03 October 2003

Proving once again that Orwell was right—the decision to remove politics from writing is itself a political decision—E.J. Dionne, Jr., remarks on Rush Limbaugh's forced departure from ESPN's football team in this morning's Washington Post. Dionne's obtuseness becomes clear in the following passage (mock paragraphing removed for clarity):

Most of us who love sports want to forget about politics when we watch games. Sports, like so many other voluntary activities, creates connections across political lines. All Americans who are rooting for the Red Sox in the playoffs are my friends this month, no matter what their ideology. Politicizing everything from literature to music to painting and sports was once a habit of the left. The Communist Party's now-defunct newspaper once had a sports column called "Out in Left Field." Now, it's the turn of the right to politicize everything. Limbaugh simply could not resist using a black quarterback as a vehicle to criticize "social concern"—I guess he thinks "social concern" is just an awful thing—and make a racial point. Imagine the grief a liberal sports commentator would rightly get for saying that because of his race or his politics, a white conservative Republican quarterback "got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve."

<SnideAside> I will note only in passing the inconsistent treatment of "sports" as sometimes singular, sometimes plural, and concentrate on substance. For good reason, academics who write about sport history use the term "sport" as the generic. </SnideAside>

   Dionne's error is in assuming that sport is not already politically meaningful, whether through participation, through commentary, or through mere fandom, before the ideologues get ahold of it. Looking just at commentary for a moment, I have a challenge for you: name a prominent basketball commentator who personally experienced the hoped-for "rise from the ghetto" without having played either in the NBA or as a scholarship athlete at one of the major college programs. Then look at the backgrounds of prominent basketball commentators. Very, very few of them fall below "upper lower middle." The less said about golf (which technically is a game, not a sport) and tennis, the better.

   Organized sport requires two essential commodities: time and competition. Children of the unemployed have lots of both, as do children of Veblen's "leisure class." Commentating on organized sport has the same prerequisites, on the part of both the commentator and the commentator's audience. Sport itself can hardly avoid politics when it tries, let alone when it does not. Hiring Rush Limbaugh is a clear example of not even trying. But then, follow the money and that should not surprise anyone (rhetorical question: who owns ESPN?).