Sports Media and American Culture

Media and sports reporting are what allows sports to make profit and allow people to have civic pride. That being said, sports reporting can do a lot to influence a society. The media has responsibilities both within and outside of the realm of sports. Sports are political which is exactly why sports reporting is so important and influential.

Sports reporters have responsibilities within sports coverage. These include providing equal press time and equal coverage. In the 1970’s, press time given to female sports was minimal and coverage was sexist at best. This explains why Billie Jean King started her own tennis invitational outside of the established professional world, as well as started her own magazine, womenSports. The established tennis world left room only for “real” athletes, “serious” athletes. When reporters shirk on their duties to provide equal press time and equal coverage, the athletes themselves must fill the gaps. Billie Jean King did this in two ways. The first was creating press sensation by consenting to the Battle of the Sexes. Creating sensation creates press coverage and press time. The second was becoming a reporter herself by editing womenSports. When athletes have to be both the sport entertainer and the sport reporter, the athletes are more treated as athletes only (i.e., without other human characteristics or events) and journalism loses credibility.

The magazine Billie Jean King owned and edited, featuring her on the front page.

When Jackie Robinson first broke the color line in 1947, major media (white media) did not portray it as big news, according to a close friend of Robinson, what should have been front-page news was fourth or fifth page. Reporting this event as ordinary and non-earth shattering protected the narrative of American society and did not threaten those with power. Had it been reported as life changing, society would have shifted, the new narrative would be more easily accessible and those in power would have been more readily challenged. White news is news in general, whereas black news is only news for black people. Jackie Robinson had to work harder than any other baseball player to get good and positive coverage. He had to always be at 100% and he could never get angry because the news wouldn’t have supported his narrative even if he was in the right. This is the danger when sports reporters do not heed their responsibilities to report sports. It creates an inaccurate replica of American society within the microcosm that is baseball. This helps the society perpetuate inaccuracies.

There is a sentiment that sports are not and should not be political. The truth of the matter is that sports have always been political and to pretend otherwise only enables the inability to care about the greater society. In the early 1900’s boxing was used to determine the better race. People saw white hope in James Jeffries but he was unable to beat to Jack Johnson, which instigated race riots throughout the United States. This type of fight happened again during World War II between African American Joe Louis and German Max Schmeling. The first match left Germany with the win and the second left the United States with the win. At the height of a war about the master race, this provided the United States with a racial narrative that left minorities hurting without available recourse because at least the United States was not like the Nazis. This same sentiment holds true in the 1936 Olympics which were held in Germany and in which African American Jesse Owens established that white was not the master race, at least when it comes to sports. The Battle of the Sexes tennis match between Billie Jean Kings and Bobby Riggs was also political. Sports was used as a political tool to establish the right to gender equality in a time of ridiculed “women’s lib”. This match showed that men and women could be equals physically and therefore nothing should hold women back from equality in society.

The recent controversy of the line “sports are not political” stems from football player Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem before a game. Football is so intrinsically enshrined in politics that it can be considered a part of the military entertainment complex. The military entertainment complex is representative of how military and war has infiltrated society’s consciousness. Video games about wartime encourage youth to appreciate and sign up for combat. High schools bring in military representatives to attract students who are not ready or able to go to college. Football is the same. It is America’s past time. Before each game, the national anthem is played in which it is expected people stand, take off caps and be respectful. Typically, people sing along and if someone is not following along with these guidelines, they will be reminded by the people by them. Typically, there is some kind of military tribute: members of the armed forces go onto the field, fireworks, a field-sized flag or military planes flying over. The advertisements for football are also patriotic and include country singers singing about America, flags and flag themed things, and other military endorsements such as recruiting commercials. Even the game itself is linked to war and conflict through language: offense and defense, attack and attacker, bomb forward, one-platoon system (or iron man football). It is impossible to say that sports, especially football, are not political.

Monday Night Football Advertisement Highlighting Military Entertainment Complex

There is a question of whether or not sports reporters should just do “stick to the game” coverage. As well as having responsibilities within sports reporting itself, such as equal press time and fair coverage, sports reporters also have societal responsibilities. Sports are a part of society and thus have lasting ramifications. Everyone with kids in a sport thinks their child is going to be the next Olympic athlete or NBA all-star. That’s because there is money and glamour to these that is portrayed through sports reporting. What would happen if sports reporters changed that narrative? The NFL for decades tried to cover up the serious damage that concussions can do to people. They tried covering up the serious damage that football causes. The PBS documentary “A League of Denial” covers this topic. When doctors went forward to present the information after struggle for years with the NFL contradicting their findings, the reporters were not present. Instead they were at the Superbowl and coverage of these severe findings remained limited. According to the documentary, if people knew how violent football is on the body, or how bad concussions can actually be, mothers would stop putting their sons in football and the NFL would lose its industry. Through relation, the military would lose its biggest entertainment supporter. This is exactly why sports reporters should not just stick to game coverage.

American society acts as though the nation owns athletes and act as though they are not people. Sticking to game coverage is foolish for reporters and serves to harm American society. Athletes have a stage to stand on. They should be able to use this stage as they see fit. Serena Williams, all-star tennis champion, has gone public with how race relations and racial stress affected her pregnancy and put her and her child at risk. Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem because he felt people were not paying attention to race relations and systematic injustice. These athletes are not just athletes in a sports bubble. They are real people trying to disseminate information from their platform. Sports reporters have a duty to report and they can use this duty to education and shape society.

Sports have always been and always will be political. There is no question of that. Sports media is the most important backing of sports because it is what draws crowds in. Sports media is also what works to perpetuate or challenge norms in society via its portrayal of politicized sports.

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Darby Matt

Darby Matt

Drake University International Relations (MENA focused), Socio-Legal studies, religious studies and Arabic graduate. This is a blog-like post to learn and share