’s politics, particularly the travel ban.
This conservative backlash can be seen regularly when Hollywood stars like, more recently, Meryl Streep, speak out against Republican policies.
As a journalist, you can stick to reviewing movies and games, or you can bring the actors and athletes to life a little bit by trying to understand them and what drives their success and their decisions. If you’re covering a more conservative culture, like auto racing, then the same holds true. It’s not necessary or helpful to be judgmental about the people you’re covering, and you should at least strive to portray them accurately and with respect, if possible.
Where I think the problem arises is that although there is a growing cultural chasm between the culture of the locker rooms and the culture of the fans, it’s the fans who are the primary consumer of sports journalism. And they are feeling like their values aren’t respected. They know that the players don’t agree with them about #BlackLivesMatter or Trump or discriminating against gays. They don’t want this pointed out to them by the players or the journalists who cover the players. And if the journalists take the players’ side, then the journalists are out of touch and elitist and arrogant.
It’s a mistake to blame the journalists for this. It’s just a symptom of something that is plaguing our entire society right now.