The farcical idea that sports and politics don’t mix has once again been shaken to its cardboard foundation with what’s been going on in the UK with Gary Lineker and the BBC (every time I hear or see “BBC” I can’t help but shout it like Austin Powers during the end credits of the first film, but that’s just me). Given their popularity, there is simply no way that it isn’t going to mix with how society governs and runs itself, and with all the complications that ensue.
What did Lineker tweet, anyway?
A quick refresher, as it started last week. Gary Lineker is the host of Match of the Day on BBC, a show that’s so institutional not just to sport in the land but the entire culture, and we’ll circle back around to that, and also one of England’s best players in history. Lineker used his Twitter platform to rail against the Tories’ proposal on how to curb immigration to the country, which isn’t really a problem, but they don’t have any ideas on anything else that wouldn’t wreck the country more than they already have, and compared it to the language used in Germany in the 30s.
To be sure, the conservative party across the pond is no less paranoid, sensitive, and terrified of anyone pointing out their own idiocy than the one here. Home Secretary Suella Braverman, and one can’t help but notice how perfectly close her name is to Cruella Deville, couldn’t wait to wet herself, as did the Tory-aligned director general of the BBC Tim Davie, who took Lineker off the air for Saturday’s episode.
What Davie nor anyone else counted on was a host of analysts and reporters following Lineker out the door, such as Ian Wright or Alan Shearer or every commentator at the games that the BBC posts for their highlights. Players and managers refused to speak to BBC reporters, if they were even at the stadiums, in protest to the treatment of Lineker. All of their highlights shows had to air with no on-air talent or commentators at the matches, simply the atmospheric sounds from the games.
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To understand this, one must understand the weight of Match of the Day. For some three decades, MOTD was the only way fans could see almost any clip of matches from the first division, before the Premier League broke away in 1992. Even with televised matches now the regular, there is still a blackout of any Premier League match on TV Saturdays at 3 p.m. BST, which is the traditional kickoff time and still when most matches take place. To see highlights of them, everyone has to wait for MOTD on Saturday night. It is a one-of-a-kind tradition on television.
There really is no comparison for American sports television. Maybe NFL Primetime on ESPN was once in the same stratosphere, but ever since Sunday Ticket (and especially Red Zone) and the way highlights are shown throughout the league no matter what games we are watching, NFL fans pretty much know everything that happened once Sunday 7 p.m. EST rolls around. And now NBC has their Sunday wrap-up before Sunday Night Football anyway.
Lineker is the rare ex-player to move from the field and into a host/reporter role and do so seamlessly. He’s smooth, he’s surprisingly funny, sharp, and isn’t afraid to go beyond the normal, milquetoast territory that we usually associate with a host of a show. You needn’t go any farther back than his commentary on the opening ceremony of the World Cup and the focus on Qatar’s heinous record in various fields for proof.
So no, the BBC and the UK government was never going to find a soft touch in Lineker when it came to this, especially when added that Lineker doesn’t need the job. He’s universally beloved, has more money than he could probably ever spend, and there would be channels lining up to have him if he and the Beeb split. He was never going to walk back anything, because he honestly doesn’t have that much to lose. That power of comfort for him has only made his bosses and those in the rabbit-eared and crybaby government look even more ridiculous as they continue to throw their toys about the room. But that’s what happens when your prime minister and cabinet positions are filled with people who have always gotten what they wanted from birth.
Just this morning, the BBC was forced to backtrack and reinstate Lineker.
Does the US have a Gary Lineker?
It does make one wonder who could cause such a stir on this side of the Atlantic, with the sobering realization that the answer is probably no one. No sport is on its own on the mountain like soccer is in the UK, though the NFL would probably like to think it’s close. Tony Dungy is an anti-trans and homophobic dope (and James Brown has been similarly accused), and yet we just pass them off as part of the machine. CBS could replace Brown tomorrow and maybe there would be a slight fissure in the “I HATE WOKE BUT CAN’T SPELL IT” brigade, but not much more. Brown and Dungy certainly wouldn’t defy the government in such a public way if they actually went about protecting those groups as they should, because they’re too desperate to hang onto their jobs.
Curt Menefee doesn’t mean nearly as much. Maybe Dan Patrick once upon a time, but he’s moved aside and Maria Taylor doesn’t have that kind of cache yet. Joe Buck? That’s probably as close as you could get, and enough people hate him for foggy reasons that they would take the opposite side no matter what he says. But he’s certainly one of the few who’s been at the top of the industry long enough to not really care what happens to him and doesn’t really need the position more than it needs him, especially shifting to Monday Night Football (and Fox has missed him in the booth in both baseball and football no matter what they say).
Perhaps Don Cherry once had this kind of bullhorn in Canada, and well…look how that turned out.
Sports coverage, even when talking about hot-button issues that extend beyond sports, has always tried to appeal to the very middle. We know how terrified the NFL and NHL and MLB are of angering what they perceive to be their base. It’s disappointing that sports personalities who speak out, or at least the ones we hear about more, tend to only be on the conservative/hateful side, but then that aligns them with the party whose members tend to sign the checks, doesn’t it?
And could you ever imagine an entire staff walking out to support a colleague wrongly removed from their job? Taking a stand here doesn’t always embolden others, either, and there would probably be too many eying his or her post for themselves to follow.
There are similarities. An increasingly and more clearly incompetent and petty conservative side that can only stoke hate to try and maintain their followers called out on their shit with no viable defense so they just lash out at the actual calling out of said shit. Sports not hesitating to be part of that calling out. The difference is that soccer in the UK has always been in opposition to the Tories (go look up Margaret Thatcher and football to get a clear idea of why) whereas sports here have lately been a battleground for both sides. The immigration policies put forth by gleaming hedge fund Ken, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, are no more hateful than the ones we have here. And yet, hasn’t been much of a peep from anyone. FOX couldn’t even bring itself to mention anything going in Qatar, and that was a hanging curve (especially with rights to 2026 already promised to them).
Like always, we’ll just wait for Bomani to get to it on HBO.