I turned on the television to find it still tuned to NBC’s sports channel. Somebody named Mike Florio was rhapsodizing about how the Colin Kaepernick affair, now elevated to the status of a Time cover story, had made NFL players realize that they have the power to create social change. I quickly deduced that Florio didn’t have anything new to say about a subject he wasn’t particularly informed about, so I changed the channel. I’d done the same thing the night before when the NFL network’s Rich Eisen and “Mooch” Mariucci turned a pregame show into a discussion of Kaepernick, the social-justice warrior. Determined not to lose precious seconds of my life, I snapped off the TV in disgust.
According to a recent poll, Kaepernick is the NFL’s most disliked player. That’s not surprising. NFL fans are, in general, more right-of-center than the population as a whole. Since Kaepernick’s anthem demonstrations began, I’ve heard more than one NFL fan express frustration at the degree to which the players and the football-focused media are allowing politics to intrude on coverage of the league. Most of us have better options to inform ourselves on Ferguson, Dallas, Tulsa, and Charlotte, and there’s little we can learn from athletes or sports journalists. Many fans feel trapped because they can’t imagine letting go of the NFL.
Start somewhere else. In addition to the actual games, professional football supports a vast media universe. Many of those who work in that universe are hard at work peddling the phony narrative that Kaepernick is some kind of national free-speech figure. Even if you can’t imagine giving up the games, why not try giving up the talking heads?
I’ve been letting go of the NFL for years. Television time-outs and flag-frenzied officials have robbed the game of much of what used to attract me. I no longer care to watch games between teams for which I don’t have a rooting interest—a big change from a decade ago—and gradually have found other things to do on fall Sundays (and Mondays, and Thursdays). I’m not alone, as the NFL’s shrinking ratings attest. Even if you can’t give up the games, recognize that the media living off the league are pathetic and uninteresting. We continue to watch mostly out of habit. (My weakness is listening to interviews with crusty old coaches like Mike Ditka and Bill Parcells, who don’t suffer fools.)
History is on the side of the cord-cutters. The great era of media decentralization and decline that began with print is now transforming the electronic press. Consumers are taking advantage of the opportunities presented by new technologies to escape from the dictatorship of the few. In sports, even ESPN, which has lost some 7 million cable subscribers in two years, is feeling the impact. It isn’t just disintermediation—that is, the erosion of the traditional gateways through which many of us were forced to buy our content—but also the startling array of choices from around the world that makes it easier not to have to suffer the Rich Eisens of the world. Why should I watch some NFL pregame show—or even a game I don’t care about—if I can watch Barcelona against Real Madrid in the Spanish soccer league? Your choices might not be the same as mine, but I’m sure you have them.
Don’t expect that your protests against the politicization of sports coverage will make a difference. Even as the arrogant journalists of the print media drifted further and further to the left, they ignored reader complaints about partisan coverage. Now, the world of print is crumbling before our eyes. Newspaper and magazines are laying off readers in big chunks. Yet, the traditional press is actually doubling down on its losing strategy in this election and embracing coverage that is more partisan than ever. The social-justice warriors of the sports press will do no less.
The good news is that the Kaepernick media frenzy will generate even more decentralization and choice. Rupert Murdoch made an awful lot of money by providing an alternative to the standard left-wing presentation of the news. Before he died, Andrew Breitbart fashioned a mini-empire of alternative journalism catering to those fed up with media bias. Some enterprising media innovators are surely eying something similar for sports coverage. It might be as simple as ideology-free sports reporting (imagine that!) or a commitment to balancing points of view. The folks at Realclearsports.com already aggregate different perspectives in one place, but there’s more to be done. I look forward to it—probably even more than I look forward to NFL games these days.
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