Olbermann and the Politics of Sports

Who is Keith Olbermann anyway? Is he a news anchor or a commentator? Or isn’t he really a sportscaster? When Olbermann inaugurated his MSNBC show, Countdown, some doubted a sportscaster’s ability to assume the more difficult role of political analyst. Yet all three of these domains blend into each other. Acknowledging their connections might give us a more honest media and more reflective citizenry.

NBC was faulted — correctly in my eyes — for its suspension of Olbermann over his financial contributions to Democratic candidates. Olbermann was accused of violating the objectivity standards of journalism. His MSNBC show, however, has always been geared to the expression of opinion, with Olbermann’s blunt views on both issues and parties leading the way.

NBC’s rather selective application of the “objectivity” requirement is made clearer by a look at its past personnel practices and its corporate activities. The network dismissed any criticism of Joe Scarborough over contributions to Republicans because Scarborough “hosts an opinion program and is not a news reporter.” And more tellingly, FAIR reports: “GE [owner of MSNBC] made over $2 million in political contributions in the 2010 election cycle … The top recipient was Republican Senate candidate Rob Portman from Ohio.” Apparently leaning right does not raise issues of professional ethics, while any leftward tilt sure does.

NBC could be reacting to the Olbermann disclosure because it exposes a deeper truth about all news reporting. The star anchors do not operate from some universal eye in the sky perspective. Pretensions to the contrary, however, media are selective in the stories they choose, how those stories are framed, and the kind of narratives they build. A story about poverty may emphasize chronic unemployment and capitalist cycles or a “culture” of poverty focusing on the motivations and “pathologies” of family life. Even journalists who present “both sides” of a story are and must be highly selective. Most political issues have many sides and focus on two sides often obscures assumptions both sides share.  Capitalists and socialists shared a faith in and commitment to material growth as natural. This is not to suggest that anything goes journalistically, but perhaps the most honest journalism is that which acknowledges its general orientation, is attentive to gaps and problems in its own analysis, and gives space for alternative perspectives.

Sports programming is supposed to be a separate realm, even a respite from such intellectual challenges and complexities. Yet sports and sports broadcasting pervade the culture and shape and are shaped by political discourse. Much political coverage today reduces election campaigns to the level of a horse race and endless discussion of who will win, usually to the detriment of any systematic coverage of issues.

Sportscasters themselves of course occasionally express overtly political views. During an era when political and scholarly debate focused on African American IQ, NFL analyst Tom Brookshier was suspended for suggesting the largely African-American Louisville basketball team “had a collective IQ of 40.” A few years later, popular NFL Today regular Jimmy the Greek Snyder was fired for arguing that African Americans had been bred through slavery to be better athletes. More recently, ESPN pushed Rush Limbaugh off the air for suggesting that a politically correct media deemed African American quarterback Donovan McNabb great because they held him to a lesser standard.

Blatant racism of this sort in sports commentary is largely a thing of the past, but class warfare — of the rich against the poor and working class — still has a place. During the opening football telecast of the season Al Michaels, the dean of American sports broadcasters, couldn’t resist a derisive shot at the NFL player’s union. When both the New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings jointly raised their helmets in a solidarity statement, Michaels pontificated: “There is nothing like a labor statement to start the season.” Sports analyst Dave Zirin points out that Michaels has a history of conservative political jabs.

Less noticed but more significant is the prevalence of subtle cultural commentary throughout the world of sport. Games are portrayed as “war,” and broadcasters endlessly celebrate the military, with hardly a word on behalf of those few athletes who sacrifice for peace or social justice. I would also love to have a dollar for every time a sportscaster reminds us Team A beat Team B because A “wanted it more.” One of my favorite moments in sports viewing occurred during a college basketball game last winter when the play by play man uttered that timeless cliché only to have his color commentator, Len Elmore, respond quietly that he had wanted many wins and skills in his life, worked very hard for them, and often not been able to achieve them.  And what about luck, or bad calls?

In addition to repeated invocations of the Protestant work ethic, sports broadcasting is often propaganda for the war on drugs, subtle digs at player’s salaries, and endless Horatio Alger stories. All those Dominican shortstops got to the big leagues because their fathers had the drive and imagination to make them gloves from old milk cartons.

Yes player salaries are too high, but how often have you heard any discussion of how the owners made their money.  And how often do broadcasters discuss the rate of occupational injury and disease in professional sports? And when was the last time you went to a game to see Patriot’s owner Robert Kraft throw a pass? Why do Dominican kids need gloves made from milk cartons? How many more might make it via baseball or other careers if billionaire owners paid their fair share in taxes.

For me, ritual firings — whether of overtly conservative or radical broadcasters or newsmen — too easily lets networks maintain a dull mainstream consensus. Even well-publicized firings for the most offensive speech risks making such commentators martyrs for the all too many viewers who probably share their exclusionary instincts. Far better that other commentators answer the bile of Limbaugh and the like. If Keith Olbermann does lose his program with MSNBC — as well he might with the Comcast takeover looming — let’s hope ESPN rehires him. Sports commentary might then be more diverse and entertaining, a lesson and a benefit of us all.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2010

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