20200
P
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20100
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2020
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7

The end of “stick to sports”

“‘Stick to sports’ is embedded in the economic DNA of sports media. In today’s economically perilous time for media, the idea of avoiding topics that could alienate half of your audience is alluring.”

“Stick to sports.” Maybe you’ve heard that phrase once or twice in the past few years. Well, get ready: You’re going to hear it a lot more this coming year.

“Stick to sports” has long been a flashpoint in sports journalism. It’s a call for sports reporters, columnists, and commentators to avoid politics, to keep sports coverage focused on what happens between the lines — on…well, sports. Most notably in 2019, a management call to “stick to sports” triggered the collective resignation of Deadspin’s entire staff and led to the site’s unraveling.

2020 will mark a strong return to the call for “stick to sports” — but also the end of an era.

With a laundry list of national and global issues on our doorstep — impeachment proceedings, an election that promises to be even more contentious than 2016, the climate crisis, racial tensions and antisemitism and white supremacy, to name just a few — there will be louder calls for non-political sports coverage. “More than ever,” they’ll say, “people need a distraction. They want to avoid the news for a few hours — to get away from the partisan bickering and just enjoy a game.”

You’ll see invocations of a quote long attributed to former Chief Justice Earl Warren: “I always turn to the sports section first. The sports page records people’s accomplishments; the front page has nothing but man’s failures.”

“Stick to sports” is embedded in the economic DNA of sports media. Sports journalism developed at the turn of the 20th century as a unique form that provided an ideological safe space; both sides of the political divide could come together to cheer for the home team. In today’s economically perilous time for media, the idea of avoiding topics that could alienate half of your audience is alluring.

And that’s where sports journalists will find their role: They need to resist the call. The era of “stick to sports” is over.

To be honest, once you scratch the surface, it was never really here. Sports and politics have been deeply intertwined for as long as there have been sports and politics. From Jesse Owens to Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers and Giants moving west to Muhammad Ali to Billie Jean King to the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, the story of sports in America cannot be told without politics.

In this age of Trump, and in this era of athlete activism that began with Trayvon Martin’s murder and Colin Kaepernick’s protests, sports media have both an opportunity and a responsibility to engage with the world through the games we cover.

Here’s the thing: That Earl Warren quote is actually a repudiation of the seriousness of sports journalism. Rather than praise sports journalism’s importance, it reinforces the idea that sports is the toy department. That the front page is the serious place and the sports section is the place for fun.

None of this is to say all sports coverage should become political. We can still talk about an incredible play by Lamar Jackson or Patrick Mahomes, the singular skill of Simone Biles, or our picks in the NCAA tournament.

But sports journalism will have a collective opportunity in the coming year: a chance to fully engage with readers and audiences rather than shrink from them. To talk up to them rather than down. To connect with them at a higher level. And to help sports fans engage with the world, not avoid it.

In so many ways, the story of America has been told through sports. That won’t change. And its next chapter won’t be told by “sticking to sports.”

Brian Moritz is an assistant professor of digital media production and online journalism at SUNY Oswego.

“Stick to sports.” Maybe you’ve heard that phrase once or twice in the past few years. Well, get ready: You’re going to hear it a lot more this coming year.

“Stick to sports” has long been a flashpoint in sports journalism. It’s a call for sports reporters, columnists, and commentators to avoid politics, to keep sports coverage focused on what happens between the lines — on…well, sports. Most notably in 2019, a management call to “stick to sports” triggered the collective resignation of Deadspin’s entire staff and led to the site’s unraveling.

2020 will mark a strong return to the call for “stick to sports” — but also the end of an era.

With a laundry list of national and global issues on our doorstep — impeachment proceedings, an election that promises to be even more contentious than 2016, the climate crisis, racial tensions and antisemitism and white supremacy, to name just a few — there will be louder calls for non-political sports coverage. “More than ever,” they’ll say, “people need a distraction. They want to avoid the news for a few hours — to get away from the partisan bickering and just enjoy a game.”

You’ll see invocations of a quote long attributed to former Chief Justice Earl Warren: “I always turn to the sports section first. The sports page records people’s accomplishments; the front page has nothing but man’s failures.”

“Stick to sports” is embedded in the economic DNA of sports media. Sports journalism developed at the turn of the 20th century as a unique form that provided an ideological safe space; both sides of the political divide could come together to cheer for the home team. In today’s economically perilous time for media, the idea of avoiding topics that could alienate half of your audience is alluring.

And that’s where sports journalists will find their role: They need to resist the call. The era of “stick to sports” is over.

To be honest, once you scratch the surface, it was never really here. Sports and politics have been deeply intertwined for as long as there have been sports and politics. From Jesse Owens to Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers and Giants moving west to Muhammad Ali to Billie Jean King to the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, the story of sports in America cannot be told without politics.

In this age of Trump, and in this era of athlete activism that began with Trayvon Martin’s murder and Colin Kaepernick’s protests, sports media have both an opportunity and a responsibility to engage with the world through the games we cover.

Here’s the thing: That Earl Warren quote is actually a repudiation of the seriousness of sports journalism. Rather than praise sports journalism’s importance, it reinforces the idea that sports is the toy department. That the front page is the serious place and the sports section is the place for fun.

None of this is to say all sports coverage should become political. We can still talk about an incredible play by Lamar Jackson or Patrick Mahomes, the singular skill of Simone Biles, or our picks in the NCAA tournament.

But sports journalism will have a collective opportunity in the coming year: a chance to fully engage with readers and audiences rather than shrink from them. To talk up to them rather than down. To connect with them at a higher level. And to help sports fans engage with the world, not avoid it.

In so many ways, the story of America has been told through sports. That won’t change. And its next chapter won’t be told by “sticking to sports.”

Brian Moritz is an assistant professor of digital media production and online journalism at SUNY Oswego.

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