In July 2002, the New York Times ran a short news story in its sports section, reporting that the chairman of the Augusta, Georgia, National Golf Club, home of the Masters Tournament, had rebuffed a demand that the club open membership to women. Responding to threats from the National Council of Women’s Organizations to put economic pressure on the club, Augusta’s chairman, William Johnson, told the Times that private institutions had the right to set their own membership criteria. “There may well come a day when women will be invited to join our membership,” Johnson said, “but that timetable will be ours, and not at the point of a bayonet.” The head of the women’s organization, Martha Burk, fired back that the matter was far from closed.
For the Times, that certainly proved true. Before the end of the year, the paper would publish nearly four dozen pieces on the subject, escalating its coverage from brief news items to columns, editorials, and “enterprise” pieces that, in effect, challenged key figures and institutions involved with Augusta—including golfer Tiger Woods, tournament sponsor IBM, and broadcaster CBS—to pick a side in the debate. During this period, the Times also spiked several pieces by its own sports columnists that dissented from the party line, including one by Pulitzer Prize winner Dave Anderson challenging an editorial that urged Woods to boycott the Masters. (Under pressure from its own newsroom, the paper ultimately ran the columns.) “By almost any measure, the paper’s coverage of Augusta has shifted from overdrive to overkill,” wrote Slate media critic Jack Shafer in late 2002. The Times, under its new executive editor Howell Raines, was “ginning up controversies as much as reporting them,” observed Newsweek.
With so many star reporters in its weightier departments, the Times’s use of its sports pages to push a political agenda must have initially surprised readers. In the years since, much of the rest of the paper, along with most mainstream journalism, has moved in the same ever-leftward direction. Indeed, in the age of Donald Trump, the leading departments of major newspapers have increasingly taken a position of open opposition to the administration. The Times’s sports pages have been at the forefront of this trend. Even as other major sports sections keep their main focus on the athletic exploits of local teams and athletes, Times sportswriters have frequently dragged hot-button issues that divide the nation—from climate change to #MeToo to immigration polices—into their section. This trend has only intensified, despite reader grumblings that the paper’s nuts-and-bolts sports coverage is lackadaisical, at best. Times sportswriting has become an accurate contemporary road map of progressive partisanship, and especially identity politics.
Robert Lipsyte, who wrote the paper’s Sports of the Times column in the late 1960s, once observed that the paper of record was “always amused by having a Sports section. They saw it as their comics.” Not any more: now the paper appears to see sports as part of the vanguard in a cultural revolution.
Newspaper coverage of sports in America developed rapidly in the second half of the nineteenth century, with influential figures like Henry Chadwick, who began reporting on cricket matches for New York papers in the 1850s, and then discovered baseball. He wrote so ardently about that game that he was sometimes known as the “father of baseball.”
As Chadwick’s work—which included innovations like creating the box score—caught on, other papers looked to match his efforts. In 1883, the New York World hired the first staff devoted entirely to sports, and 12 years later, the New York Journal launched what’s considered the first distinct newspaper sports section. But even as interest in sports grew into the early twentieth century, the Times remained largely unenthusiastic. A. J. Liebling, who served as a copyreader in the paper’s sports department during the 1920s, noted that Times owner Arthur Ochs seemed intent on making sports “as uninteresting as possible.”
Ochs eventually discovered, though, that there was good work to be done on the sports beat, with the arrival on the scene of stylish writers like the New York Herald Tribune’s Grantland Rice, who famously borrowed from the Book of Revelation in describing Notre Dame’s formidable 1924 backfield as the “Four Horsemen.” Spurred by Rice’s example, the Times lured New York American columnist John Kieran to write a new bylined feature, Sports of the Times, which got going in 1927, beginning the long run of a column manned by, over the years, not only the poetry-spouting Kieran but Pulitzer Prize winners Red Smith and Dave Anderson, and the eccentric Lipsyte, who rarely played sports as a kid and described himself as an “accidental sportswriter.”
Smith and Anderson exemplified how one could write consistently about the everyday world of sports—the winners and losers, heroes and goats—and still rise above the ordinary. One Smith column, cited by the Pulitzer committee, derived its title—“Joe Was Still Coming In”—from the author’s opening, describing the final fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in Manila on October 1, 1975: “When time has cooled the violent passions of the sweltering day and the definitive history is written of the five-year war between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, the objective historian will remember that Joe was still coming in at the finish,” Smith began. The piece manages to be a tribute both to Ali, whom Smith branded a “callow braggart of 22,” who later become “a champion of genuine quality,” and to Frazier, “remorseless . . . and single-minded,” whose “attack would have reduced another man to putty,” except the “guy in the white trunks was not another man. He was the champion.”
Anderson scored his award partly with a column about a less ennobling event: a November 1980 New York Yankees press conference announcing that Dick Howser was “resigning” as manager. Headlined “The Food on a Table at the Execution,” the column presents maybe the most telling words ever written about Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, as he tries to convince reporters that Howser is voluntarily stepping down to pursue real-estate ventures in Florida. “Anybody want any sandwiches?” Steinbrenner asks the reporters as they gather. “We’ve got a lot of sandwiches here.” Meanwhile, Anderson observes, “Dick Howser sat stiffly . . . staring out away from George Steinbrenner, staring blankly at the white draperies that had been drawn across the huge window that overlooks the grassy geometry of the ball field where Dick Howser no longer would work.” When Steinbrenner tells reporters, “I think it’s safe to say . . . that Dick Howser wants to be a Florida resident year-round, right, Dick?” Anderson adds: “Dick Howser didn’t even answer that one.” As the conference finally ends and the beleaguered ex-manager flees, Anderson closes: “George Steinbrenner looked around. ‘Nobody ate any sandwiches,’ the Yankee owner said.”
It’s not that Smith and Anderson and other Times sportswriters completely avoided public controversies. They wrote about black athlete protests at the 1968 Olympics; boxing officials stripping Ali of his title for refusing induction into the armed forces during the Vietnam War; unionization in sports; and baseball’s controversial reserve clause, which, until an arbitrator overturned it, bound athletes to teams for life. But though the columnists occasionally ranged widely, they wrote mostly about the day-to-day sports world. “Maybe I took it a little less seriously,” Lipsyte once said of his tenure. “But, basically, I really did cover sports.”
Exactly when this orientation started to change isn’t easy to pinpoint. The tenure of Raines, whose “flooding-the-zone” approach to controversies, which involved hurling the paper’s considerable journalistic assets at a hot-button story, is a likely candidate, however. The Times’s Masters coverage under Raines—who resigned in 2003 after failing to heed warnings that reporter Jayson Blair was fabricating details in his stories—seemed to propel the sports section forward on its next zealous mission: saturation coverage of the news, breaking in early 2006, that members of the Duke University lacrosse team were under investigation for allegedly raping a local black woman at a party. After an initial page-one story on March 29 noting that rape allegations were “roiling” the university, the Times published six more stories and columns over the next two days, among them a Sports of the Times feature that described the university as “virtuous on the outside, debauched on the inside” and branded the lacrosse team “a group of privileged players.”
Yet no one had been arrested or indicted. By the end of April, the Times had published 40 pieces on the case, including an April 9 op-ed by an occasional teacher at Duke who used the allegations to conclude that, whereas students once “read the same great works, the sacred texts, Shakespeare and the Greeks” at Duke, “now corporate America, athletic America, Defense Department America form a unified competitive team” at the university. Something was rotten not just in Durham but across the nation: “The imperative to win, and damn all collateral costs, is not peculiar to Durham—and it is killing us,” the article contended. “Why is there no one to admire?”
The Times’s heavy coverage proceeded without undue concern for the facts. On April 29, the National Journal’s Stuart Taylor, Jr., assessing the evidence, concluded that the case represented “an outrageous rush to judgement.” Still, the Times hurtled ahead, with only occasional expressions of doubt. It resurrected its Masters controversy strategy of pressing major figures and institutions to take a stand—and calling them out if they didn’t. One op-ed complained that Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski had remained silent about the scandal, yet “still appears in ads for American Express and Chevy”—as if Krzyzewski was obligated to withdraw from public life because of something players on another Duke team had purportedly done. Later, the Times targeted the coach again: “Krzyzewski Defends Silence, and Duke,” blared the headline. Some four years earlier, the Times had similarly tried to shame CBS, which broadcast the Masters, for “Staying Silent in Debate on Women Joining Augusta.” That story prompted a distressed Times reporter to tell Newsweek: “That was just shocking. . . . We don’t run articles that just say so-and-so is staying silent. We run articles when something important actually happens.” If Times staffers voiced similar misgivings during the Duke controversy, they were never heard outside the paper’s building.
It wasn’t until August 2006 that the Times published a feature-length story professing to be a thorough reassessment of the Duke case. While defense attorneys offered the public evidence favorable to the defendants, the 5,000-word essay reasoned, “there is also a body of evidence to support [the prosecutor’s] decision to take the matter to a jury.” Writing in Slate, Taylor complained that the story “highlights every superficially incriminating piece of evidence in the case, selectively omits important exculpatory evidence, and reports hotly disputed statements by not-very-credible police officers and the mentally unstable accuser as if they were established facts.” Even the Times’s public editor, Byron Calame, was troubled, noting that the story “left me concerned that Times journalists were not sufficiently skeptical” of some of the investigators’ claims. Eventually, charges against the players were dropped, while the controversial prosecutor, Mike Nifong, was disbarred and removed from office for “systematic abuse of prosecutorial discretion . . . prejudicial to the administration of justice.”
“Trump’s surprise victory has unhinged Times sportswriters as much as it has reporters at CNN, MSNBC, or The Nation.”
Yet the Duke fiasco, described by one of the paper’s own former sports columnists as an “exploding cigar,” did nothing to dissuade the Times sports section from wandering ever deeper into identity politics. Times conservative columnist David Brooks suggested the reason. In an early piece during the Duke controversy, Brooks derided the “hyper politicized” statements of activists, who would, he predicted, exploit the case for their own purposes. “For many on the tenured left,” he wrote, bashing the white, middle-class lacrosse players “is all that’s left of their once-great activism.” Since then, it hasn’t been just the tenured Left but a larger “privileged class” that has embraced identity politics—and few more visibly than writers at the Times.
The groundwork for this politicization was established well before the 2016 election. Nevertheless, Trump’s surprise victory has unhinged Times sportswriters as much as it has reporters at CNN, MSNBC, or The Nation. Though Trump, with his incendiary comments about the NFL player national anthem protests, has fueled some of the politicized sports coverage, the Times’s sports section has gone out of its way to find or create a steady stream of controversial content about the president, extending far beyond the anthem flare-up. The section, for instance, has published five stories about professional golfers who would or would not golf with Trump, the owner of several courses. A Times reporter surveyed male golf pros to find out if they’d accept an invitation to play with the president. When it turned out that most (89.3 percent) would, the Times reassured its readers: “The clubhouses at P.G.A. Tour stops have long trended Republican, and the sport’s target demographic—rich, mostly white men—is far different” from the people whom Trump’s policies offend.
Undeterred, the Times moved on to write several pieces about what it calls the “complicated” relationship between women golfers and Trump, deemed the “Daddy Warbucks of women’s golf” by the paper for his long years sponsoring Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) events. “How do [women pro golfers] reconcile their ambitions as strong, accomplished women with the expectations thrust upon them by strong, accomplished women whose experience with the president is very different from their own?” the Times asks. Those expectations seem to come mostly from the Times itself, which asked women golfers how they can justify playing with Trump or at Trump events, given the image of him as a “leering, lewd-talking man caught conversing with Billy Bush during a taping of a 2005 segment for Access Hollywood.” Prominent in one story is a women’s group, UltraViolet, which plans to boycott Trump-backed LPGA events until the organization dumps him as a sponsor. “The ladies that play golf shouldn’t be forced to build up the Trump brand in any way,” the head of the group tells the paper, without explaining how losing the tour’s main benefactor would enhance women’s golf.
The point of these stories seems not simply to expose those who might (even unwittingly) “normalize” Trump by associating with him, but also to discipline them. Five weeks after the Times wrote about Rory McIlroy golfing with Trump, the paper was back with a new piece, noting that the highly ranked golfer had now “backpedaled” on joining the president after getting whiplashed for it on social media. He had played only out of respect for the office, McIlroy sheepishly explained.
Looking to stoke controversy, the sports section is pressing athletes for their viewpoints on issues far from the playing fields. As NFL players and officials gathered for the Super Bowl in early 2017, for instance, the sports section of the paper tried to fire up debate with several pieces about the league’s reaction—or lack of it—to Trump’s controversial policies, including his ban on visitors from countries identified as sponsors of terrorism. One story described how the league had edited out of Super Bowl press conference transcripts questions about Trump (the league seemed to think, unaccountably, that the questions had nothing to do with the game). Another item, about how the NFL’s only Muslim owner, Shahid Khan of the Jacksonville Jaguars, opposed Trump’s travel ban, started off gratuitously, noting: “Commissioner Roger Goodell of the N.F.L. declined to take a public stance” on the issue—as if it were exceptional that the head of a distinctly American sports league, the majority of whose players are native-born Americans, didn’t have a public position on immigration. By contrast, major papers like the Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, and the Boston Globe, known for their thorough sports coverage, wrote nothing on their sports pages about immigration policy.
In the age of Trump, the Times has searched high and low for evidence of “the Resistance” in the sports world. What else could account for two articles running within ten days about the Seattle Storm—a team in the relatively obscure women’s basketball league, the WNBA—holding a Planned Parenthood fund-raiser? One of the articles reports that the Storm’s three female owners, looking to use the team as a “Platform for Activism,” had picked Planned Parenthood because it is “a frequent target of President Trump’s administration and the Republican-controlled Congress.”
The Times has been intent on making heroes out of obscure sports figures, as long as they boast the right politics. Late last year, the section featured a 1,100-word profile of Texas TV sports commentator Dale Hansen, whose principal accomplishment while working at a Dallas ABC-TV affiliate seems to be that he’s a “folksy voice of progressivism,” carrying on in “deeply conservative Texas.” That doesn’t quite describe the politics of Dallas, but Hansen still qualifies as a celebrity for the Times because he has the audacity to confront local Texas sports fans about their “white privilege.” Remarkably, the Times, a paper where space is at a premium and personalities around the world long to be profiled, lavishes this attention on someone who tapes a mere eight to ten commentaries a year, each about three minutes in length.
The media, triggered by Trump, have grown to love the term “activist,” a word that, since the 2016 election, has shown up three times as often in the sports pages of the Times as in the comparable sections of major papers like the Boston Globe or the Chicago Tribune. Earlier this year, for example, an interview with the Houston Rockets’ Chris Paul featured a headline calling him a “Point Guard, Activist, Union Boss,” whose mission, the story tells us, has been “taking back” the NBA players’ union—from whom, it’s not made clear. A 2,800-word profile of Golden State Warriors assistant coach Ron Adams describes him as a “subtle activist” on a club “uncommonly engaged with the outside world.” When Democrat Doug Jones beat Republican Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate special election last December, the paper reported, the Oakland-based Warriors blasted “Sweet Home Alabama” over their PA system. Adams apparently goes through “an existential crisis” every few months about whether he shouldn’t be doing more meaningful things with his life, sends out essays about race and Trump to the team, and is “best friends with a Gestalt psychologist”—though the Times neglects to impart the political significance of that last nugget of information.
The obverse of these flattering profiles is yet more stories about people or institutions with insufficiently robust progressive views. In an insinuating column last year, the Times disclosed that the New York Yankees don’t hold a gay pride night, even as these events “proliferate” around Major League Baseball. The Times cast this Yankee omission as profound, as “their city helped give birth to the modern gay rights movement.” The story largely describes how teams around the league market to various groups—African-Americans, Jews, the Irish, and, in some cases, gays—with “pride” nights. When the Yankees explain that they’ve shied away from this type of ethnic and cultural marketing—not just to gays but toward identity groups in general—the Times offers no additional evidence that the team might be insensitive to gays, though the paper packaged the article under a provocative headline—“Gay Pride Events Proliferate, but Yankees Remain a Holdout”—designed to create that impression.
Current progressive journalism demands that any social advancement be counterbalanced with warnings that racism and sexism still lurk everywhere. An absurd version of this outlook appeared in the Times sports pages earlier this year, after the Cleveland Indians, under pressure from Major League Baseball’s commissioner, agreed to stop using the Chief Wahoo logo on their uniforms because “[t]he logo has long been the source of anguish and frustration for those who consider it offensive, outdated and racist,” as the Times put it. The sports section followed up with a 2,000-plus-word article: “Indian Mascots Live On in Europe.” The writer scoured the Old World to report that, even as offensive logos were vanishing in America, “new examples were appearing in Europe, where teams and fans have long viewed the mascots and logos . . . detached from the charged history that the imagery carries in North America.” Among the culprits: an Exeter rugby team, the Ghent team in Belgium’s First Division soccer league, a Swedish hockey squad from Gothenburg, and a Czech hockey club in Pilsen (even though, as a club spokesman explained, its Indian logo was inspired by the insignia of the U.S. Army’s Second Infantry Division, which liberated Pilsen during World War II). Exeter’s Chiefs came in for considerable attention because their gift shop is known as the Trading Post, a fan message board is called the Pow-Wow, and stadium bars bear names like the Wigwam, Cheyenne, Apache, Mohawk, and Tomahawk. In Europe, the Times dredged up critics of the logos, including a U.S. history professor at Cardiff University and a “cultural ambassador for the Crow Creek South Dakota Sioux” in England. Who knew that the Sioux were so well represented abroad? The story, which reads like an Onion satire, makes no reference to the many polls showing that Native Americans are overwhelmingly un-offended by these logos.
Another intention of identity journalism is to remind readers that, even when they think that they are enlightened, they’re probably not. During the 2015 women’s soccer World Cup, an English player, Laura Bassett, accidentally deflected a ball into her own goal in the game’s waning minutes—a miscue that sent her team out of the tournament. Scenes of the devastated player breaking down evoked sympathy in England and around the world. But it turns out that such expressions, even by those “woke” enough to be watching women’s soccer in the first place, are nothing less than chauvinism, the Times lectured readers, picking up on a British newspaper column titled “Our Sympathy Towards Laura Bassett Is Sexist.” English fans would have, by contrast, derided a male player for such emotionalism in a country where criticism of the men’s national team is merciless and unrelenting, the Times maintained, and pitying Bassett was part of our broader problem with sexism; while we still see male players as athletes first, “We see female athletes as women first.”
Besides identity politics, the other issue that modern progressivism demands deep adherence to is climate change, and here the Times sports pages, with the Winter Olympics in its scope, delivers frequently. Earlier this year, the paper profiled Olympic skier and climate-change “advocate” Jesse Diggins with a piece comically headlined “An Olympic Skier Stands Up for Snow,” which chronicled her efforts to call attention to global warming. Other stories inform us that hockey rinks in Arctic Canada are installing cooling equipment and that stadiums around the world are turning to greener architecture to reduce their (already small) carbon footprints—an example for the rest of us to emulate. During California’s drought, readers discovered that, thanks to climate change, the state’s ski resorts were “left high and dry.” Sports, in the form of the Olympics’ winter games, were the subject of a Times op-ed in 2014 with a headline that has since been wildly derided: “The End of Snow.” The story predicts mounting difficulties for future Winter Olympics. (As long as they aren’t held in South Korea, presumably: at the 2018 winter games, athletes and spectators endured exceedingly cold temperatures.)
Of course, when it comes to weather, which can be highly variable from year to year and from place to place, it’s best to avoid making sweeping predictions. When, for instance, in 2017, California’s drought faded and snow returned to the state’s ski resorts, local papers were ecstatic. “Endless winter?” the Los Angeles Times asked, almost hopefully, as resorts stayed open through July 4 weekend, while the San Luis Obispo Tribune called the Sierra Nevada snowpack “crazy, amazing” and the San Bernardino Sun punned, “Water is snow problem.” The New York Times, so concerned about the fate of the resorts a few years earlier, remained silent about their robust comeback.
Perhaps noticing its own preoccupation with politics and sports, the Times op-ed pages recently asked, “How Did Sports Get So Divisive?” The answer apparently isn’t the hyper-politicization of sports by the Left, or the need to call everyone in sports to account for where they stand on social issues, or the intrusion of identity politics into every facet of American life. No, the Times tells us, the phenomenon was rooted in conservative expressions of patriotism after September 11 and marketing by the military to young sports fans. “Why was everyone—from players to coaches to fans in authentic team gear—suddenly wearing camouflage at a sporting event?” asked Howard Bryant, an NPR sports correspondent. The problem, he argued, is that rather than protesting how the military has imbued sports with unacceptable levels of patriotism, America is telling black athletes that they should “shut up and play.” While reaction against the NFL’s national anthem protests might seem to be directed at rich athletes, “you know it is also designed to shut all black people up,” he wrote.
All this sports-as-social-commentary takes place at a paper whose readers seem to yearn for the traditional sports coverage that dailies around the country typically offer. Last year, the Times’s public editor, Liz Spayd, addressed reader complaints that the sports section doesn’t provide “a reliable venue to follow a favorite player or the arc of a team’s season.” Reader Charles Paikert of South Orange, New Jersey, grumbled, “Why are there big stories on Nordic surfing, German ice water swimming and Brazilian badminton and hardly any beat coverage of the Knicks, Nets, Rangers, Devils or Islanders?” Displaying what must be, to the current crop of Times sportswriters, disturbing nationalistic tendencies, Paikert added, “Why does a soccer column from Europe get more play than a column on sports in America?” Spayd takes these and other concerns to the sports-page editor, who says that his mission is to “produce a general-interest sports section for a sophisticated global audience.” A somewhat skeptical Spayd replies that covering the globe is a “grand ambition” for just 20 staffers. “Much goes uncovered,” she concedes.
Nevertheless, with Times sports, it’s what gets covered that’s most telling. Recently, for instance, the section ran a 690-word item, the work of two reporters, on the championship Wake Forest tennis team’s trip to the White House. What was so significant about this event for the Times? The son of Fox commentator and Trump supporter Sean Hannity played for the team, it turns out, and the elder Hannity apparently “helped instigate talks” to get the team invited. Unsurprisingly, no other sports page in America published a story about the visit.
Top Photo: When English soccer player Laura Bassett made a crucial miscue that eliminated her team from the World Cup, the paper suggested that widespread sympathy for her was sexist. (JASON FRANSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP PHOTO)