Left-Wing Sportscasters and Professional Athletes: Master and Plantation

| December 10 2013
John Harris

Eulogies for just-departed communists, convicted in open court of producing and plotting to deploy hundreds of bombs, generally leave me cold.  Yet I was sufficiently moved by Glenn Beck’s praise of Nelson Mandela that I would be quite willing to remove my hat and bow my head for a moment.  What I am about to write, then, is in nowise intended as disparagement of Mandela’s memory.  To find ESPN airing an impromptu and rather protracted review of the man’s life and achievements this past Thursday afternoon, however, struck me as… odd.  I’m confident that channels devoted to cartoons and channels devoted to cooking did no such thing, and the people involved in directing those enterprises are likely to be just as humane and conscientious as anybody at ESPN.  To come at this curiosity from another direction, I very much doubt that ESPN aired any retrospective in the wake of Ronald Reagan’s death.  I understand that Mandela had some surprising connections to the sporting life of his nation; but then, the Gipper made several pretty successful films about American sports heroes.

Whether or not my suspicions are justified in this particular case really doesn’t matter.  The aggressive, if sometimes subtle, political parti pris with which I am charging ESPN is not news.  Bob Costas has made nauseating political sanctimony behind a thin veil of sports reporting legendary.  And the fumes of this malodorous piety do not begin or end at any one network.  I’m a little confused, frankly, over the intricacies of Supernanny Bob’s contractual commitments: he seems to poke his PC nose around the edges of sporting events with an indifference to network boundaries that Kilroy would have envied in his bid for ubiquity.  Certainly the NFL doesn’t begrudge anyone a soapbox for preaching progressivism these days.  The Miami Dolphins didn’t circle their wagons around locker-room “bully” Richie Incognito any longer than it took the words “racial slur” to leak into the mainstream media.  Now we learn that football’s front office has refused Daniel Defense, a home security company, permission to air a perfectly innocuous, detonation-free ad during next year’s Superbowl on the grounds that… well, something about how defending oneself might prove lethal to one’s assailant.  This from the people who gave us Joe Theisman’s shattered leg, an image I’ve never been able to forget.  Ah, but all of that is changing in the NFL’s “new culture”!  I predict that within the next fifty years, the same execs might consider banning ads for video games that prime young minds to become sociopathic mass-murderers: not actually ban them, but consider a ban.

As far as I know, nobody but yours truly protested in print against Ken Rosenthal’s characterization of warring Baseball Hall of Fame voters (a year ago now on the MLB Network) as displaying Tea Party savagery and fury.  Or consider this fall.  Distinctly absent from any of the dozens of interviews of National League Rookie of the Year José Fernandez was a question—a single question—about why he and his mother risked their lives to flee Cuba.  The story of his fishing Mama out of the Caribbean upon her sliding off their overcrowded raft makes great print and great TV; but sports journalists everywhere seem convinced that no one among their clientele wants to hear about despotism in Castro’s Cuba.  After all, this is sports, not politics.  And if ESPN preempts normal broadcasting to run an hour special on the afternoon of Fidel Castro’s death, the reason will be only and entirely because Castro played baseball in his youth.

I’ve been pondering this connection between the broadcast of sports and the political Left for some time now—because it doesn’t seem natural, in a way.  Most consumers of sporting events are two-fisted blue-collar types, not tree-hugging transvestites.  Then again, most journalists have always been liberal: it goes with considering “news” as important, to begin with.  (For if that paleo-conservative, Ecclesiastes, is right that there’s nothing new under the sun, then why report?—but if our destiny lies in constant movement, then following the needle of current events is critical.)  Furthermore, baseball writers—the only sportswriters there were for a long time—used to travel with the team.  They peered into more transgression than a priest taking confessions before Easter, and they had to be at least as discreet as a priest to keep the trust of their subjects.  An attitude of somewhat cynical worldliness is bound to have evolved from such an itinerant and stimulant-laden lifestyle.

Yet in today’s conscience-of-society sportscaster we have a naïf, not a roué.  This generation of hacks doesn’t give love to labor unions and social welfare programs because its recruits grew up in mining towns, or because the heroes of its yarns did.  That was true in the days of riding trains from Bean Town to Mo-Town to Saint Louie.  For instance, on the ’61 Yankees, Mickey Mantle was the son of a coal miner, Roger Maris of a railroad worker, and Tony Kubek of a factory laborer.  Baseball was still largely a blue-collar business; and if those who reported on it were not already ideologically aligned against unfettered big business, watching ill-educated young men do battle every single year with a front office legally empowered to treat them as livestock would have worked a conversion.  The game’s nefarious Reserve Clause would remain the law of the land for more than a decade; and the Red Sox’ bigoted ownership of ’61, swimming in power, had only just desegregated the one team left in Boston.  The alliance between deep-pocketed business magnates, politicians, and the legal sector has always been indigestible to any decent person, and it was no less so then.

But this, once again, is old news.  Today’s performers in virtually every sport are millionaires warring with millionaires over multi-year contracts—and the legal representation on both sides is pretty evenly matched.  In a way, many players remain the tongue-tied children of the proletariat’s bottom rung; but even the fatherless waifs recruited from the slums and boondocks to run back kick-offs and sink three-pointers have some nominal exposure to college along the way.  It is baseball’s current situation, ironically, that brings the socio-economic extremes together as does no other sport.  Football was once a college boy’s game: now virtually all American-born baseball players, as well, are drafted out of the college ranks (as Bill Veeck predicted would happen—he who first wanted to integrate baseball, by the way, and was stonewalled by calculating, penny-pinching wheeler-dealers like Branch Rickey).  Most ballplayers have in fact walked a golden path to their position in the college line-up, beginning with Daddy’s domination of the tee-ball team and ending with lessons from retired big-leaguers and trips to expensive try-out camps.  Trust me on that: I could write a book about it.

At the same time, even our gangster-from-the-ghetto football stars have nothing in their past to compare with the squalor in which many Latino baseball players grew up.  Fernandez’s case is but one.  The Dominican Republic is actually a far more prolific breeding ground for stars than Cuba—and the poverty which was the only known face of reality to these children before some scout stumbled upon their sandlot-and-broomstick game is difficult for Americans to imagine.  While Stan Musial surely had it hard growing up in pollution-drenched Donora, Pennsylvania (where twenty people suffocated during a 1948 smog event), these kids have it hard just finding a pair of shoes and a third meal each day.

Now, with so much “diversity” around them, the white “boys of summer” have learned nothing from their college classes if they haven’t grasped the need to stay PC in their language and to shut up about politics.  Most of them are not political progressives—not with all those money-bags dads buying $300 metal-alloy bats for them every month.  They have been made to kneel at the altar of multiculturalism often enough, however, that they understand what bad PR it is to speak out against the Costas-crazed rhetorical miasma around them.  PC is PR.  Defending the Second Amendment or opposing gay marriage or declining to dress in pink for Breast Cancer Awareness is all equivalent to rank racism in the Brave New Wonderful World of Sports—and a charge of racism could garner a quick trade or even end a career.  (The jury is still out on Incognito… but it doesn’t look good.)  Play your hand close to the vest.  Make your investments, make your political contributions… but in your Tweets and in front of the camera, just shut up about your convictions.

For the critical fact is that the press is calling the shots now.  Our nicotine-stained, key-pecking hack of yesteryear may have faked his trade-unionist sympathies a bit (though not much) just to curry favor with the stars whose interviews buttered his bread; but the talking heads of today are king-makers—and Robespierres.  They were quick enough to throw Michael Vick under the proverbial bus for doing with dogs what undocumented workers in my town do every weekend with cocks (or with bulls, back in the old country).  They exude sympathy for an NFL star whose putative child—he has so many by such a large harem that he apparently isn’t sure—was killed by the child’s mother’s boyfriend; yet they went silent when another star did hard time for the unpardonable sin of carrying a piece—for self-defense—in New York.  They clarioned Stan Musial’s enthusiastic support of JFK when The Man recently passed away (George Vecsey’s new biography is topheavy with such pimping); yet one would never learn from them that Albert Pujols is an admirer of Glenn Beck’s, unless one filed a story under the banner, “Will Appearance at Beck Rally Harm Pujols?”  La Maquina’s Latin pedigree somewhat insulates him, at least for now.  Even that weather-proofing, however, is not impenetrable.  One may well wonder how much of Alex Rodriguez’s horrendous press is the result of his having openly supported Mitt Romney against our Beloved Dictator and Prophet.  Of the dozens and dozens of stories I have seen and heard chronicling Arod’s latest implication in Performance-Enhancing Drugs and scoffing at his denials, not a one has ever pondered the extreme ease with which any star might be thus set up.  All editorial: no investigation.

So I return, finally, to my original question: whence this radical Left inclination of the sportscasting profession?  Sportscasters today, like baseball players (at least home-grown ones), are far more likely to have attended college than their predecessors.  Colleges are Petrie Dishes of progressivism.  These, then, are not beat-writers who have observed the soiled underbelly of the metropolitan human up-close-and-personal and brought to their new gig a mild disgust for same-as-usual society and politics.  Not at all: these are children of privilege who know nothing of life’s squalor, feel the humiliation of that ignorance, and are determined—egotistically—to compensate for it by championing groups they have identified as downtrodden.  The constant necessity for this project, of course, is an ample supply of The Downtrodden.  (I learned a long time ago that Ivory Tower “deconstructionist” logic applies to nothing so well as to liberal-progressive thinking.)  Where may we find these downtrodden?  Among the rude, the impoverished—the backward.  Where may we find a reliable stock of the backward?  In sports, naturally; for who would dedicate his life (muses the child of privilege) to playing a stupid game except someone who was a) stupid or b) handicapped by social and economic setbacks?

The contemporary elite sportscaster, then, who seems better suited temperamentally to be a concert violinist or a market analyst, dedicates his life to a realm that teems with voiceless, clueless adults—a fleet of young men in desperate need of someone, some Moses or some Bolivar, to speak on their behalf and lead them to freedom.  The perfect job would be Chief Legal Counsel to the Players’ Union… but that doesn’t come open very often.  The opportunities for sportscasters are infinitely more generous (and the credentials infinitely more flexible).  While he or she doesn’t really get to lead the downtrodden anywhere, the sports analyst may at least, Ken-Burns like, study the collective struggle of this proletarian sector against the forces of capitalist oppression and cultural bigotry.  Maybe he can lead the ignorant bourgeois masses sprawled in their recliners out of complacency.

He’ll try, anyway.  But the damn players have to remember that they’re downtrodden—including the stupid white college jocks.  A Bob Costas needs shoeless white hicks with Clintonesque accents and roguish lovability.  He needs blacks down on the plantation; he needs paisanos rumbling around as itinerant fruit-pickers.  He needs, at any rate, the contemporary incarnation of such social pawns on the playing fields of twenty-first century America.  The “narrative” is always a struggle of oppressed against oppressor, of disenfranchised against political insider.  Maybe, too, there is a certain satisfaction in being able to impose oneself as the brain of that magnificent but brainless organism with whom one could never keep up on the childhood playground.

Vanitas vanitatem, sayeth the Preacher: all is vanity.  If idiot athletes victimized by the Establishment did not exist, the sportscasting “evangel” of the progressive Left would have to invent them; and if athletes are no longer the hayseeds and analphabetic exiles they once were… then they had better impersonate blunt oafs off the field to play the greater game.