Sports and politics cannot be separated. Sports expresses, iterates, and interacts with politics at basically every point of their intersection. Even apart from the myriad ways sports, specifically, contain and are shaped by politics, as parts of what we’re still obliged to call a society even as it unravels around our heads, sports cannot be apolitical, because nothing can be.
So the question posed right in this New Yorker headline—“Should We Keep Politics Out of Sports?”—has a serious problem even before you find out that the piece beneath it, by Hua Hsu, makes the fatal mistake of taking spray-bearded vaudeville bigot Clay Travis seriously: It treats as a legitimate possibility the phony idea that sports ever could be walled off from politics, somehow kept distinct from power and ideas and the entire set of mechanisms whereby people sort out disagreements about them. This is batshit!
That sports are political is a thuddingly obvious point that has been made 50,000 times in 50,000 different ways, including very many times in very many different ways on this very site. What people (usually men) (white men) (straight white men) mean when they demand that politics be kept out of sports is that they wish to claim—or reclaim—for themselves the privilege of enjoying sports without being confronted by the actual realities of what they’re watching. As an example, take college football: The big Saturday afternoon game between Big State U and Big State Ag is, among other things, the outcome of a system in which disproportionately black players do violence to each other for the benefit of a largely white audience. These players are not paid, despite the billions they generate in revenue for organizations run by rich old white men; the scheme by which they are nominally treated as students as part of a baroque attempt to avoid workers’ compensation payouts has corrupting effects on the colleges and universities they attend, which are among if not the most powerful institutions in the states in which they’re sited; the players perform, amidst military themes and trappings, in large, generally publicly-financed stadiums; college football in particular is plagued by issues of sexual violence that are fraught in ways that are beyond this rhetorical construct to get into.
This shit is political! Not even the most purely sporty parts of it, the things that happen on the field or court, go untouched. When LeBron James dunks on Karl-Anthony Towns, that’s not only because of sports-as-sports reasons, like Towns rotating late to protect the rim or LeBron cleverly navigating a pick-and-roll; it’s also at least in part because the NBA’s salary cap and draft lottery and max-contract system—that is, negotiations of power and leverage between labor and ownership and between mega-rich owners and owners of less preposterous wealth—made them opponents, rather than teammates. That’s politics: The process of sorting competing power claims and disagreements about real-world things. It is no less political than the issue of whether either of them thinks the president is a bum.
All of these inherent realities exist whether or not anyone wants to acknowledge them, and existed even when it was easier than it is now for someone like me to ignore them; sports contained no less politics than today, for example, during the more than a half-century when the best black baseball players in America were barred from playing in Major League Baseball. What was different, then—and not even all that different, really, not different enough, just a little different—was the distribution of the burden of being acquainted with those politics. For the average white male fan, in 1933, sports could be the refreshing refuge from the murky, politics-complicated adult world; Josh Gibson and the people who watched him play did not, and could not, experience sports as something untouched by politics.
And so the question, as in just about every other iteration of the majestic plural, is: Who the fuck is we? Hsu quotes Travis’s cheap cash-grab book as saying, of the vague undefined past, that “sports was the one place where we could all go to escape the partisan rancor afflicting our country elsewhere.” Travis, a cynical huckster and fraud whose livelihood is built only and entirely on pretending not to see the branded dogwhistle hanging out of his own mouth, knows exactly who his “we” are, even if he has not yet mustered the spine to identify them in explicit terms: He is referring, definitionally, to those to whom sports ever could function as the kind of apolitical refuge he describes, which is not and never was everybody, or even most people, but is straight white dudes who are doing okay money-wise. Ignoring the political realities of sports is now in some cases somewhat harder for men like me than it used to be; enjoying the latter without being distracted too much by the former may now require a small amount of a kind of mental work I suspect has been familiar for decades to virtually every type of sports fan other than a certain stripe of white man—one identified largely by the privilege of congratulating himself for his distaste for politics while simultaneously imposing his political preferences onto literally everyone else.
It’s worth thinking about what a minor complaint this is in the first place, possibly even to the sector of the culture most frequently voicing it. If Hsu’s piece were not so bafflingly committed to treating this revanchist bullshit as both serious and ascendant in the culture, Travis himself might have made a case study in exactly how small it really is. The piece refers to him as a “multi-platform star who has flourished both on social media and in traditional media”; these are broad descriptors of the sort that usually pass beneath fact-checking, here applied to a clown who has hitched his wagon entirely to the supposed outrage of politicized sports and ridden it ... all the way to the irrelevant fringes of a cable network with an audience smaller than afternoon reruns of Golden Girls. More people will read this New Yorker article than will read his book. Is he a “star”? On any platform? He is not.
In fact, although the very existence of this New Yorker piece might be taken to suggest otherwise, the entire Fox Sports experiment—one premised on the gamble that a great silent majority hungers for sports presented and commented on without the taint of ESPN’s supposed “left-wing” (ha) politics—has been a clear failure, with Travis himself no exception. By all the audience-shrinkage metrics whereby Travis and, like, Curt fucking Schilling love to pretend they see rampant liberalism bringing about the death of ESPN or the NFL or the mainstream media, Fox’s FS1 network also is dying—faster than ESPN is! As it turns out, there almost certainly is no great untapped desire for sports flying under the “Keep politics out of sports!” banner; there’s only a lot of noise from a lot of whiny babies.
More to the point: That noise, itself, is intensely political. As even a true dolt like Clay Travis is not quite too stupid to grasp, the call for a return to some imagined prior status quo, the claim that the way things used to be was an apolitical state of nature, and the insistence on ignoring politics are all specifically political. They just happen to be political in ways that benefit an already privileged group that has an interest in portraying itself as under siege.
For that exact reason, the New Yorker piece qualifies as something of a victory for Travis, and for the aggrieved doofuses lowing “Keep politics out of my sports!” into our email inboxes here at Deadspin, a site largely defined by our insistence on foregrounding the political realities of sports and sports media. By propping Travis up as the voice and face of a largely imaginary reaction against an even more imaginary invasion of sports by politics, the New Yorker has granted Travis and his shamelessly pandering book more and more serious attention than either could ever earn on their merits, which, like just about everything else in this very dumb debate—like the debate itself—heretofore existed only in the imaginations of a small number of very stupid idiots.
Anything past this would involve engaging with Travis’s bullshit in infinitely better faith than it deserves, if not legitimizing him and it in exactly the way I am yelling at the New Yorker for doing. There is no way I can think of to make this point any clearer that does not involve just pointing you to the 50,000 ways we have written about this previously. This blog is over now. Thank you.