COLLEGE PARK, Maryland – The rise of the 24-hour, instant news cycle has given sports figures, like other celebrities, unprecedented power to comment on current events. Now more than ever, people are looking to athletes to weigh in on the latest news, both through social media and in conversations with reporters.
But with the current political climate being what it is, what they say (and how they say it) has never come under more scrutiny.
Last fall, Colin Kaepernick’s flag protest – and ensuing expressions of solidarity from fellow athletes – earned sharply contrasting reactions from fans and media alike, from overwhelming praise to bitter rebukes and insistence that those involved should “stick to sports.”
Elsewhere, athletes like Tom Brady have been criticized for not being more open about their political views and alliances.
Due to the public nature of contemporary celebrity culture, it’s become something of a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you don’t situation, according to Kevin Merida, Editor in Chief of The Undefeated, ESPN’s new site covering the convergence of sports, race and culture.
“We’re not going back to sports being the one place where there’s only what happens in front of you on the playing field,” Merida said during a recent talk at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
Because of today’s high-speed, media-driven world, he said, there’s unprecedented demand for athletes to weigh in on current issues.
But he added, “I do think that there’s some divide out there. (Some fans) wish that their athletes were just people who played the sports, and their coverage was highlights and press conferences and statistics.”
In other words, when something big happens in the news, athletes are expected to either respond or intentionally not respond, then are scrutinized over their reactions.
For some of Merida’s contemporaries, this fusion of sports figures and politics has been something revolutionary and new.
“Athletes, especially famous ones, are less likely to be left to stand alone as ciphers of sporting excellence,” Jay Caspian Kang wrote in a New York Times article last month. “Their images will be shaded by their politics, even if these have to be assigned to them.”
Kang, like New York Magazine’s Reeves Wiedeman, suggested that the political awakening of athletes over the last few years has been a radical movement, one which has provided drastically more avenues and platforms for discussions of issues such as civil rights.
“What has emerged is a generation not only willing to shine a light on injustice but prepared to make concrete demands,” Wiedeman wrote in an article published last month. He cited instances like Kaepernick’s protest and Carmelo Anthony’s support for Black Lives Matter – both of which grew into powerful movements that influenced fellow athletes, retail companies and even the NBA.
But Merida, and his colleagues present at the talk, suggested fans look at modern athletes’ political statements less as something radically new, and more as part of a right sports figures should have had from the beginning: to express themselves beyond the playing field.
The Undefeated website, which celebrates the experience of African-American athletes in relation to society and popular culture, is comprised of writers and editors who believe that an athlete’s essence goes beyond just sports and that all of it is worth sharing.
That includes political beliefs.
“Athletes have always just been regular people who have regular experiences,” said Undefeated senior editor Danielle Cadet, who also spoke at Merrill College alongside Merida and staff writer Justin Tinsley. “It’s just that we’re not (traditionally) talking about them as much.”
Now things have changed, Merida said. Due to the rise of social media, he explained, not only are athletes more under the microscope, they’re also becoming more culturally aware and more apt to take action.
“Athletes are becoming citizens of the world,” Merida said. He cited sports figures like LeBron James, who hasn’t been shy about making overt political statements in the last few years – from his protest over Trayvon Martin’s 2012 killing while a member of the Miami Heat, to his support for Hillary Clinton in last year’s presidential election.
And Merida sees The Undefeated as the perfect outlet for these kinds of stories.
Looking on The Undefeated website, one finds articles about today’s biggest sports news.
But there are also features on social issues, the music scene, newsworthy black films, and the “44 most influential black Americans in history.” For The Undefeated, Merida and his colleagues suggested, sports is just one aspect of a rich, all-encompassing narrative of African American life, and life in general.
One of the most important elements that sets The Undefeated apart, its staff believes, is the publication’s commitment to understanding its subjects as people.
Tinsley’s writing for the publication has covered topics varying from a profile of LeBron James to a charitable meetup between the Chicago Bulls’ Jimmy Butler and Chance the Rapper. He explained that in order to produce stories that offer more than just numbers, a journalist must earn his subjects’ confidence.
“It’s all just about establishing that level of trust,” Tinsley said of talking on-on-one with athletes and other celebrities.
“They are humans,” Tinsley continued. “They aren’t just machines who throw out on the baseball field or football field or basketball court. These people actually have real feelings, and they actually want to talk about these things.”
Merida, who came to The Undefeated after a long editorial career at The Washington Post, added that many of his staff come from working in more traditional reporting jobs, where they’ve built relationships of trust with important sources. Now they are finally able to make more use of them, he said.
He cited Undefeated contributor Mark Spears, in particular, with bringing some key sources to the publication – relationships that, for example, helped The Undefeated produce a diary series with Golden State Warriors power forward Draymond Green during last year’s NBA Playoffs.
Some colleagues in the sports journalism world have questioned whether The Undefeated needs to be its own site.
During a visit to the University of Maryland in February, ESPN baseball correspondent Tim Kurkjian said that while he admired the site’s content and focus on celebrating African-American culture, he felt that relegating many such stories to their own space was unnecessary when they deserved to be on the outlet’s main site.
But Merida maintained that niche media can do something different: they have the ability to go further in depth and produce stories that illuminate broader themes in society. And that unique ability, he said, was more important now than ever.
“The culture we live in is one where you try to build communities around topics of interest,” Merida said.
He added that, while the site was created with the purpose of speaking to the experience of African American fans, it’s meant to be enjoyed by people of all backgrounds.
“I hope that everybody comes to it,” he said.