At any point on any day, I can turn on my TV and with one click of a button have nothing but sports ephemera directly delivered to my brain. I could get it via the myriad iterations of ESPN, or via NBC Sports, or via NFL Network (yes, an entire network just about the NFL), or via NBA TV (an entire network just about the NBA), or via MLB TV (you can guess what’s on there). For those who prefer unpaid athletes, there’s SEC Network (an entire TV network devoted to one college sports conference), Big 10 Network (another TV network devoted to one college sports conference), or the Pac 12 Network (again, you can see the pattern by now). There’s also the Longhorn Network, an entire network dedicated just to the Texas Longhorns. All these enterprises, and are many more that I left out, will fill your brain with nonstop “news” about sports.
And if I get bored with the TV, I can read a local newspaper sports section. Or I can read ESPN’s website. Or I can read the Athletic. Or I can read Sports Illustrated. Or I can read Bleacher Report. Or I can download the Bleacher Report app and have news sent right to my phone, getting a buzz for every minuscule trade, contract, injury, or development that happens in the great wide world of sports. And what will I do with all this sports knowledge? Eh, who knows.
Discussing how intellectually important, or not, sports journalism or any form journalism remains a pointless exercise in snobbery about little more than one person proving how much smarter they are (or think they are) than another— as if there were journalism purity tests. But you can say, definitively, that there is a lot of sports journalism and most of the information being delivered isn’t super important. It is certainly no more important than what lip gloss you should buy or what color will be hot this season or the latest update on a Kardashian.
Like celebrity journalism, it is highly dependent on access, which leads to a glut of extremely flattering profiles on just about all involved. As with celebrity journalism, most of the coverage is positive and deferential to the institutions it covers, be it the arbitrary rules of Hollywood movie production or the arbitrary rules of trades in sports leagues. Like with celebrity journalism, this really isn’t information you need to function during the day but it is information that can give you a certain cachet.
With TV networks, the line gets blurrier. This is because the networks both report on the leagues and also pay the leagues in return for the rights to air their games. How impartial is TNT when it is financially connected to the NBA? On the league-specific networks, which also have corresponding websites, the distinction between news and ad copy gets even thinner. You will not read “Roger Goodell is a shit-eating moron” on NFL.com.
This seems to bother absolutely no one.
This is what came to my mind when Josephine Livingstone argued Thursday in the New Republic that women’s media is a scam. I won’t belabor the validity of Livingtone’s argument here because, for one, it was nothing that wasn’t said to me more than a decade ago when a copy editor saw me bring an issue of InStyle to the newsroom and told me, “You read that advertorial garbage?” What struck me as curious wasn’t whether or not women’s media is a scam but where and why Livingstone chose to make that critique.
You could make that exact same argument—and a much stronger version of it, at that—against sports reporting and sports media overall. You could call SBNation’s team sites, powered by underpaid, exploited labor, a scam. You could call ESPN’s made-up awards show, the ESPYs, a scam. You could call the SI feature that peddled Tom Brady’s unqualified quack guru a scam. You could call NFL Network, where I once worked, a scam. The Players Tribune is basically the People magazine of sports and yet it gets glowing coverage from places like the Poynter Institute, which called it “an athletic community.” You could call it a scam.
But nobody would dare do that.
This isn’t meant to say sports media is fundamentally bad. I’m in sports media, and even though that’s not my beat, I’ve contributed to the daily grind of amusing ephemera. Please keep reading sports journalism, as that is what pays me, and there is good sports journalism out there. But I’m also not the first person to make this observation about how closely related much of celebrity journalism, which can fall under the rubric of women’s media, and sports journalism are. One of the best gossip writers working, Elaine Lui, told the Washington Post this earlier this year.
Lui returns to a thread she’s been tugging on these past few days: that the real reason gossip is met with such contempt is because it is a feminized space. Where athletics are perceived as hypermasculine and are, in turn, afforded almost comical reverence, celebrity gossip is a girly, guilty pleasure.
“How many 24-hour sports channels are there?” Lui asks. She notes that “SportsCenter” and its ilk are simply reporting on gossip.
“Who’s getting traded to who? Who’s signing a deal? What happened in the locker room? . . . That’s basically what we do on a gossip blog: Who is going to sign on to this movie? Are they going to get along with this person?” She is exasperated but delighted to be on one of her favorite tears. “It’s the same!”
It really is the same. The same way the movie business invented the Oscars to drum up publicity for themselves, every sports league hands out awards complete with a stage and a red carpet on television. But nobody faults sports reporters for paying too much attention to who gets MVP or makes it into the various halls of fame. Everyone frets over reality TV without realizing that live sports are the original reality TV, a manufactured drama involving real people portraying themselves that everyone watches because nobody knows what will happen next. Sports radio is littered with cross-promotion, when the show host suddenly pivots to tell you about this amazing vitamin supplement and/or pet food and/or workout program they just discovered. And it’s so good. You need to try HealthyLifeTabsOfJoyAndFun just this once and don’t forget the promo code. These are clearly paid for, and yet nobody seems nervous about the ethics of those product placements.
I could go on, but at some point, the exercise gets tedious and always leads to the same question: Why is women’s media constantly berated for its perceived lack of ethics; its lack of the transparency; its unpaid laborers; its lack of values while sports journalism largely isn’t?
It’s probably not a coincidence that sports and sports journalism, due to systemic sex discrimination, were until recently seen as the sole domicile of men and are still perceived as masculine spaces, the last stand of red-blooded American manhood in a literal man cave. Stories about sports are, more often than not, still stories about men, written by men, and published in a publication run by men. And in telling those stories a sports journalist can do no wrong. But women and their stories and their media and their journalism must once again be held to the higher standard, the Ginger Rogers principle playing out in perpetuity—or at least until so many women are in sports and sports journalism that it’s suddenly seen as (gasp) feminine.