What the Sports Culture War is About
A big proxy battle waged over the big proxy battles
Sometimes you catch the end of a news story, after it bounces around the Internet a bit, and it’s all very confusing. This description applies to a lot of cultural controversies in the sports space, which can make exposition a challenge on this site. There’s often an intense partisan battle over whatever slogan a league or team broadcasts and suddenly, the story’s context has developed layers and contradictory “scissor” narratives. What actually happened? It’s not about that. It’s instead about what should happen, details be damned, and how sports should get us there.
In theory, there are no stakes in fights like the one we’ll begin with. It’s all pure symbolism within what Pat Riley once termed, “The Toy Department of Human Events.” In practice, the fights are vicious, angrily intense on account of a paradox: Sports is perceived as both a neutral meeting ground and also an intensely powerful propaganda keep. The battles are over nothing, but the prize is the most valued messaging territory. That’s the game within the games.
Kershaw, the Sisters and an Empty Ballpark
A few weeks ago, after emerging from my stomach virus cave, I began near the close of a controversy involving historically great pitcher Clayton Kershaw, his Los Angeles Dodgers, and a drag troupe called the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Only, when I finally tucked into the tale, it had since leapt from the baseball field and into the California State Assembly House.
From a San Francisco Chronicle article:
Republicans in the California Assembly walked off the floor Monday to protest a Pride Month celebration that included a member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a queer and transgender group known for its colorful style of drag and philanthropic work. As the GOP lawmakers left, Sister Roma, a San Francisco drag icon and member of the group, blew kisses to the crowd as she was greeted with a standing ovation in front of the Legislature.
While this surreal scene had seemingly nothing to do with baseball, baseball is how we got to warring political factions in Sacramento, expressing loud opposing emotional reactions to a male nun in white face paint.
It all started when the Los Angeles Dodgers announced, early in May, that they were to honor the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence with a Community Hero Award as part of their June Pride festivities. This move prompted backlash from Catholic organizations and politicians such as Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. On May 17th, the Dodgers announced that they were disinviting the troupe and taking back the award, “Given the strong feelings of people who have been offended,” to much media caterwaling.
Different factions adopted different frames for the troupe. Opponents of the Sisters asserted that the organization was an anti-Catholic “hate group,” not fit for baseball’s imprimatur. That “hate group” characterization wasn’t exactly right, but neither was the rebuttal insistence that they weren’t anti-religion at all. Instead, the Sisters were something liminal, especially now, a contested entity at the crossroads of subversion and top-down mainstream.
The “Sisters” shtick appeared to be a campy kind of blasphemy. Among other features of their performances, Jesus is often depicted sexually and the nuns have names like Sister T’aint A Virgin and Sister Porn Again. Depending on perspective, this is either empowering, ribald fun, or a sick expression of hatred that the secular revelers wouldn’t have the courage to lob at some other faiths. It seems like an act that would lose its raison d'être were it not offensive. Violation of religion is the Sisters’ fuel, their sacred and their propane. So why was it a big deal if a brand as starchy as the Dodgers distanced itself?
State Senator Scott Wiener, a very high-profile politician in my home state, was among the California public officials upset by the Dodgers’ disinvitation. He and other people of influence successfully pressured the Dodgers into inviting the Sisters back. And with that reversal, it was time for Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers longtime superstar pitcher, to add another chapter in this saga. Kershaw, a devout Christian, voiced his displeasure at the troupe’s invite:
This has nothing to do with the LGBTQ community or Pride or anything like that. This is simply a group that was making fun of a religion, that I don't agree with.
Beyond making waves with his opposition, Kershaw successfully compelled the Dodgers into expediting and announcing a Christian Faith Day at the ballpark. After that got sorted out, amid more media backlash, Senator Wiener invited Sister Roma to be honored in person, leading to the aforementioned scene at the California Assembly.
The epilogue to the whole imbroglio is that on June 16th, the Dodgers did indeed honor the “Sisters” on the field. Dodger Stadium announcer Todd Leitz boomed:
The Dodgers community hero award goes to an organization reaching the LGBTQ+ community, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, LA chapter. Please join us in recognizing the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence for their outstanding service to the LGBTQ+ community.
Quite a ringing endorsement from the baseball team, save for one crucial detail: It happened when the stands were empty. Rather than risk a response from upset fans, the Dodgers elected to do the announcement shortly after gates were opened up, over an hour before game time.
Here’s a shot of the scene from the Los Angeles Fox affiliate.
So that’s where the circuitous Sisters controversy settled: A hearty welcome, bellowed in front of an empty stadium. A thunderous “Please join us!” addressed to an imaginary audience.
Afterwards, USA Today posted an article headlined:
Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence cheered at Dodgers Pride Night: 'I did not hear a single boo'
The article itself included some honesty about the timing of events, yet betrayed a desire to spin the circumstances.
The honor took place more than an hour before first pitch. Dodger Stadium was relatively empty when the civil rights activists took the field. But those in the seats gave the Sisters loud cheers and applause when they were announced.
Why the need for a major media outlet to present hiding as triumph? Why frame a fear of the public as its consensus endorsement? And why did Florida governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis mislead in the opposite direction, tweeting, “The virtually empty stadium for the game itself was a powerful image,” when the actual game was well attended?
In this article I want to explain what’s happening more generally but fear I’ve already lost some readers with this lengthy Dodgers and Nuns exposition. Trust me, that was the short version, and more to the point, this is how these sagas go. The culture wars within sports now refuse to be compartmentalized. You might want to just watch the games, but broader forces are interested in using them. One side is winning this game of presenting the game. It’s the side that, a generation ago, happened to be losing.
The Once and Future Blue Sports Shift
“Why?” That’s a question I’ve gotten when talking about the sports industry with people who aren’t amenable to its more progressive messaging. Why won’t they keep politics out of the game? Why is it only one kind of politics? These people are as befuddled as they are put off, as though an old friend had suddenly forsaken them.
One “why” reason is simply that these leagues are attempting, in hockey parlance, to skate towards where the puck will be. Sports is just one of many industries that fears its imminent obsolescence. According to the Sports Business Journal, surveys suggest that only 15 percent of Generation Alpha, the incoming cohort of teens, enjoys watching sports. As I’ve written, the NHL was pretty open about how its aggressive social justice messaging was part of a business strategy, aimed at recruiting coveted young fans. Quoting the NHL’s chief marketing, Heidi Browning:
We know from a lot of generational studies that this generation actually votes with their time and their wallet with brands that align with their own values. So it’s really important that we are connected to and expressing our commitment to diversity and inclusion.
Many involved in big org decisions foresee a more progressive future, possibly since the future is a journey onward, towards theoretical progress. There’s the belief among many well-educated people that the “arc of history bends toward justice,” an MLK-ism frequently quoted by Barack Obama. Even if you don’t believe in that construction, or question how “justice” gets defined, you can perhaps believe in the power of modern technology. It is forever eating away at the old binding religious structures, secularizing society towards new moral conceptions. Whatever the reason, many influential people are hasty to get ahead of social changes, and drag their organizations along with them.
In so desperately seeking to get with the times, sports leagues have implicitly defined their conservative supporters as outside of those times. Major League Baseball might have many Republican-voting fans, but that doesn’t stop the league from moving an Atlanta All-Star Game over voting legislation that raised Democratic hackles. Beyond the principles involved, the move makes sense if you believe that the sport is more concerned with getting younger than it is with retaining its current fanbase. Losing fans today is potentially damaging, but opposing Current Year definitions of “progress” could be fatal long-term. At least that’s how executives see it. But the future, it turns out, is not so predictable. It is, as it always was, a contested property.
The NBA, current archetypal enemy league of the American right, boasts fans that are relatively young, and mostly liberal already. This combination, along with the sentiments of their players, informed some of the more overt displays of league-endorsed activism, such as the “social justice jerseys” of the 2020 playoffs.
The jersey display correlated with a free fall in viewership, which caused the NBA to announce a cessation of progressive sloganeering in the next season. Then, the league compartmentalized political expression to a subsidiary player organization, in order to avoid questions about what it does or does not endorse. So, the sport with the most reason to be secure in its youth reach is now the sport most wary of activism that supposedly appeals to the youth. While conservatives are quick to mock the NBA for its extravagances and hypocrisies, it’s probably now more restrained in its attempted branding than the NFL these days, post-Colin Kaepernick protests.
Outside of the UFC, run by Trump-supporting Dana White, though, pro sports writ large has mostly acceded to the whims of the zeitgeist. Teams that were once run like mom and pop shops are now major corporations unto themselves and handle their affairs as such. The main prerogative, outside of youth recruitment, is to stay within the boundaries of modern HR norms. Such norms tend to land in one political direction.
Fans might rebel. “Barstool conservatism” represents a proudly retrograde faction. It might not have a defined politics, but you can divine allegiances from how “Stoolies” egg on Ted Cruz and other conservative politicians to say the Barstool slogan, “Saturdays are for the boys.”
SAFTB isn’t technically political, but it’s attitudinally political. You couldn’t imagine any organization in good progressive standing engaged in the promotion of an exclusively male space, sports included. Same goes for any organization seeking to stay within modern HR norms. And it’s probably no accident that “Saturdays” refers to college football, not a professional league that controls top-down messaging.
Many right-leaning SAFTB frat guys will watch the other leagues and do so regardless of how alienating or aggravating they find the surrounding messages. Other conservatives, in contrast, have started asking why such customers remain customers.
Red Sports Outsiders
Trump-endorsed Congressional candidate Joe Kent was, perhaps, the worst-performing Republican in a midterms season full of GOP disappointments. The autopsy of his campaign included an odd tweet that perhaps betrayed a lack of common touch:
In declaring this statement as indicative of fringe beliefs, Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times called it, “a view common in corners of the alt-right but unintelligible to normies.”
She’s onto something there. What the alt-right is and whether it even still exists seems difficult to parse right now, but Goldberg is correct that this view is increasingly common in online right spaces, even if it’s far outside the norm. Rightist commentator Mike Cernovich, who currently has a million Twitter followers, aired a sentiment similar to Kent’s, framed more provocatively:
Again, this is not a mainstream view and it won’t be anytime soon, even if it keeps growing in popularity. Indeed it’s a conscious rejection of mainstream culture, a belief that it seduces you into a humiliating sedation, one that robs you of your masculinity. To say this is to probably piss off or annoy the millions who devote a Sunday to football. You’d have to be on the fringe and be comfortable on the fringe to make such a critique. This is why, before this anti sports shift bubbled up on the right, sports culture tended to get mocked in intellectual lefty spaces, the sort that could support heresy.
Sports, the Left and Nerds Bullying Jocks
Noam Chomsky — who at age 94 remains a prominent critic — has had no issue criticizing mainstream culture, and his assessment of sports has been especially withering. He’s referred to football as a “way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority,” and “training in irrational jingoism.”
Decades after he said that, after the nerds of yesteryear won much of the culture, you’d see such sentiments echoed in the movie 21 Jump Street. In the film, Dave Franco plays a crunchy eco conscious teen who happens to be the most popular guy in school. When Jonah Hill’s undercover millennial character goes on a drug trip that destroys a track competition, Franco loudly approves, saying:
That was awesome how you sabotaged that track meet, man. Organized sports are so fascist, it makes me sick!
If sports weren’t explicitly regarded as fascist, they were at least dismissed as stupid. Chomsky hasn’t just diagnosed sports as dangerous; he’s also mocked them for being absurd.
You know, I remember in high school, already I was pretty old. I suddenly asked myself at one point, why do I care if my high school team wins the football game? I mean, I don’t know anybody on the team, you know?
Many a lefty nerd harbored such feelings, and perhaps nursed them for many years. This Oatmeal comic from 2014 displays a conception of sports that would resonate with Chomsky, plus half the punk rock-listening friends I grew up with.
The rise of social media meant more input from such voices like The Oatmeal creator Matthew Inman, i.e. nerds of the left. Not all of them rejected sports like Inman did. Many actually loved sports, and went to work in sports, albeit while retaining a similar sense that it’s a dumb, absurd, regressive space.
These nerds wished to remake the sports industry, and really all industries, in their own image, according to their own values. The analytics movement represented by Moneyball was a rebuke of the old wives’ tales favored by jocks. On another front, the sports media collective exerted pressure on the athletes to “use their platform” towards specific “socially conscious” ends. Having covered the Warriors’ first title runs, I’d say that Charlotte native Steph Curry was effectively badgered by the media in 2016 about the North Carolina “bathroom bill” until he coughed up a take that pleased them.
You’d see similar scenarios play out with the football coaches and NFL players who endorsed Trump. In some form or fashion, under heavy media pressure, they’d either delete or publicly denounce their own positions. The grizzled football men mostly looked confused as they sputtered their retractions. Since when am I not allowed to have a political opinion?
The rise of social media meant that the nerds were in charge. They were now the cultural arbiters and enforcers, even over their natural enemies, the jocks. It was a far different setup from the old days, back when that jock world was used as a massive battering ram against the wants of lefty intellectuals.
The Post-9/11 Sportsocracy
Let us take a trip back to a past that’s of this millennium, but one that might seem wholly foreign to anyone younger than a millennial. I sometimes idly wonder whether current high schoolers know that, when I was their age, conservatism was an intimidating colossus in politics and mainstream life. It was a different world, one where liberalism was defined by its prideful impotence as opposed to cultural traction.
When Green Day, in the year 2000, belted, “I wanna be the minority/I don't need your authority/Down with the Moral Majority,” they were speaking for and to disaffected lefties whose identity was rooted in an outsider status. That status is gone, through much effort and victory, but few want to reveal that they’ve moved from underdogs to heavy favorites, the kind that can lose only through arrogance and oversight.
If you did live through the early 2000s, you might recall a level of jingoistic fervor that we haven’t come close to since. You might remember a moment when George W. Bush was immensely popular and fêted by the sorts of publications that now regard basic Republicans as moral freaks. And, perhaps you’ll recall the role that sports played in manufacturing consent for the right.
Take this bizarre scene from Jon Krakauer’s Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, one in which an NFL game is held up just so George W. Bush can broadcast a war rally speech in front of a rapturous stadium:
At 1:00 p.m., as the players from both teams stood on the field before the opening kickoff, a surreal image of George W. Bush materialized above them on the stadium’s JumboTron. Dressed in a dark suit, with a red tie, sitting in the White House Treaty Room with an American flag behind his right shoulder, the president pronounced, “Good afternoon.” “On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against al-Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.”
I recently received a touching letter that says a lot about the state of America in these difficult times — a letter from a 4th-grade girl, with a father in the military: “As much as I don’t want my Dad to fight,” she wrote, “I’m willing to give him to you.”
And the crowd fucking loved it.
Such scenes seem of an authoritarian country that you might see depicted in a science-fiction movie. President waging war on the jumbotron? Little girls offering up daddy for a possible violent death as a tailgate appetizer? What was this place? What was this time?
In 2003, a then 80-year-old Norman Mailer wrote of America’s state:
Democracy is the special condition — a condition we will be called upon to defend in the coming years. That will be enormously difficult because the combination of the corporation, the military, and the complete investiture of the flag with mass spectator sports has set up a pre-fascistic atmosphere in America already.
Popular conservative fascism, secured through the medium of sports. On the one hand, from today’s vantage, that sounds like a farfetched liberal fear. On the other hand, if you read that Krakauer passage, you get a sense of a wholly different nation, one that was relatively unified, pliable to authority and in a martial frame of mind. George W. Bush’s use of sports, from his well-aimed first pitch in the World Series after 9/11, to his 2004 Super Bowl interview, was, from the liberal perspective, an intimidating power flex. Nerdy libs were outside the arena, looking in, wondering how they’d ever connect with a public susceptible to its bellicose substrate.
Given what that era was like, it’s remarkable the degree to which the left has conquered sports since. Barack Obama, a massive sports fan who’s quite popular with many athletes, was a factor in this shift, as was a Trump presidency that convinced people in positions of influence to eschew public neutrality.
While it’s notable that the era of sports activism has correlated with steep viewership declines in nearly every major sport save for football (which has stagnated), there can be a conflation here. It’s easy for conservatives to point at activist-friendly sports losing viewers and dismiss it all with “get woke, go broke.” This dismissal ignores that somebody’s strategy is working. While leagues may have repelled conservative fans in this era, the Democratic Party has reaped positive results in three consecutive election cycles. Perhaps that’s correlation and not causation, but there’s a power in a common space adopting your politics. Conquer that which reads as neutral and your politics isn’t even politics anymore; it’s just what society endorses.
Of course, America is composed of many societies and cultures. Among these cultures is a cohort of people who believe that sports serve a higher purpose, if not a massively important societal function. Kenny Chesney’s red state-rooted song “The Boys of Fall” is a good example. It’s an ode to football, from the high school level on up, that’s deeply emotional and totally without irony.
This game really matters to a lot of people, even if the New York Times so often portrays it in a negative light. As is true of sports generally, it binds the young to the old, and directs men, especially, towards a form of combat engagement that doesn’t raze cities. It’s a spiritual experience, an endeavor with almost mystical properties.
Back before sports became a massive industry, Dutch historian Johan Huizinga wrote Homo Ludens, his famous work on the importance of “play” in culture generation. In it, Huizinga coined the term “magic circle” to describe the space where we suspend normal rules in favor of a temporary artificial reality, e.g. a game. In Huizinga’s construction, we are under a spell when participating in this reality. Those who break the spell are called “spoil-sports,” a term that’s endured to this day.
From Homo Ludens:
The spoil-sport shatters the play-world itself. By withdrawing from the game he reveals the relativity and fragility of the play-world in which he had temporarily shut himself with others. He robs play of its illusion — a pregnant word which means literally “in-play” (from inlusion, illudere or inludere). Therefore he must be cast out, for he threatens the existence of the play-community.
In bringing politics to the magic circle, the leagues themselves have become spoil-sports, breaking the spell over certain fans. That some former fans now sound like Chomsky, only more masculinity focused, reveals how far they now are from the mainstream. Aspects of the right might be rejecting sports, but the right’s bigger issue is that it’s been rejected.
The Opiate’s Blessing
But there’s perhaps another aspect to this new edition of “horseshoe theory.” Is Joe Kent … entirely wrong? Was Noam Chomsky … totally wrong? Judgmental, yes? Condescending, sure. But wrong?
I say it as someone who loves sports and made a living off of it: I’m not completely sure that the classic “opiate of the masses” critique is off-base. I can’t deny that such common spectacles are occasionally used as tools of mass manipulation. They are.
I err on the side of sports positivity, but see the flaws in a family man sacrificing his entire Sunday to watch the actions of others. I’m also suspicious of whatever political messaging gets fed to such a person, especially since I don’t regard the leagues as on his side. Now that these leagues are going all-in on pushing gambling addiction, “fracking the pie” in lieu of younger viewer growth, I see an industry invested more in malicious manipulation than in healthy inspiration.
One interpretation of the spell’s cessation is that many are now deprived of a magic that bonded and inspired. Another interpretation is that there is no such thing as magic, only tricks. Men of the New Right don’t believe they’ve been robbed of magic, even if they lament the old days, when spectator sports was on their side: They believe, as the old leftists once did, in defiance of popular distraction, that they’re finally seeing sports for what they are.
And yet I sense the value in it all, misappropriated though it may be. A spell can be used towards cynical ends, but there’s only so much in life capable of casting a spell. I think about my friend Jonathan Tjarks, who died from cancer back in September, leaving behind a wife and young son. During his illness, Jonathan thought deeply from religious and philosophical vantages. He read widely. He wrote painfully moving essays about this confrontation with his own mortality. Jonathan was also a basketball lifer who, throughout his illness, would canvass my opinions on Warriors players and prospects. Last July he was at NBA Summer League, watching new prospects play. This was not a man lacking in perspective or purpose, and sports was good enough for him.
I don’t have to understand the utility of a force that ripples through a crowd of 20,000 people to respect its power. I remember watching the concessioners in Cleveland belt out “In the Air Tonight,” which the Cavs use as an intro song, just before Game 6 of the 2016 Finals tipped off, as hairs stood up on my neck. We were all about to have an experience, a moment that Chomsky might regard as a silly surrender of our faculties to manipulation. He wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, but he’d also be missing something.
What the subsequent generations aren’t getting as much, what the leagues are confounding in their efforts to woo them, and what activist groups are hamfistedly attempting to channel, is of a transcendent nature. Sports is a surrender, and that’s what makes them great. To notice that so many people sign up to be hypnotized together is less to identify a problem than it is to identify the need it’s addressing. Also, sports is more mirror than mover of the zeitgeist, always a time capsule of conventional wisdom. It remains valuable ad space due to optics and scale, but it’s hard to truly harness towards propagandistic ends. Why? Because the fan communes with the game specifically not to be focused on anything else.
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