jemele hill

Stick to sports? Most fans surely prefer that from their favored sports reporters, analysts and commentators. But especially in an election year, that can become difficult for those working in sports to completely comb politics out of their work, notably if that writer or personality is active on social media.

In his latest Media Circus discussion, Sports Illustrated‘s Richard Deitsch talked to a sampling of sports media for their thoughts on mixing politics with sports — or more specifically, sharing political views in a public forum. There was some disagreement among the panel, principally among those who make their living as reporters more than print or television pundits. But those in the opinion business felt that to do their jobs correctly, they have to be aware and willing to comment on the world we live in.

This is a complicated issue, which makes it good fodder for a panel discussion. Ideally, sports and politics wouldn’t mix in our social media feeds or programming we watch. But as ESPN’s Jemele Hill points out, even if a commentator doesn’t express an outright political view, his or her politics most likely inform the view taken on a particular subject. And what happens when politics intrudes upon a sporting event or sports story, such as when athletes use their high profile to speak out against current events or social issues? Are columnists and pundits just supposed to ignore that, sticking to sports?


On the other hand, if someone like Hill’s ESPN colleague Adam Schefter is looked to almost entirely for insider information on the NFL, do we really want to hear his views on entitlement reforms or the upcoming presidential election? Almost certainly not, and Schefter seems entirely aware of that, nearly to the point of flop sweat. This seems to be a case of “knowing your role” and “staying in your lane,” two admonitions we’ve recently heard used in a sexist circumstance, but could be applied here in a broader sense.

But it’s also a question of expectations from the media and its audience. No one expects a reporter like Schefter or Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman, who covers college football, to comment on current events or social issues. (And as we saw in Schefter’s interview with Greg Hardy, there’s probably a good reason for that.) Yet we want opinions from columnists and pundits. Expressing their views, to look at what’s going on and form a — hopefully informed — stance, is literally their job. So is it unreasonable to think that such commentators will just turn off that impulse when they see something happening that compels a response, especially when there’s an easily accessible outlet that editors won’t touch at their fingertips?

Naturally, there is concern from corporate interests about hurting the brand in some cases, which we’ve seen in recent months with ESPN and Curt Schilling. And I think most everyone can agree a writer or personality can go too far, even if he or she isn’t using a publication or network platform to express those views. In some instances, maybe the commentator has become so accustomed to stating opinions on a variety of subjects that he or she seeks to push the boundaries a bit further. In others, perhaps the pundit feels powerful enough to challenge an employer and dare that company to take action.


Personally, I feel like the people whose opinions I choose to read or listen to are smart enough that I’d prefer to hear their views on a subject. That doesn’t mean I’ll agree with the stance, and it’s often apparent when the issue has been pushed too far (especially if the commentator really doesn’t have anything new to say). I agree with the conceit that if you’re in the opinion business, you have to at least occasionally express a view on the world we live in. Otherwise, doesn’t the writer or personality seem like he or she is living in some kind of sports bubble? Once you realize that, doesn’t the commentator seem a bit less interesting?

Yet it’s completely understandable that many prefer sports and politics not to mix. Don’t we do that in our own lives? We have our sports buddies that we talk to at work, the gym, or maybe at the bar. (Or maybe restrict to social media.) And we have our friends that we’re willing to talk to about a wider variety of topics. Yeah, yeah — that was a good game, but did you see what so-and-so said about that thing yesterday? I think that’s nuts, but what do you think about it? Or maybe the conversation isn’t about politics, but life in general.

Based on the answers Deitsch received from his panel, no one appears to feel muzzled. Everyone, albeit in a small sampling, seems to know his or her lane and where boundaries on their opinions exist. But even though we’re talking about sports media, we’re also dealing with people who live in a culture that often, increasingly so, provokes a reaction. To ask them to just turn off expressing an opinion because it doesn’t involve something with athletes and a ball might be unreasonable. Besides, we all have the option of going elsewhere if we don’t like what we see or hear.

[Sports Illustrated]

About Ian Casselberry

Ian is a writer, editor, and podcaster. You can find his work at Awful Announcing and The Comeback. He's written for Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, MLive, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation.

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