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Why Just Sticking To Sports Will Never Work

One of the hottest topics in the sportswriting niche of the world has been the following online debate, kicked off by Bryan Curtis over at The Ringer.  The name of his piece was "The End of 'Stick to Sports'", and it was a thinkpiece that truly got writing minds thinking.  "Sportswriters have been awakened by Donald Trump’s presidency," the byline read.  "Is that what their readers want?"

It's had an interesting effect on the entire sportswriting community - a response veering from general agreement, to "we never really did stick to sports anyway" and "I will always stick to sports and let others talk about politics."

What it isn't is cut and dry.  I think the problem with this so-called "debate" is that it attempts to make sportswriting into a binary choice - either you stick to sports or you have your sports explore other topics.

Art is not a series of binary choices, and if you agree sportswriting is a form of art, then "sticking to sports" will never work.  It's like saying to Lady Gaga "stick to singing show tunes".  It doesn't work that way.

Let's start with the argument.
On the one hand, what’s happening to sportswriters is that Trump is radicalizing them at the same rate he’s radicalizing everyone else. A moral crisis means Super Bowl predictions will have to wait. In October, Seth Davis — son of Clinton consigliere Lanny Davis — wrote on Facebook that he was no longer sticking to sports. “When I realized I was restraining myself for fear of losing Twitter followers, I felt like a hypocrite,” he said. Plenty of people have joined Davis in the breach, though he’s the only one I’ve seen using the hashtag #teamcivility. 
But the end of “stick to sports” owes as much to structural changes within sportswriting as it does to Trump himself. After all, when newspapers ruled the world, there was a rich tradition of politically interested writers that stretched from Westbrook Pegler to Robert Lipsyte. 
But newspaper staffs are hierarchical. Only three or four columnists are allowed to opine about sports, much less the rest of the world. The internet has made everybody into a de facto columnist. There’s no long apprenticeship before you get a column; at casually edited content farms, hot-taking is the first thing you get to do. (Later, after a few hundred reps, you learn to be a respectable old bore.) 
In the newspaper era, even the most woke sports columnist tended to deal with politics only when it entered his or her domain. The columnist wrote about labor law when there was a baseball strike; amateurism when the NCAA and the Olympics had their regularly-scheduled crises; race relations when Tommie Smith and John Carlos stuck their fists in the air.
As someone who actually wrote about the Smith and Carlos gesture this back in September, I fit comfortably in the camp of "write about woke stuff when it fits into your overall theme."  

I never officially was a "newspaper columnist" for a print newspaper, but I've been a columnist in online media for a long time, and when I was looking around for a template to follow when it came to sportswriting, I naturally gravitated towards the columnists of the time, from the names you might expect - Mike Lupica, Frank Deford, and folks like that.

But one dirty little secret is that Lupica and Deford in particular never really totally "stuck to sports", and in fact it was a key to their success.  Especially now, Lupica seamlessly bounces back and forth from sports to politics.  Deford was on the "pay the college players" bandwagon well before the O'Bannon lawsuit.

I eagerly followed this template, perhaps not as aggressively as I should have, but definitely not shy in pulling in references from entertainment and/or politics when the situation arose.

I thinkg the best sportswriting is both art and philosophy, something I think the best sportswriters have always understood.  Sporting events are acts in a play, with the protagonists and antagonists echoing differently for everyone watching it.  Sometimes it's Trump pal Robert Kraft vs. "man of the people" Arthur Blank, who paid for every team employee on the Falcons to go to the Super Bowl.  Or it could be the unfairly-punished Patriots versus the new Golden Falcon Boys on the block, or a countless number of different narratives.

From that competition yields bigger philosophical questions, something that Deford is still a genius at discovering.  I don't always agree with Frank on everything he's written, but you had better believe when he asks What Is Football Doing To Us As A People?, I will listen to his point of view.

Yet at the same time, I feel like sportswriters have to take responsibility for themselves if they go too far down this path.

If you shriek every moment Trump does something stupid or get hyper every time an anti-Trump protest happens, the noise drowns out your main focus of storytelling.  Last I checked, sportswriters are in the business of having people read the things they write, and the truth is if you are too much of a partisan either way, people will stop reading.

I think that's the perspective of the flip side of the argument, well articulated here.
In my experience, sports mostly unite, while politics mostly divide. That’s what makes sports pure, unique, and vital. 
All of those qualities are now under siege as more and more sports writers are merging their sports with their politics.  
I even unfollowed a couple of writers during the general election – not because I disagree with their political views, but because they stopped giving me their views on sports. Seth Davis of CBS and Sports Illustrated is one of the most respected college basketball writers in the nation, but for months he wouldn’t stop tweeting about his support for Hilary Clinton. Making one tweet about your support for Clinton is one thing, becoming a Clinton activist is another. 
I would rather hear Davis give his annual argument on why this is finally the year Gonzaga makes it to the Final Four. His Twitter bio describes him as the “College hoops reporter for SI and CBS Sports.” That’s his job. Davis stopped doing his job. If Davis was so passionate about stopping Trump at all costs, as Curtis claims in his column, he should have quit his job and joined the Clinton campaign.
There will always be times when politics and sports crossover. It’s the media’s job to explain how the immigration ban is affecting athletes within professional and collegiate sports organizations. It’s appropriate for a columnist to bring people to tears with his story of how his family immigrated to America. But that doesn’t mean we should go looking for politics to put into our sports.
I think similarly, perhaps not on LFN but on my Twitter feed, Trump's immigration ban had a real-life effect not only on Lehigh University, who has a very large number of international students, but on a Syrian family in Allentown, the Assali family, who found themselves in the middle of the crisis.

"The free flow of students and scholars across borders is essential to the scholarly activity of our university, and international engagement remains an integral component of our mission of teaching, research and service," said the message from Lehigh University President John D. Simon, Provost Patrick Farrell and Vice President of Finance and Administration Patricia A. Johnson
Lehigh emphasized that it rejects "in the strongest terms" any action that stereotypes or discriminates on the basis of religion, nationality, race gender or any other personal characteristic or identity. 
"There should be absolutely no ambiguity regarding the values Lehigh embraces," the message stated. "We share an expectation that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, and we will accept nothing less."
In this environment, I felt like it would have been wrong to "stick to sports", because I am a person that talks a lot about Lehigh, and the people from the surrounding area.  Trump's Muslim ban had an intense, specific effect on a number of families in the local area.  The President of Lehigh, Vice President and Provost felt so strongly about it that they weighed in on the matter publicly.  Based on that, I have no qualms about telling you publicly as well that I feel like Trump's Muslim ban is cruel, wrong, and against what I feel are American values.  I cannot believe that this country is in favor of rejecting people who have already earned green cards, or advocate separating 1 1/2 year olds in the hospital from their families that happen to have be citizens in certain countries.  I do not believe that that is us as a nation.

And that IS a Lehigh thing, just as when QB Colin Kaepernick kneels during the National Anthem, it becomes fair game for me to opine about it, because it's a football thing.  I'm not sure I totally understand it, nor am I convinced that the act of kneeling is more than just a narcissistic gesture not backed by actual actions that would improve race relations.  But I think it's fair game for me to talk about it, even though it's a tough subject. 

It is fair to reason that the same political controversies that animate families and work water coolers around the nation might be the sort of thing that is also worth talking about in a column.

I'm certainly not the be-all and end-all of writing criticism.  Sportswriters are in a world where they can veer wherever they want.  There are few editors out there saying that they have to write about sports, or keep their pieces under 500 words, or even that they need to spell every word correctly.

Yet I also agree with the above writer that sportswriters shouldn't be trying to inject politics artificially into sports coverage, either.  

There's no need to work in arguments for or against abortion or for or against gun control in a column about sports - but even more importantly, doing so cheapens what should be the main focus of your art.  Sportswriters shouldn't feel intimidated about talking about big topics that have some sort of link to sports - but in my opinion, they have to align with the art, otherwise it's something else.

While in ways I enjoy the outspokenness of sportswriters talking out on big issues, I also think that sportswriters need to make sure that the focus of their main storytelling mission isn't lost.  I know that I will try to continue to tread that line.


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