The Politics of the Broadcast Booth

By John Buell

From what sources do Americans shape their political views? With the election now behind us, many Americans will crawl into a political cocoon and avoid like the plague any explicit discussion of politics. They will watch fewer news programs, have fewer political discussions at work or with family and neighbors. Nonetheless, politics is inescapable. Sports programming, often seen as supposedly a refuge from the concerns of daily life, is rife with politics, at least of a particularly narrow sort.

Corporate sports broadcasting today portrays itself as politically neutral. And media leadership has rid itself of broadcasters deemed guilty of racist or sexist slurs. Thus over the years, CBS fired “Jimmy the Greek Snyder” for claiming during a radio interview that African Americans were naturally superior because they had been bred to produce stronger offspring during slavery. Years later CBS fired Ben Wright for demeaning comments about women golfers.

More recently, ESPN removed Rush Limbaugh in the aftermath of his suggestion that Donovan McNabb was the darling of football analysts, who, for reasons of political correctness, sought to elevate a black quarterback.

Sports broadcasting may eschew overt racism, but it inculcates aggressive nationalism on an almost daily basis. For “big games” there is of course the obligatory flyover, showcasing the awesome skills of navy pilots. But military themes are played out in other ways on more routine basis. On Sunday games, San Diego Padre players wear combat fatigues.

During a recent Dallas Cowboy/New York Giant game, Thom Brennaman expanded on the sports media’s routine celebration of our troops to wax rhapsodically on all the troops do for us in protecting this country, “which is still the greatest in the world.”

As Brennaman was pontificating, I was led to wonder if a sports broadcaster would be purged for asking just what metric or power ranking Brennaman was using. Is there a worldwide “coaches’ poll” so to speak? I suspect our nation would not fare too well in such a poll. Nor would it do well in other more standardized measures. Clearly the US ranks far below number one in such vital metrics as infant mortality or longevity. And as Nov. 6 demonstrated once again, the US is far from enjoying a functional democratic order.

More subtly, a sports-inspired mindset viewing the world as a competition among clearly delineated nation states carries its own negative baggage. It suppresses awareness of cultural conflict and injustice within nations, including especially our own. In addition, it hides the growing need to build social justice and environmental coalitions across borders.

Just how political sports broadcasting is can be measured in what the commentators don’t mention as well. College recruiting scandals become an occasion to portray high- profile young black athletes as greedy while little attention is given to the schools and coaches profiting mightily from lucrative endorsement deals. The incomes of star professional athletes are a regular topic, but I cannot remember a single instance of owners’ vastly greater incomes or their sources being a subject of sports commentary. This is especially significant since much owner income is derived from state and local subsidization of the many new stadiums.

Social justice advocates can and must address blatant racism and sexism in sports broadcasting. But I am not sure that demanding offenders be fired is either adequate or always appropriate. Simple firing can turn some media personalities into martyrs, perhaps giving these retrograde notions stronger subterranean life. I would rather see an ongoing demand for more sports voices with a commitment to economic and social justice. They could not only answer blatant racism and sexism but also raise a host of issues left out of mainstream corporate commentary. Even in the macho world of pro sports there are ample exemplars of more venturesome athletes. Etan Thomas, an eloquent anti-war spokesperson and former NBA center as well as Steve Nash, now a Los Angeles Laker and an outspoken critic of Arizona’s harsh anti-immigrant law come to mind. Politics and sports broadcasting are not separate realms. It is time to broaden both.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2012

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