Maybe you’ve never heard of Deadspin, the sardonic sports website that, for nearly 15 years, has served up sports news with an entertaining half smirk, broken huge sports stories and produced some very good journalism. But you’ve, no doubt, heard some variation of the argument that has landed the site in its death throes.
It goes like this: “Just stick to sports.”
That was the gist of a memo sent last week to Deadspin employees from the media manager of the site and several other websites that are owned under one umbrella.
At least one employee was fired for not adhering to the directive. Then, the entire editorial staff quit. The manager who sent out the memo resigned this week.
Whether it’s a platform with the subversive cache of Deadspin or the tried-and-true local drive-time call-in show, at some point, a caller, a tweeter or a troll will tell the author of a piece or host of a show to “stick to sports.” The audience, according to the aggrieved party, doesn’t want to hear thoughts on war, humanitarian crises or politics from someone they judge unqualified to offer them. Keep it to whether Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott should get $30 million or $40 million when his rookie contract is up, please. Nothing further is required.
Some formats are certainly better suited for keeping content centered around what happened on the field, but there are several reasons the demand to never stray outside the arena is unrealistic.
First off, sports and politics, and, by extension, other social issues, are becoming more and more inseparable. Social media is obviously a big part of that. What is a sports media outlet supposed to do when the president of the United States is feuding via Twitter with the captain of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team as it’s barnstorming to a World Cup title? What about the fact that one of the first questions any athlete is asked after winning a title is whether they’ll visit the White House?
If the president gets booed at the World Series, people are going to talk about it. When an NBA team owner is essentially censured and censored by his league and the Chinese government for acknowledging his support for protesters being savagely oppressed in Hong Kong, that’s a story.
The corporate behemoths that operate sports media companies are, themselves, partly to blame for the bleed effect between worlds. Take ESPN, which is owned by Disney (as everything certainly will be within a few years). Disney is as serious as it gets when it comes to not messing with the bottom line, and ESPN’s own corporate culture has been noted for its rigidity.
But not long ago, ESPN purged most of its longtime reporters who did nothing but report. In adapting to the changing nature of sports news, where scores and basic information are available on your phone, the company decided to retain and promote on-air talent with more personality. Turns out, those folks have opinions that don’t always fit in the standard Disney packing crate. Some have lost their jobs. Some have gone elsewhere. Some have found ways to operate within the rules while still being provocative. Others have become more bland.
Of course, the athletes are brands unto themselves now. American, indeed global, culture has afforded them as much, and the market will certainly bear it. These athletes are going to have controversial opinions. They’re going to use their platform as a way to affect social change. Whether that’s good or bad depends on who you ask and is, frankly, beside the point. It simply exists as it does, and it’s not likely going back.
Deadspin, ESPN and the rest can’t stick to sports, because sports no longer sticks to sports.