“Stick to sports” has been heard this fall almost as much as “The President said what?”
The developments surrounding the national anthem protests have put sports journalists in a vice: Do we ignore what athletes are doing on the field when it’s not sports? Or do we talk about it and potentially alienate the masses who want their sports page to be football, basketball, baseball and, yes, maybe even hockey?
“I don’t think when I started out we would have addressed the issues we do today,” WFAA veteran sports anchor Dale Hansen told me. “There was, without question, the attitude that, ‘You sports guys do ball scores, you ask the players and coaches how they feel, and we [news reporters] will take care of the real news.’ I think that day has come and gone, and it should have been a long time ago.”
The developments of the last 14 months have turned a fleet of sports journalists into whiny, grandstand-y, pseudo-political pundits (guilty as charged), weighing in on subjects that have little to do with ball.
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As America’s Team prepares to enter the epicenter of the elite, liberal hippie movement to play the San Francisco 49ers and confront The Kneelers, I reached out to a handful of our area’s wisest and most accomplished sports voices: Dan Jenkins, Randy Galloway, Jim Reeves and Hansen.
All of these men have forgotten more about sports journalism that most of us will ever know, and each helped to shape an industry.
I asked all of them in light of today’s events should sports journalists just stick to sports?
Dan Jenkins (award-winning author and former Sports Illustrated writer): “Back in my day, at least, the smartest sportswriters tried to keep up with current events, not politics particularly, so they might want to make a funny reference to something. But nobody really mixed the two in writing. Nothing could possibly be as important as the Texas-OU game, or USC-Notre Dame, or even TCU-SMU. Much less Ben Hogan or the Masters and U.S. Open.
“Amazingly, most routine hardcore sportswriters read nothing but the sports pages. They might be able to tell you what Mickey Mantle’s batting average was, but they’d be stumped on who was secretary of state. That’s how I remember it anyhow.”
Randy Galloway (former Star-Telegram and Dallas Morning News columnist and radio talk-show host): “Everyone has an opinion on where (sports) should be but on this, politics came to sports. Sports didn’t go to politics. (President Donald) Trump opened the whole sack of snakes on this.
“If I was still writing, and this (Colin) Kaepernick thing happened, I would have commented on it. You almost have to comment on it one way or the other if you are in the opinion business. Here is the killer: It had all died. When the season started, five guys took a knee, and three of them were on San Francisco. It wasn’t a story or an issue. And then Trump wants to feed red meat to an audience (at a rally) in Alabama. He thinks, ‘How can I get me some cheers in Alabama?’ That’s why I said politics came to the NFL.
“The best way to use your powers on this is to go to Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and use your stature and reputation and get more voters registered and then a racist can’t get voted president.”
Jim Reeves (former Star-Telegram sports columnist): “Things are so different today because of the political environment and social media that it’s almost like apples to oranges, so I’m not sure I have a good answer for you.
“Certainly there have been political issues that transcended sports — Muhammad Ali refusing to be drafted and go to Vietnam, and the Mexico City Olympics protest come to mind — but those were before my time as a columnist. ... 9/11 certainly seeped into sports, but as a country we were united on that, so nobody complained.
“I would occasionally deal with racism issues in sports and that always got a rise out of the bigots out there, some who would write threatening and abusive emails. That said, as a columnist we have to be careful about not repeating ourselves over and over again on the same issues or we do run the risk of readers saying, “I’ve heard this sermon before, don’t need to hear it again.’
“Politics in our world today is never far from people’s minds. Yes, many of them turn to the sports page to get away from the real world, but I think you have an obligation to remind people about common decency, fairness and doing what’s right from time to time.”
Hansen: “If I had to stick to sports and ball scores I would have swallowed a bullet years ago. We wrap ourselves in, ‘We’re here to serve the public’ but we do it for financial gain. I do. I’m not afraid to admit it. It’s what drives ratings. I have never tried to appeal to everybody because you can’t. I try to appeal to the biggest slice of the pie I can, and when people say, ‘Stick to sports’ what do I say to the people who appreciate the point of view I am willing to share to spark a discussion or a debate? No one has given me an answer to that.”
Because there isn’t a good one.
Mac Engel: @macengelprof