Sports and politics are the tabloid-style power couple the sports media hungers for. And when it comes to addressing society’s injustices, everyone from the columnists to the talking heads who cover sports love to play matchmaker in hopes that activism-infused entertainment will lead to a new cultural “moment.”
However, the sports media often forgets one thing: sports are fun and tackling the country’s problems are not. That reality is conveniently ignored in order to preserve its righteous crusade. But if the sports media can’t call a spade a spade when it comes to blatant injustice, what credibility does it have in addressing our nation’s comparatively rosey faux pas’?
I’m referring to the radio silence from the sports media on Kim Yo-jong’s – the younger sister North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un – appearance at the Winter Olympics’ opening ceremony. You know, death camps, famine and slavery North Korea. The one with a list of human rights violations as long as your Costco receipt. While the political media made a fool of themselves praising this Princess of Darkness for “upstaging” vice president Mike Pence, the sports media pleaded the fifth.
It’s a curious decision since the sports media’s brand has evolved to include nuanced non-sports conversations with erudite attitudes and layman’s qualifications. This is the same media that’s claimed NFL owners embody a plantation-like oppression and employ wife-beating monsters until they develop brain damage. If you want to know who the media does endorse, look no further than the NBA. They’ve anointed the league’s players (and some coaches) as the country’s new Enlightenment-era thinkers for speaking in vague, inconsequential platitudes about race, equality and justice.
Any contention to these beliefs – the “stick to sports” argument – is seen as a cowardly denial to address bigger issues in society. Translation: If you’re upset with these discussions interrupting regular programming, you’re a bigot. And we wonder how open minds like this spurred ESPN to call an emergency meeting at its Bristol, Conn. headquarters last fall to right the rhetoric ship.
Given the sports media’s strong sense of morality and the natural intersection of sports and politics that comes with the Olympics, skewering North Korea should’ve been a layup. Silly me.
During the North Korean skating duo Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik’s short program Tuesday night, the broadcast booth of play-by-play guy Terry Gannon and color commentators Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir awkwardly traversed the routine.
Gannon capped off their showing by enthusiastically stating “I’ll leave the politics to someone else, that was good!” Weir tried to highlight Ryom and Kim’s strong performance while empathizing with their circumstance but was nearly too truthful when he said, “I’ve never been from a country that’s so…that’s so…” so what, Johnny? Tyrannical? Barbaric? Antithetical to everything most decent countries stand for? Lipinski saved him when she chimed in with, “So much pressure!” but the point was made. They didn’t want to touch the topic with a 10-foot pole.
Gannon, Lipinski and Weir are event broadcasters, so I don’t want to hammer them too hard. And to be fair, Yahoo Sports’ Eric Adelson did swat down the “charming” cheerleaders North Korea sent over. But this was a sports story that deserved sports opinions. Instead, we got mostly indifferent articles on the cheerleaders and how unique it was for Ryom and Kim to qualify for the games on merit — like every other athlete in from every other country.
Where were the civil-centric Sally Jenkins’ and John Feinstein’s of the world? It was a chance to argue that, with a more just country, Ryom and Kim could be gold medalists and start a North Korean skating dynasty that could raise the nation’s global profile in a positive way. The Olympics themselves were being pitched as a peace offering between the two embattled countries. Sure, any peace offering is a stretch, but this is the same media that took every word of disdain toward Cam Newton back in 2015 as an emblem of racism. Trust me, they’re flexible.
Maybe the sports media is just too polite to say something so obvious. Maybe mentioning another country’s problems is seen as uncouth, even when it’s a country that wants to blow us to smithereens. Or maybe acknowledging a real dictator would ruin any chance for them to fanatically apply it in less sinister situations down the line. Remember, the NFL can be pretty iron-fisted.
For one night, sports and politics could’ve shacked up and the world would’ve signed on. However, the media’s unwillingness to complete the connection shows they care more about what’s right for them than what’s actually the right thing to do.