From Mo’ne Davis to Michael Sam, the Culture Wars Have Invaded the Sports World

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Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images

You know who has been the least fun person to write about over the last two months? Michael Sam. This is not because Sam, the defensive end hoping to become the first openly gay NFL player, has done anything wrong or has been any sort of “distraction” during training camp. (Cut by the St. Louis Rams, he’s now on the Dallas Cowboys’ practice squad.) It’s not because Sam’s story is any less fascinating now than it was the day he was drafted and ESPN showed him crying and kissing his boyfriend. And it’s not because Sam hasn’t played well, either: There were only nine players who recorded three sacks this NFL preseason, and Sam was the only one of those who found himself scrambling for a roster spot with a second team.

It is because there is literally nothing you can say about Michael Sam that won’t get you yelled at. You can say Michael Sam didn’t make the Rams because they have too many defensive ends, and one side will scream that you’re whitewashing the NFL’s rampant homophobia. (Or that you’re in fact part of it.) You can say Michael Sam impressed in the preseason and showed that he belongs in the league, and the other side will tell you that you’re just another liberal activist trying to force your socialist views onto the sports pages. (Usually Obama’s name will get dropped here somehow.) Simply saying the words “Michael Sam” has become a political act, and a weirdly explosive one.

It isn’t just Sam. He’s just the most prominent symptom of a subtle but undeniable change in modern sports discourse, which is basically, and maddeningly, turning into politics. Turn on SportsCenter or read any story on any sports website. (Or, particularly, the comments.) The way the debate is framed, and the way the reaction is amplified, is exactly what it’s like when two people from opposite sides of the aisle try to talk about politics. Or more accurately, shriek at each other about it.

The list of hot-button issues is amazingly long just from this summer. There’s the Washington football team’s increasingly under-fire nickname. (“Racist!” versus “Liberal media!”) There’s Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who was arrested for allegedly assaulting his then-fiancée, now his wife, and then handed a two-game suspension by a league office that suspended a player for a full season for smoking weed. (“Ban Rice for life!” versus “Don’t provoke men!”) (A new video which showed Rice actually punching her, led to his release from the Ravens, starting the whole cycle again.) The perennial issue of PEDs, an issue again now because, among other reasons, former Patriots hero and current Broncos receiver Wes Welker may have tested positive for ecstasy. (“Hypocritical media moralizing!” versus “Mickey Mantle just drank Ovaltine!”) The Dodgers’ all-eyes-on-me Cuban import Yasiel Puig. (“Respect the game, rookie!” versus “Loosen up, tight-ass old white guys!”) The owner of the Atlanta Hawks forced to sell his team because of a racist email he wrote in 2012. (“More classism and racism in the NBA!” versus “Free speech!”) Heck, even poor Mo’ne Davis, the 13-year-old girl who took the Little League World Series by storm. (“You go, girl!” versus “Tokenism at its worst!”) (Tokenism? I can’t remember a girl even making a Little League roster before, and Davis annihilated the batters she faced.)

Of course, sports has obviously never existed entirely outside politics. That stadium you watch the game in was partly (or entirely) financed by taxpayers shoveling money right into billionaires’ pockets. The issue of race is always bubbling under the surface of every game, as the Donald Sterling scandal made abundantly clear. And labor issues are the central organizing conflict of—and the primary existential threat to—every major professional sport.

But there still is supposed to be something different about the way we talk about sports. The fun of sports debates has always been how, even when they’re spirited and a little rancorous, they’re essentially harmless. Was Ted Williams a better hitter than Joe DiMaggio? Is LeBron James a better all-around player than Michael Jordan? Could Joe Namath be a great quarterback today? Could the 1927 Yankees beat the 1996 Yankees? Should Pete Rose be in the Hall of Fame? The answer to all of these questions, obviously, is: Who could possibly know, and who cares? That they are unanswerable—that they are unknowable—is precisely the point. They are barroom debates because they exist only to provide conversation, not to actually solve any-thing. They are their own justification. For decades, sports has been one thing you could have endless debates about while convincing the other person of absolutely nothing … and have it be totally fine.

Sports has never united us the way those who play it like to claim it does—that both the cops and the protesters in Ferguson were St. Louis Cardinals fans didn’t seem to make much difference—but the ways that it divided us were innocuous enough that it didn’t matter. Yankees fans and Red Sox fans hate each other, but only theoretically, and only on the surface: Their rancor was real but empty. Sports has allowed us to exercise our tribalist passions in basically trivial ways … and therefore productive and healthy ones.

Not anymore. Now sports, like everything else, has been conquered by political tribalism. For years, Deadspin, the sports site I founded and left in 2008, has been criticized for being too salacious or too cynical. These days, the main complaint I hear is that it’s too liberal. (And that ESPN is too conservative, except when it is also too liberal.) There was a time, in 2003, when Rush Limbaugh was hired to be on ESPN’s NFL pregame show, saying that it was “the fulfillment of a dream” and that he would leave politics out of it … and people actually believed him! (He ended up resigning, inevitably, after saying the media “has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well.”) Now Keith Olbermann, having left his firebrand MSNBC gig for a tamer, more relaxed show on ESPN2, can’t talk about Tony Romo without people hammering him for being a socialist. (And forget about mentioning Tim Tebow.) Last month, Seahawks quarter-back Russell Wilson did a cable-news tour to promote the NFL’s new initiative with the United Way to promote healthy eating among kids; inevitably, Fox News brought up that Michelle Obama is “getting to be too much of a food-police mommy.” Wilson, bless his heart, ignored the “question.” The comments under a SportsGrid post about the incident featured “apparently another lib making a mountain out of nothing! … [K]eep your zealotry to yourself and report some type of sporting news when you run across it.” And in some right-wing circles, Bob Costas has been reviled for mentioning gun violence, both before and after Sandy Hook. If your public enemy is Bob Costas—who has turned the act of being blandly and inoffensively appealing on television into an art form—you are just looking for a fight. Which, I guess, we all are now.

Much of this transformation is because of the internet, like everything else: Our niche society has given everybody his own echo chamber, and, if we’re really honest with ourselves, just about all anyone can do in 140 characters is scream and yell. And, of course, the sports media has learned just like every other desperate-to-survive media organization that riling up the base—whatever base there is—is ratings gold. When First Take host Stephen A. Smith “defended” Ray Rice by saying that women need to “make sure [they] don’t do anything to provoke wrong actions,” the ensuing controversy—fueled largely by ESPN colleague Michelle Beadle calling the remarks “irresponsible and disgusting”—led to Smith apologizing … in a First Take segment that was highly promoted the whole weekend before. Of course, if you took Beadle’s side, you were called racist; accepting Smith’s apology branded you a sexist. Saying nothing meant you were ignoring the problem, whatever the problem was: In this environment, saying nothing is the worst crime of all. Which means that sports talk radio now sounds like regular talk radio, not like a consequence-free semi-satire of it. Rush Limbaugh should just return to ESPN. Sports media is finally ready for him.

*This article appears in the September 8, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.