ESPN Ombudsman Finds ESPN Isn't Airing Enough Advocacy Against 'Jock Culture Attitudes and Politics'

March 25th, 2014 3:02 PM

In case you’re one of those conservatives that doesn’t want liberal social crusades constantly mixed in your sports journalism, see D.C. sports radio host Steve Czaban. He has a blog post titled “ESPN Will Force You To Care! Resistance Is Futile.”

ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte  – a former New York Times columnist whose more recent home is Mother Jones – is lecturing the less-than-progressives, as he summarizes the viewpoint: “Enough already about Michael Sam, Jason Collins, Richie Incognito, Jonathan Martin, concussions and the N-word. I turn on ESPN to get away from the stress of everyday life, to relax with my friends, to share some family time with the kids. Why do you keep shoving that stuff in my face?” Answer: More face-shoving!

I don’t think ESPN is actually shoving enough of that stuff in enough faces often enough. The coverage of issues that jump the white lines tends to be hit-and-run, treated as isolated events rather than as a web of Jock Culture attitudes and politics that are connected and need continual attention.

Unsurprisingly, when it came to gay athlete-activists like NBA player Jason Collins, Lipsyte lined up with Keith Olbermann in the incredibly tired assumption that the "homophobes" in this scenario are paralyzed by the fear of their own latent gayness:

Within the game, athletes who are uncomfortable with gay teammates (showering together is the avowed symbol of discomfort) may very well be insecure about the boundaries of their own sexuality. As far as I have seen, only one ESPN commentator, Keith Olbermann, has taken a run at that, and even he did so in an atypically oblique way.

Drawing on what he described as 20 years of conversations with friends who were elite athletes, Olbermann characterized the group as “ultra-physical beings” for whom “'love' and 'like' mean sex.” But they have “deep platonic affections” that come “closer than a family or a fraternity, closer than anything other than men at war.”

There can be a “confusion” here, says Olbermann, and a “fear that others might think [the athlete] was gay.” Gay slurs are often used by some athletes to “show they are not gay.”

Olbermann is smart and sophisticated, so I take his circumspection as respect for a minefield in sports -- so-called homoeroticism. It also exists in prisons, where I have taught, and in fraternity houses and Army barracks, where I’ve lived. It is, of course, “complex,” and needs more, not less, exposure because same-sex attraction can be very confusing to young athletes and fans; just what is platonic, homosexual or something in between? (One word sometimes used is “homosocial,” which can cover everything from, say, all-male "Monday Night Football" parties to man-crushes on celebrity players to the decisions young gay players must make about coming out or leaving a sport).

If you start listening through your sexuality/gender filters, the homosocial vibe is everywhere on ESPN. On Feb. 24, for example, “Numbers Never Lie” co-host Michael Smith discussed how teams might disregard character or NFL combine scores to pick a player who is a great physical specimen. It would be like, he said, choosing to ignore a woman’s dicey past because “Oh, my god, she’s so fine.”

In 2006, The New York Times not only sponsored the “Gay Games” taking place in Chicago, they hosted a “Times Talks” panel discussion titled “Brokeback Locker Room.” Lipsyte, then a Times contributor, was slated to discuss with a panel of six gay athletes (and no opposition) how the "climate of acceptance" has changed in professional sports, and "What can be done to reduce the level of homophobia in the locker room and the media?"

Before the Super Bowl in 2012, Lipsyte explained to Mother Jones readers that they should watch the game and not feel they are “celebrating the holiest day of violence, consumerism, and class warfare.” They could root for the “middle class” on the field:

Even with a progressive attitude, watching the Super Bowl, which seems to float on rivers of oil—think car ads—and beer, is not exactly like holding a OWS-style general assembly in the red zone. Nevertheless, it's a terrific visual of the American class divide. In their skyboxes, usually in jacket and tie, eating, drinking, and high-fiving—or scowling—are the one-percenters who own the team, which is usually not their only source of income.

Below them, on the field, are their employees (many of them temporary one-percenters, given the median league salary of at least $560,000), using up the capital of their bodies. If you want to root for the Patriots or the Giants, fine. I'll be rooting for the working class.