News & Opinion

So, there’s no place like sports? If only that were true

Hideki Matsuyama ESPN promo 'There's No Place Like Sports'
In a clip from an ESPN trailer to promote ‘There’s No Place Like Sports,’ Masters winner Hideki Matsuyama embraces caddie Shota Hayafuji.

With so much cultural correctness and political messaging in our games, escape amid so much wokeism can be difficult, even in golf

Masters winner Hideki Matsuyama is among featured athletes in a new promotional campaign on ESPN. Actually, it’s a new version of a theme the network has advanced in previous spots. That is, “There’s No Place Like Sports.”

The promo also features Adam Thielen, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Francis Ngannou and Eileen Gu for their achievements in various sports. If you don’t know the names or individual sports, sorry, but you’re on your own.

Remember, this is golf space. The idea is to get it in the hole in the fewest number of strokes, or in this case, keystrokes. But we digress … 

According to a press release, the message to be culled from these inspirational performances is “only in sports does ‘once in a lifetime’ happen all the time.” No question, amazing things happen in sports – unprecedented, heart-warming, inspiring. That said, the “once in a lifetime” patent hardly belongs exclusively.

Motivational moments and inspiring achievements happen “all the time” in circumstances far less glorified. Example: this scribe passed a Latin exam early in his freshman year of high school. It never happened again, and he failed the course miserably. It was a “once in a lifetime” achievement. 

But where this ESPN campaign truly buckles is in the decree. A more accurate proclamation would be, There’s No Place Like Sports ... Including Sports.”

The idea that sports represent some sacred place or escape from our otherwise cluttered lives is absurd. It once was that way; you can make that argument. But please, don’t suggest that is the case now. Not you, ESPN, a network that fills air time with basketball commentators preaching about pandemic response and racial injustices. Not you, a network that caters to LeBron James.

In these woke, politically charged times, there is no sanctuary, certainly not in sports. Games used to reflect the world going on around them; now, they embrace that world, brand it, instigate it. Sports used to challenge us to be better; now, they undress all of our wounds. The scope of the compromise is remarkable.   

You can’t watch a Super Bowl without a commercial barrage of cultural correctness and political messaging. You can’t go to a game without seeing some type of protest or reading some type of slogan. You can’t listen to a radio without the announcer preaching about masks or social distance.

Hollywood always has been that way. Sports is the new Hollywood, where fame and fortune flourish, where entitled athletes feel compelled to comment on things that impact unentitled lives, a world with which they have little association. 

Sure, politics and social issues historically arise in sports. The Olympics are dotted with poignant moments, from Taiwanese athletes to Tommie Smith and John Carlos.

Individually, figures such as Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali used the theater as a platform, to break a cultural barrier, to cross a political line. Sports always have cast a reflection, sometimes even a beacon, on their times and their own terms.

But everyone has a platform now; it’s called the Internet. And sports never have embraced or promoted politics and cultural rhetoric on the scale they do now. Never have games been more subservient to their empowered participants. Never have they been more willing to cave to the world around. Politics and wokeism aren’t just reflected in sports – and ESPN – they are part of the strategy, good for the brand, tied to the meal ticket.   

So, Major League Baseball, with rosters that are only 7.8 percent Black, pulls its All-Star Game from Atlanta over Georgia’s “Jim Crow” voting laws. So, the NHL issues a statement on the Derek Chauvin guilty verdict in Minneapolis. That’s the same NHL that represents six Canadian cities, cities that you might guess know more about George “Punch” Imlach than they do about George Floyd.

Why the NHL issued no statement after Perseverance landed on Mars remains a mystery. 

Golf historically has avoided such cross-pollination, staying in the fairways and avoiding issues outside the ropes. Even Tiger Woods, who has cracked as many more cultural eggs as anyone, consistently has guarded the perimeter and kept his sports identity separate from his political views.

But even golf has cowered. Early this year, the PGA of America moved its 2022 PGA Championship from Trump National Golf Club in New Jersey, appeasing those who demanded a disassociation from outgoing President Donald J. Trump. Meanwhile, the PGA Tour has initiated a Player Impact Program, which essentially pays top players to be more visible on social media. And what’s one way to get more followers? How about tweeting your take on the headlines?

What you used to know about favored athletes and favorite teams is how they performed in big games, or where they stood in the standings. There were no mixed emotions, no additional considerations. The loyalty and admiration could be allocated unqualified. 

Now, you also know where they stand on the hot issues, how they feel about Black Lives Matter, or China, or defunding the police, or getting a vaccine … or whatever the next news cycle spits out. Now, for your inflated price of admission, you get to know more about them than you ever wanted to know. You have to weigh the sports elements with the political passions or social statements and see how they mesh.

Now, your sentiments might be polarized, endangered by a line in the sand. There’s No Place Like Sports to have it all jammed down your throat, to block your escape. At some point, it seems safe to say, there will be a disconnect.

The TV ratings for Hollywood’s recent Academy Awards show were down 58 percent from the previous all-time low in 2020. In a recent poll conducted by Yahoo News/YouGov, 34.5 percent of those responding said they have watched sports less due to social-justice campaigns. In the same poll, 53 percent of those identifying as Republicans said they watched less because of social-justice messaging. 

Sorry, ESPN. There used to be no place like sports. Now, they’re like every place else.

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