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The Recent Politicization of Sports Media Offers Insight into Wider Issues with Media and Sports in the United States: The Case of the Wage Gap Between Men’s and Women’s Sports

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What If I told you that one of the key issues that plagues the United States’ media system is: “that reporters, journalists, and publishers are expected to prioritize state interests above all and not to cross the lines drawn by the power holders, and if they do, they should be prepared to pay the price”? Would this seem absurd, especially if we substituted “state interests” for “progressive interests”? Personally, I don’t think it would be—and that is why it is telling that the above quote, taken from page 138 of Bilge Yesil’s study of the media in Turkey, Media in New Turkey: The Origins of an Authoritarian Neoliberal Statecan be applied so easily to the United States. In the age of neoliberal globalization, where economic concerns seem to be paramount, one could argue that all states have become authoritarian to some degree but that is a topic for another day; today I will focus specifically on sports media in the United States since it is a country where money has become so powerful that it runs most institutions, including the media.

This may be a reason that even sports reporting has become a battleground in the ongoing culture wars in American society. Whereas sports used to be a field in the United States that once served to unify a vast nation (most Americans can identify with a baseball team whether it is the San Franscisco Giants or the Boston Red Sox, for instance), it has recently become an increasingly divisive topic. ESPN has, as expected due to its corporatization, become a leading player in sending divisive messages guised as progressive thought; a recent article focusing on LPGA golf serves as a good example to study.

Anna Catherine Clemmons’ ESPN piece from 10 July focusing on LPGA golfers speaking up “about inequality” is more politics than it is sport. Take two of the questions players were asked: “How would you grade Donald Trump’s impact on women’s golf?” And “Would you ever consider not playing in the U.S. Women’s Open Because its being held at Trump National in Bedminster, New Jersey?”. As a sports fan, I am left wondering what on earth Donald Trump has to do with women’s golf, other than the fact that he is a rich white man, and golf is generally considered a rich white man’s game. If that is the common denominator, however, this article just smacks of racism and gender bias, in the same way that Barack Obama was made to unveil a bracket for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament every March (seemingly) because he was a black man and basketball is generally seen as a sport appealing to black males in the United States. Of course, both of these characterizations of sport are inherently racist and it would behoove ESPN to avoid pandering to such base stereotypes.

 

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Two Very Odd Questions, and One Very Important Question. Images Courtesy Of: http://www.espn.com/golf/story/_/id/19865737/lpga-confidential-survey-speaking-golf-inequalities

 

Despite this glaring problem, Clemmons’ piece does raise one interesting issue (the one most female golfers she polled found to be most pressing), and that is the pay gap between female and male golfers in the United States. This would have been an interesting issue to follow, since it is one that has been in the news lately; the U.S. women’s national soccer team recently came out to criticize the U.S. Soccer federation for the wage gap between the U.S. Men’s National Team and US Women’s National Team (On April 5 2017 the US women did, in fact, get a raise). Since the pay gap and gender equality are hot topics in the United States, Clemmons would have done well to focus on the important topics, rather than bring politics into sports unnecessarily.

This would have been a good chance to bridge the divides in American society, rather than divide further, since the wage gap between women and men is a glaring example of the results of extreme capitalism; it affects all of us regardless of our sex. It seems that—in extreme capitalism—what you do does not really matter. What does matter is how much others value what you do. Take a plumber or an electrician or even a car mechanic. Although these are very useful jobs which can make a lot of money—without such professionals, the modern world would come to a halt—they are not valued as “prestigious”. This is why a run-of-the mill white collar worker working at an office for 35,000 dollars a year is viewed as having a “professional” job; it is the myth of the college degree that separates the white collar from the blue collar. Unfortunately, society has come to value typing on a computer more than it values getting a motor to run or fixing a leaking kitchen sink; essentially an “unskilled” worker with no real-world skills is viewed (in society’s eyes) as being “skilled”.

I believe that, at its root, this is one reason for the pay gap between women’s and men’s sports. Until more people consistently watch women’s golf—or women’s soccer, for that matter—they will be paid equally with men. That is, until views value women’s sports. But as long as male sports attract consistently more viewership, I do not see how women’s sports can garner the same kinds of money that men’s sports do. Likewise, it does not matter how great my writing is (of course its great ;), but until I am writing for a major sports or political website I will still be a marginal sociologist getting paid . . . .zero dollars. It has nothing to do with the quality of my work, rather it has to do with readership—and in sports terms, viewership.

One other reason for the pay gap stems from the inflated amount of money that (mainly male) sports figures get; remember when basketball star Kevin Durant was celebrated for not taking the maximum salary offered by the Golden State Warriors by accepting six (6!) million dollars less?). When six million dollars can be brushed off in a second, it shows just how much money is moving around in the world of professional sports. Take the disparity between how much the men in the NBA make compared to how much the women in the WNBA make: John Walters, of Newsweek, points out that

The league minimum in the NBA this season [2015-2016] is $525,000. The WNBA league minimum last summer was $38,000. Yes, the WNBA regular season is 34 games, compared with the NBA’s 82-game slog, but the highest-paid player in the WNBA makes roughly one-fifth that of the lowest-paid player in the NBA. Two years ago, 52 NBA players each earned more than all of the players in the WNBA combined.

 Of course, the NBA is a global entity that earned more than $5 billion last season. The WNBA, by comparison, barely breaks even. ESPN and Turner Sports pay the NBA a combined $2.6 billion annually to televise the NBA, whereas ESPN pays the WNBA $12 million annually for rights fees. That’s less than half of 1 percent of the NBA’s deal.

 

Again, the NBA wages are certainly inflated—but the WNBA just does not bring in enough revenue to raise their players’ wages. Walters’ article also points out how the US Women’s National soccer team—despite creating 16 million dollars more in revenue than the US Men’s National Team in 2015—cannot compete with the men’s wages due to the globalized nature of the football world:

 

The problem is that the USMNT [United States Men’s National Team] is tethered to the World Cup, the largest global sporting event outside the Olympics, which brought in $4.8 billion in revenue in 2014. The 2015 Women’s World Cup’s numbers are not available, but it likely brought in a small fraction of that sum. Germany earned $35 million for winning the 2014 World Cup in Brazil; the U.S. earned $2 million for winning the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada.

 

Again, we see that it is viewership and global sports revenues which determine the wages, not necessarily the quality of the product on offer. We can all agree that the U.S. Women’s National Team is much more successful globally than their male counterparts; women’s soccer just does not pay as much as men’s soccer does globally in the age of modern football. Thus it is not an issue of sexism, rather it is an issue of industrial football.

Clemmons’ ESPN article would have been well-served to focus on some of these points, so as to get to the root of what is going on. Without taking serious time to study the issues, journalists risk falling into the trap of succumbing to the old tropes of “misogyny” and “patriarchy”. Rather than divide men and women, we would do well to point out that men and women are experiencing very similar financial hardships in the sports world. For those who think that men have it easy and women are the ones being exploited, check out former minor league baseball player and author Dirk Hayhurst’s 2014 piece detailing the harsh conditions of minor league baseball in the United States. Mr. Hayhurst shows just how tough it is for those at the bottom end of the sports industry, playing in leagues that do not have the high viewership and player perks that the major leagues have. The issues are not about identity politics and about dividing men and women. Rather, the issues are about a sports industry that cares more about its bottom line—and profits—than it does about the athletes.

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In a Crazy World Andorra Gives Some Hope to the Underdog as They Win Their First Competitive Match Since 2004

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The news around the world has recently become more and more negative; between the threat of ISIS/ISIL, North Korea, and failing economies (and cultures) in the global West it is refreshing that football can still provide some hope and even humor. Today’s rare event is one example, as the Andorra national team stunned Hungary 1-0 in qualification for the 2018 World Cup. Surprisingly, most immediate reports of today’s qualification match day only referred to Andorra’s victory in passing: The Mirror focused on the Netherlands’ thrashing of neighbors Luxembourg while ESPN chose to focus on victories by Portugal and Sweden. Reuters were the first to focus solely on Andorra’s achievement.

Given that mainstream outlets like ESPN sometimes focuses on odd subjects in football like Saudi Arabia’s apparent “refusal” (the word ESPN chose) to participate in a moment of silence for the victims of the recent terrorist attacks in London, I am surprised that they did not do a feature on Andorra’s victory. The moment of silence controversy was certainly an odd focus for a football article, given that the video clearly shows the Saudi side silently standing on their side of the field, with some players folding their hands behind their backs. The team seemed to simply be participating in the moment of silence in the manner they saw fit; unfortunately, ESPN chose to immediately interpret their actions negatively, politicizing the event and serving to further a growing divide the world over between “the West and the rest”. FIFA, of course, decided not to punish the Saudi Arabian football association after a Saudi apology, but I’m sure we all understand that—knowing FIFA—their decision most likely came down to money.

Regardless of whether one thinks the Saudi decision to “not participate” was right or wrong (personally, I would have liked it had they lined up like the Australian side did if only to avoid this needless controversy), it all comes down to intent in the end. As I always tell Sociologists, it is impossible to know people’s intents. In this case, since we cannot know the Saudi FA’s intent because we are not mind readers, it seems odd for ESPN to have immediately politicized the event (and, in the process, fueled anti-Muslim rhetoric by criticizing the Saudi Arabian team without providing any background information). Remember, after attacks in Istanbul last summer UEFA refused to hold a moment of silence at a EURO 2016 match to remember the Turkish victims of an ISIS/ISIL attack on Isanbul’s Ataturk Airport. This, of course, fuels the perception that it only matters to the world when attacks target Europeans (or Westerners), and not when they target Muslims. When this happens the important fact that the perpetrators are the same, and that the victims—regardless of their religion—are still victims is missed.

That said, I think we can all agree on the fact that Andorra’s victory is a nice, lighthearted story in world football (although perhaps not for fans of Hungary’s national football team, understandably). This is just the fifth victory in the history of Andorran football, and their first in a competitive match since a 2004 victory over FYR Macedonia. In fact, Andorra won their first match in more than 12 years when they defeated San Marino 2-0 in February of 2017. In March of 2017, there were celebrations in the tiny principality when the team got their first points in a competitive match since 2005 after drawing 0-0 with fellow minnows the Faroe Islands. The draw broke a 58 game losing streak in competitive matches dating back more than 11 years!

 

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The Celebration Was Real in Andorra! Images Courtesy of: https://www.thesun.co.uk/sport/football/3180032/andorra-end-dismal-run-of-58-competitive-defeats-with-faroe-islands-draw-in-world-cup-qualifying/

 

And now Andorra is actually on a three game unbeaten run in all matches dating back to February of 2017, and a two game unbeaten run in competitive fixtures since March of 2017. This means that Andorra is unbeaten in 2017 without conceding a single goal, a remarkable accomplishment for a principality sandwiched between France and Spain with a population of just over 85,000. That they could defeat Hungary, a country with a population of almost 10 million and with a rich footballing history makes these easily the biggest day in Andorran football history. It would be refreshing if mainstream sports media could focus on interesting events like this one, rather than perpetuating divides that already threaten the stability of our world. Focusing on football culture—one that most of the countries in the world shares—seems to me to be logical thing to do, and would go a long way to combat the divisiveness which has (ironically) become rampant in the globalized world.

 

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Congratulations to Andorra, a Team With a Beautiful Shirt. Image Courtesy Of: https://www.thesun.co.uk/sport/football/3180032/andorra-end-dismal-run-of-58-competitive-defeats-with-faroe-islands-draw-in-world-cup-qualifying/

Sports and Politics in the United States and “Sir Charles” vs. “King James”: Spat Between Former NBA Star Charles Barkley and Current NBA Star Lebron James Is Representative of Some of the Issues in Current American Society

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Since the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States sports and politics in the USA have become more and more intertwined; it is symptomatic of a nation divided by ideology, one where people are supporting their political positions as they would a sports team: unwaveringly and unquestioningly. ESPN, the leader in American sports media, has taken to using one of their websites to spread political messages (from one side only, it should be noted) while ESPN writer and vice president Roxanne Brown was solicited by CNN to provide her opinion on President Donald Trump’s inauguration:

 

No day in our nation feels more patriotic than Inauguration Day — the Marine Marching Band, the past presidents, politicians and power brokers braving the cold to flock to our nation’s capital. But it was hard not to look at the sea of white faces in the crowd, gathered for President Donald J. Trump’s swearing-in, and not see represented a shockingly different America than we saw on this same day eight years ago when President Barack Obama was sworn in. In fact, this was the whitest inauguration I’ve witnessed in my lifetime.

 

Apparently, judging by the last sentence, she was unaware that most African-Americans boycotted Mr. Trump’s inauguration. This absurdity aside, of course, it is notable that a sports reporter should be given such a space in mainstream American media. It shows just how sports has become a space of contention within the cultural civil war that the United States is experiencing.

 

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ESPN Now Sells Politics With a Side Of Sports. Image Courtesy of: http://www.breitbart.com/sports/2017/01/21/espn-offers-social-media-sites-platform-leftist-activists-womens-march/

 

ESPN, for so many years a channel devoted to sports programming alone, has recently completed a turn to the field of culture. The new SC6 (the 6pm/18:00EST) edition of ESPN’s flagship highlights program Sportscenter will debut on 6 February 2017. Senior vice president of Sportscenter and news Rob King had this to say about the show in an interview:

 

This show will be unique because it is an opportunity to look in on a conversation among close friends, colleagues and the people who they bring into their orbit by virtue of the topics they choose and the interests they have. Since we launched the midnight show with Scott Van Pelt, it’s been really clear that SportsCenter can be distinguished when it’s built around unique personalities and unique conceits, especially those ideas, personalities and conceits that work for specific audiences.

 

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The Anchors of ESPN’s Newest Show. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.espnfrontrow.com/2017/01/expectations-excitement-permeate-kings-view-sc6-michael-jemele/

 

The focus on “conversation”, “unique personalities”, and “unique conceits” [Author’s Note: An odd choice of words] suggests a larger role for the personal element than the traditional sports program would present. Sports reporter Andrew Bucholtz adds that

 

there seems to be less and less interest in straight news and highlights, and both ESPN and Fox are adapting to that. Fox went with the drastic move of killing the news-and-highlights version of Fox Sports Live and turning it into more of a comedy-focused late night show, while ESPN has focused instead on making highly identifiable and individual versions of SportsCenter, from Scott Van Pelt’s show to SportsCenter A.M. and more […]

 

Most importantly, Bucholz notes the change that this program represents; for him it “is interesting because in some ways it seems to be trying to walk the line between a debate show and the traditional SportsCenter. Smith and Hill certainly have backgrounds in opinion programming too (in addition to their journalism and reporting backgrounds, which King also notes)”. The fact that sports programming in the USA is moving to a “late-night show” or “debate show” format means that the personal opinions of hosts will come more to the fore, replacing the traditional format of the sports show which presents the “facts” in the form of highlights. Inevitably, this will allow for more discussion regarding the field of culture; it would be naïve to think that ESPN—a large part of the American “culture industry”—would refrain from putting politics into their new show as well. This type of format allows ESPN to seem apolitical while being just the opposte. French Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu explains how this works in his book “On Television:

 

Pushed by competition for marketshare, television networks have greater and greater recourse to the tried and true formulas of tabloid journalism, with emphasis (when not the entire newscast) devoted to human interest stories or sports. No matter what has happened in the world on a given day, more and more often the evening news begins with French soccer scores or another sporting event, interrupting the regular news […] the focus is on those things which are apt to arouse curiosity but which require no analysis, especially in the political sphere […] human interest stories create a political vacuum. They depoliticize and reduce what goes on in the world to the level of anecdote or scandal.

(Bourdieu, 1998: 44-56)

 

Here we can see that ESPN may be attempting to use an ostensibly apolitical program so as to insidiously—and indirectly—send political messages in a way that a traditional news program would not be able to. After all, a sports program is—usually—just a highlights program, presenting “facts”. SC6 strives to be much more, and it is important that we—as consumers of the culture industry in modern industrial society—are aware of what is actually happening.

My favorite American football team, the New England Patriots, has not been immune from this newly emphasized connection between sports and politics. (State) media’s New York Times profiled the close relationship between President Donald Trump and Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady, calling it an “uncomfortable love affair”. To further drive home the message, The Huffington Post published an article by Professor David Dennis Jr., who made one of the more ridiculous claims I have ever read (or heard): “Tom Brady’s Politics Are More Un-American Than Colin Kaepernick’s Have Ever Been”. I have written before about Mr. Kaepernick’s protest against the American national anthem (which cost the NFL millions of dollars because—shocker here—the NFL has many fans who actually like the United States). Professor David Dennis Jr.’s piece—due to its sheer absurdity—deserves a little bit of air time here. First the New England star Tom Brady is quoted in his own words regarding President Donald Trump:

 

“I have called him, yes, in the past. Sometimes he calls me. Sometimes I call,” Brady said. “But, again, that’s been someone I’ve known. I always try to keep it in context because for 16 years you know someone before maybe he was in the position that he was in. He’s been very supportive of me for a long time. It’s just a friendship. I have a lot of friends. I call a lot of people.”

 

Here, Tom Brady’s words seem pretty normal. Like say, something someone would say about their friend. And, since the United States is a free country, it would seem normal that one is allowed to choose who their friends are. Apparently, Professor Dennis Jr. doesn’t agree, adding a gratuitous racial comment by invoking “white privilege” in his commentary:

 

Brady was confused as to why his relationship with the president was even a relevant topic of discussion.

“Why does everybody make such a big deal? I don’t understand it.”

Brady’s obliviousness reeks of white privilege and dismissiveness; a #MAGA trait if there ever was one. But what’s most troubling is the way Brady’s Trump endorsement has been treated compared to Kaepernick’s political statements.

 

Professor Dennis Jr. then drops his bombshell claim:

 

Brady’s Trump endorsement, however, has been largely ignored when, in fact, supporting Donald Trump as President of The United States is far more threatening to America than taking a knee during the National Anthem.

 

I have no idea why merely voicing support for a candidate who was supported by almost half of the country could be “threatening” or even comparable to insulting all those who believe in American nationalism, but such is the absurd climate in the United States currently.

 

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A Picture of What State Media’s New York Times dubbed “the uncomfortable love affair”. Image Courtesy Of: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/01/magazine/the-uncomfortable-love-affair-between-donald-trump-and-the-new-england-patriots.html

 

At least former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka offered some choice words defending Mr. Brady telling the country to “grow up” and adding “Dammit. I thought this country was a country of choice!” On a separate show he called journalists “assholes” and criticized former President Barack Obama for “showing no leadership at all”. I can agree with Mr. Ditka’s last claim, seeing as how the United States—under President Obama—dropped on average a staggering 72 bombs a day in 2016 on foreign countries, leading to the odd situation where Mr. Trump is called a racist while Mr. Obama’s imperialism goes ignored.

 

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The Indomitable Mike Ditka, Sweater et al. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.pbtalent.com/blog/speaker/mike-ditka

 

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Sorry, I just Couldn’t Resist. Image Courtesy of a Friend Via Social Media.

 

Mr. Ditka’s point, regarding the need for Americans to “grow up” is one that is directly relevant to the spat between basketball analyst Charles Barkley and basketball star Lebron James. A longtime NBA analyst and former player, Mr. Barkley criticized Mr. James for his comments regarding his team’s front office when he asked for another player to help his team win the championship (they won last year while—somehow—managing a loss of forty million USD). Barkley said Mr. James’ comments were:

 

Inappropriate. Whiny. All of the above. The Cleveland Cavaliers, they have given him everything he wanted. They have the highest payroll in NBA history. He wanted J.R. Smith last summer, they paid him. He wanted [Iman] Shumpert last summer. They brought in Kyle Korver. He’s the best player in the world. Does he want all of the good players? He don’t want to compete? He is an amazing player. They’re the defending champs.

 

Mr. James responded with personal attacks on Mr. Barkley, calling him “a hater” and asking the rhetorical question “what makes what he says credible? Because he’s on TV?” Mr. James here seemed to forget that his open endorsement of U.S. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and insult directed at those who voted for Mr. Trump (Mr. James called them “goofy” even though the majority of voters in Mr. James’ state voted for Donald Trump) were only made credible because he is on TV himself! Mr. James’ diatribe, however, continued (for video, please see nba.com):

 

I’m not going to let him disrespect my legacy like that. I’m not the one who threw somebody through a window. I never spit on a kid. I never had unpaid debt in Las Vegas. I never said, ‘I’m not a role model.’ I never showed up to All-Star Weekend on Sunday because I was in Vegas all weekend partying.

All I’ve done for my entire career is represent the NBA the right way. Fourteen years,      never got in trouble. Respected the game. Print that.

 

Later Mr. Barkley laughed it off, saying “I was laughing, clearly he did some homework … he Googled me and found some things … He was young when I was playing, so I appreciate that, but I’m not upset about it. … My criticism was fair, and I’m good with that … Some of the stuff he said about me is correct — doesn’t make the message I said about him incorrect. Some of them are intimidated about LeBron, [but] I’m not intimidated at all.”

A day later Mr. Barkley added that “It’s a different generation. If we don’t say everything positive about them all the time, we’re a hater. But I’ve gotten more support than I saw coming. To be honest with you, it’s been great. Especially the guys in the media who are like, ‘Thank you. I can’t say it because I need to talk to him.’ ” Here Mr. Barkley touches on a very important point, one that makes this odd exchange indicative of the current state of culture in the United States.

Lebron James really is of “a different generation”. It is one that, for starters, clearly has no respect for those that came before them. If it weren’t for players like Charles Barkley making the NBA popular in the 1990s, it is probable that Lebron James wouldn’t be the star he currently is. It is the same kind of lack of perspective that allowed Colin Kaepernick to take a shot at the United States…even though the sport he is paid to play is mainly played in the United States. Secondly, Lebron James’ generation is one that also has no self-respect. It is a generation that is all about “Me, Me, Me” and never “We, We, We”. It must always be praise and compliments; criticism cannot be accepted. Unfortunately, the current culture in the United States has become a culture of being “offended”, where comments one doesn’t like are deemed to be “offensive”. It is the same culture that does not accept the outcome of a presidential election because…the candidate they wanted did not win. Its an odd state of affairs, but the spat between Mr. Barkley and Mr. James goes some way to explaining how deeply engrained the cult of the individual has become in American society. If the country—and its culture—is to move forward we must at least attempt to move outside of our own personal selves and try to understand other perspectives. Otherwise, we are doomed to living in a fragmented and rudderless society where criticism—and therefore debate (whether about sports or politics)—is impossible.

 

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Sir Charles, Pictured With the Classic Phoenix Suns Jersey. Image Courtesy Of: https://www.casino.org/news/charles-barkley-says-lost-millions-gambling-dozens-occasions

 

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King James Looking a Bit Perturbed. Image Courtesy Of: http://ftw.usatoday.com/2016/03/lebron-james-could-leave-cleveland-says-stephen-a-smith