March 3, 2017

For years, editors have mocked the sports section, calling it the “toy department” of the newspaper.

The unflattering moniker was applied to sports pages because they didn’t usually concern themselves with serious news like politics, the meat-and-potatoes of many newsrooms. Now, with the election of Donald Trump and the ascendency of politically minded athletes, that distinction is getting thrown out the window.

So says Bryan Curtis, an editor at large at The Ringer and a seasoned observer of sports media. His recent article, “The End of ‘Stick to Sports,'” chronicles the political awakening of sports reporters across the United States under President Trump.

“This kind of came home for me the weekend of the immigration ban, when you had all those protesters in the airport,” Curtis said. “And I was looking at liberal Twitter and sports Twitter, and I couldn’t really tell the difference between those two things — for maybe the first time ever.”

In an interview with Poynter, Curtis talked about the changing nature of sportswriting, the difference between politics and sports coverage and the growing consensus among his colleagues that something is different about President Trump. Below are some of his answers. For the full interview, subscribe to our podcast, Covering 45.

Sportswriters are getting more liberal because their subjects are getting more liberal, Curtis said.

“Athletes are a lot more powerful than they were 30 years ago. If I was a sports writer, and I wanted to talk to the most powerful person in the NBA 30 years ago, I’d probably go to the commissioner. I’d go to one of the head coaches of one of the popular teams. Now, I’d almost certainly go to Lebron James. So you have, essentially, a situation where the workers — the labor in this case — gets a lot more powerful. So that changes. And yeah, I do think sportswriters follow along with that. Because just like any reporter, they want to talk to powerful people.”

There’s also a growing consensus among sportswriters about issues that aren’t overtly political, he said.

“Within the sports world, I’d say that you have these issues that all of a sudden we have — at least among national writers — something of a consensus on. You have, for instance, NCAA amateurism, which has been a hotly debated topic in sports writing for literally 100 years. Now, it’s very, very hard to find someone who’s for amateurism and thinks: College football and basketball players shouldn’t be paid money. The Washington Redskins nickname — you can find them, but there aren’t very many defenders of the nickname left.”

“Again, that’s an issue that’s been burbling for 20, 30, 40 years within sportswriting. And of course, when a player signs a big contract now for $25 million a year: It used to be covered like that player was really greedy. ‘Ooh, look at that greedy ballplayer who wants all that money.’ Now we think of it as, well, the owner’s the rich, greedy guy here, right? And the ballplayer is merely asking for what he’s worth.”

“So I think when you see sportswriters slide to one side of these debates, which, as I’ve said, have been very contentious. You begin to say: Oh, wait a second. Something’s changing. And, as you said, revealing itself.”

On the growing tendency to heed athletes’ political opinions

“I think athletes have been union members for a long time. So at least within the narrow terms of union politics, I’m sure they’re a little bit more lefty, perhaps, than certain segments. I think we’re talking to them more. Probably, we’re paying more attention to them, too. And I think when somebody like LeBron or Colin Kaeperneck ventures into political activism, sportswriters, their first instinct is not to be skeptical of that. It’s to say, ‘what’s this guy trying to say? Let’s tease out the argument. Let’s listen to him. Let’s think this through.'”

On the difference between sportswriters and political reporters

“Whenever I want to know what real people think, as opposed to people who are part of the liberal sportswriter media conspiracy, as I am, I go to my University of Texas message boards and look at the way they talk about ESPN or sportswriters.”

“And the biggest complaint that you hear is too liberal or too political, maybe, if not too liberal. Does it sap their credibility? I think it probably annoys people more than it saps their credibility. But if you’re a really good sports writer — if I’m Adam Schefter (who is not dabbling in political activism, so far as I know, but just to use an example), and I’m breaking all the NFL trades — where are the people going to go? I’ve got something they need.”

“If you found a New York Times reporter was dabbling in lefty activism and he was a reporter, not a columnist, you might say, ‘well, that undermines his credibility. How can he cover this fairly?’ Sports, they’re kind of different spheres. So I’m not sure it undermines it so much, but it does make people hate you a little bit.”

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
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