Covering the Election

Stick to sports? These writers say no thanks.

November 3, 2016

Rob Neyer isn’t embarrassed to say he’s more than a little preoccupied with the number of people who follow him on Twitter. Neyer is a freelance baseball writer and sabermetrics guru, and the 64,000 readers who have added his daily MLB analysis and insight to their daily newsfeed make up his most regular audience. So earlier this year, when Neyer decided to start using the social medium as a platform to voice his views on this year’s presidential election, he was hesitant. “I worry about (losing followers) every day,” he says. “I think that’s why so many sports writers don’t ever tweet about politics. The vast majority don’t.”

Neyer had always been content to talk about baseball–until the issues surrounding this horse race for POTUS convinced him to take a stand. “I do believe that this is a different sort of election,” he says. “I don’t recall thinking that Mitt Romney represented an existential threat to the American experiment…I think Donald Trump is a larger threat.”

The 140-character responses were swift. Some like-minded followers commiserated; dissenters tried to engage in debate. About 500 people unfollowed him over the past month. Many picked up what has become a common cry among fans and journalists who believe in a strict separation of stadium and state: STICK TO SPORTS.

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NBC Sports lead baseball writer Craig Calcaterra, whose Twitter bio mimics a quote from the graphic novel “Watchmen”–All the whores and politicians will look up and shout STICK TO BASEBALL!…and I’ll look down and whisper No.–says that the idea of sports as a refuge from the realities of the real word is an antiquated notion, regardless of the stakes on the current ballot. A former lawyer who used to blog about baseball as a hobby, Calcaterra says he has always approached sports outside the lines, in the context of what’s going on in other sections of the paper.

“People don’t want you to stick to sports,” says Calcaterra. “They just don’t want to be challenged. And they don’t want to hear politics or cultural takes that make them uncomfortable. If you look at how professional sports leagues operate, there are a million things that they do that are overtly political, whether it’s the national anthem, partnerships with the military, politicians throwing out the first pitch, charitable efforts, or the antitrust exemption in baseball, using public funds and tax dollars to fund their stadiums…there are a million places where sports and culture and politics interact.”

He says fans only get upset when a writer challenges their preconceived notions about or unawareness of those intersections.

For Calcaterra, politics is not just fair game, but it can be essential to the story–as long as the connections are sound. For instance, a post about the racial implications of Indians’ mascot Chief Wahoo, a piece on Black Lives Matter stemming from last summer’s protests outside of Camden Yards, or a look at immigration as it pertains to incoming ballplayers is part of his job. It can also happen when sports figures themselves cross over into politics, as Curt Schilling, Bob Knight, or Lou Holtz all have this election by stumping for Trump. 

Calcaterra says the problem arises when a writer tries to shoehorn a political opinion into a place where it doesn’t belong. “I plan on voting for Hillary Clinton,” he says. “But she doesn’t come up in baseball very often. What’s the point? It’s transparently using my platform to do something that has no link to baseball.”

However, Calcaterra does see a link between this election and the sports-politics debate. He says that the “Stick to Sports” mantra resembles that of Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again.”

“The idea that we should have sports coverage that ignores anything off the field is preposterous,” he says. “The same impulse you see from Trump supporters and conservative people, from white males, historic majorities, is the sense that ‘our once-dominant culture is under attack…Let us at least have our one safe space in sports where we don’t have to think about minorities and workers and women and equal rights.’ They may not realize it consciously, but that’s what the Stick to Sports call is really about.”

If there are readers out there who long for the bygone days when sports and current events existed on different frequencies and reporters just regurgitated the scores without commentary, Bob Ryan has bad news for them–those days never really existed.

Even before Ryan was an opinionated sports columnist for the Boston Globe, back when he was starting out as a beat writer in 1968, he says he always wrote with a point of view. “As long as you do the due diligence as a pure reporter, go out, ask the right questions, put the facts together, why shouldn’t you be allowed to interpret them?” he says. “Objectivity is nonsense. It’s not objectivity you should strive for, there’s no such thing, it’s fairness. Try to be fair.” 

And when it comes to Twitter, Ryan says “all bets are off.” He sees the medium as an optional window through which readers can, if they choose, learn more about the people behind the bylines. Even so, Ryan says that, as with columns, features, or posts, it’s usually wise to steer clear of personal politics–a policy that he admits to having violated during this election. But he did so willing to risk angering some followers.

“If you never offended somebody,” he says. “It means you never took a stand.”

So what do employers think of their sports writers taking a stand on social media? Reporters from NBC, Sports Illustrated, and ESPN say that their companies encourage or at least leave room for a personal touch to their reporters’ online personas. Calcaterra says that NBC trusts him to know the line. “They don’t want me out there campaigning,” he says. “But if the world is on fire, and I’m talking about what happened in the Blue Jays game, I kind of look like an idiot.”

Sarah Spain, Sportscenter reporter and ESPN radio host, pushes it a step further, saying that putting personality on display is not only acceptable, these days it’s a necessity.

“It’s the changing landscape of sports,” says Spain. “Because you can get your highlights anywhere instantly on the Internet, and you have to fill a 24-hour news cycle, shows aren’t just going to be ‘George Michael’s Sports Machine.’ There are going to be discussions on issues and debates because you can’t get that by clicking on a story. And by virtue of that, the conversations are going to be more nuanced.”

Spain points out that not only does sports often reflect the problems facing everyday society, but it can also serve as a catalyst for bringing issues like LGBT rights and domestic violence to the forefront. 

Neyer, Calcaterra, Ryan, and Spain all stopped short of saying that it is incumbent on writers with large followings, whether or not they cover politics, to speak up for what they believe is right. But that sense of responsibility is very much fueling what they’re saying, both in their work and on social media.

“I’m never comfortable prescribing behavior for anyone, except the occasional presidential candidate,” says Neyer. “But I do think that if we have opinions and we’re informed and we care about what’s happening we might have a responsibility to say something…Sexual harassment, the demonization of people from other countries or minorities in our country, for me those aren’t politics, those are principles. And I’ve been jealous of people…who have a much larger following than I, because this summer and fall there have been some principles that are under siege. If I had a million Twitter followers…I could’ve had a much bigger impact.”

Tony Rehagen has written for Pacific Standard, GQ, Bloomberg, and ESPN The Magazine. He is based in St. Louis and is on Twitter @trehagen.