Feinstein: I Will Not "Stick To Sports"

Politics are a part of sports, John Feinstein says, whether you want to admit it or not

John Feinstein
August 08, 2019 - 10:41 am
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I wrote a column for The Washington Post earlier this week on how foolish it was for anyone to pretend that sports and politics can be kept separate—especially in these polarized times.
I cited three specific examples from the previous week: the Navy football team having to change its slogan for this season from, “Load the Clip,” to “Win the Day,”; Champ Bailey’s impassioned and eloquent Hall of Fame induction speech; and soccer player Alejandro Bedoya using an off-field microphone to tell Congress to do something NOW about gun control after the weekend’s two mass shootings—one in El Paso, one in Dayton.
My point was this: those who scream, “stick to sports,” whether at athletes speaking out on social issues or at ESPN or at me are, at best, naïve, but in most cases simply people who don’t want to hear voices that DISAGREE WITH THEM.
It wasn’t a coincidence 18 months ago when screechy conservative TV talking head Laura Ingraham said that LeBron James should “shut up and dribble” after James – while talking about a racist hate-message left on the door of his Los Angeles home – was critical of President Donald Trump.
The same is true, I suspect, of most of those who complained that players kneeling during the national anthem at NFL games were “ruining their enjoyment of football.” Or, in the case of one Fox News (surprise) analyst, wondering, “how men who are making millions of dollars can possibly have anything to protest about.”
As I wrote in the column, sports and politics have—sadly, in many cases—crossed paths forever, whether it was then-U.S. Olympic Committee chairman Avery Brundage benching two Jewish sprinters in Berlin in 1936 so as not to offend Adolf Hitler or that same Brundage banning Tommie Smith and John Carlos from the Olympic movement forever after their peaceful black-gloved protest on the medals stand in Mexico City in 1968.
Those two examples paled next to the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes four years later in Munich. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter boycotted the Olympics in Moscow after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Four years after that, the Soviets led a boycott by the entire eastern bloc of the Los Angeles Olympics in retaliation.
Politics not part of sports? Seriously?
Nowadays, sports and politics crossing paths is an almost daily part of our lives. The notion of “stick to sports,” is ludicrous. As Jim Curtin, coach of the Philadelphia Union, for whom Bedoya plays, pointed out, “We’re human beings before we’re athletes.”
Which was exactly my point. Don’t tell me—or anyone else—not to have political opinions because we’re involved in sports. Don’t tell athletes they can’t peacefully protest; don’t tell ESPN that its highly paid pundits shouldn’t express opinions when—for example—a Trump rant in Alabama in 2017 brings the national anthem protests back to national prominence. The weekend prior to Trump screaming at a political rally that NFL owners should, “Fire the SOBs,”—who didn’t stand for the anthem, the number of those kneeling went from six the previous weekend to more than 200 that weekend.
That should be ignored or not commented on?
I knew, even as I wrote, that many of the “stick to sports,” zealots would attack me for the column. Which was fine. I was actually kind of gratified at the number of people who liked the column, including a number who identified themselves as conservatives, but still agreed with my premise that everyone has a right to speak out.
One tweet, though, got my attention. It was from a guy who scolded me for the column (fine), but then went on to say I should be “smart enough” to know when I wrote things like this, I would offend my non-liberal readers and that he would think that would upset my book publishers.
As I always do when someone writes something I find mind-boggling, I checked the guy’s profile. He listed things he disliked. Among them were, “all liberals.”
At least I knew what I was dealing with. I wrote back to let him know that my publishers couldn’t care less about my politics or what I had to say about politics. Beyond that, though, I tried to make the point that I had never seen it as my job to say or write things that would make people happy. My job, I said, is to report so I can inform; express what I hope are educated opinions and, in some cases, write stories that many people don’t care about, but should care about.
The best example of this—to me—are the cases of Tiger Woods and Erik Compton. Woods is the greatest golfer of all time; Compton is the greatest golf STORY of all time.
Recently, I got a phone call from an HBO producer letting me know the network is paying (God knows how much) to do a four-hour documentary on Woods. They wanted to interview me for the documentary. My instinctive response was, “Thanks for asking, but no thanks.” I mean, what is there to say that’s new about Woods? He’s been written about, talked about, glorified (by just about everyone on TV) and psycho-analyzed to death.
Watch him play golf? Sure. Write about him, talk about him, read about him—thanks, but no thanks. His win at the Masters this year was remarkable. But enough already.
Compton has had two heart transplants. Two. The first was when he was 12, the second when he was 28 after he had a heart attack while driving in Miami (his hometown) and got himself to an emergency room in time for doctors to save him. Six years after the second transplant, he finished tied for second in the U.S. Open.
I have made the case that NO ONE in sports history has done what Compton’s done. To come back and play at the highest level of the game is remarkable. To finish second in a major championship? Are you kidding me?
Compton and I are friends. I admire his approach not just to golf, but to life. I think his is an amazing and largely untold story. One of the first times he and I ever talked, he said to me: “I want you to be able to write something about me someday that isn’t JUST about me being a golfer who had two heart transplants.”
After the second-place finish at the Open, I was convinced we’d reached that moment. I suggested a book to my publisher. “Well,” he said, “maybe if he’d won the Open…” As if finishing second somehow diminished the achievement.
I then brought it up to Golf Channel. This should have been right in their wheelhouse. Here’s the response I got: “I’m Erik Comptoned out.” The network that had given the world, “The Big Break,” “Driver vs. Driver,” and non-stop glorification of Woods—had done one six-minute interview with Compton BEFORE the Open. And its bosses were “Erik Comptoned out.”
The easiest thing in the world for me to do would be to climb on the bandwagon and cheer Woods on and act as if the ongoing “playoffs" that the PGA Tour keeps trying to convince us will “make history” are a big deal. Heck, if I was willing to be that guy, I’d almost certainly still work for Golf Channel.
Mike McCarley, the president of the network, reminded us (and probably still does) every month that one of Golf Channel’s major goals is to “improve relationships with our partners.”
That would be the PGA Tour; Augusta National; the PGA of America, the R+A, Woods and, generally speaking, all players—and their agents. I have one partner: my wife, Christine. I’ve never seen it as my job to cheerlead, although I’m happy to talk and write about good guys—whether they be Compton or Rory McIlroy or Brooks Koepka or others you’ve never heard of—in a positive vein.
I like a lot of the people I cover, and I think my work conveys that. But I’m not going to let Dan Snyder off the hook, the way most of the media here in D.C. does. Nor will I back off from my position that Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo made an awful mistake in 2012 and should have changed the plan when the team suddenly got very good that season and sat Stephen Strasburg for the month of August, not the month of October.
My colleague, Tom Boswell, screamed at me when I wrote that, saying—among other things—that if Rizzo didn’t go along with agent Scott Boras’ plan that “they’ll never be able to sign another Boras client again.”
Anybody out there who believes Scott Boras wouldn’t sign a player to ANYONE who was the highest bidder, raise your hand.
My point is this: I’ve never seen it as my job to write what people want to be told. I see my job being to write what people don’t know and/or should know. If that means I’m treated as a pariah by many in the city where I live—that’s fine.
Five years ago, when Woods missed the cut at the tournament here in Washington that benefitted his foundation, I wrote a Post column noting that attendance had gone to just about zero for the third round after he’d gone home and that the tournament wouldn’t survive if it didn’t find a way to draw a better field in the future with players not named Woods.
The tournament’s PR people went nuts. They called my editor; called the Post’s golf writer and demanded a correction. For what, my opinion? My editor stood up for me. The golf writer went on the radio the next day and attacked me for the column.
The tournament folded a year ago and is now played in Detroit.
So, I was right. I could have been wrong. But it was my job to tell people what I thought and why. I will always do that—even if it means someone who says he “dislikes all liberals” tells me he will never read me again.
And I won’t “stick to sports” anytime soon. If you’re doing your job in today’s world, that’s not an option.
John Feinstein’s most recent book is, “The Prodigy,” the story of a 17-year-old who has a chance to win the Masters but must fend off agents, equipment reps and his own father who are trying to turn him into a human ATM machine even as the competes in the tournament. His new Young Adult novel, “Benchwarmers,” will be published August 27th. His latest non-fiction book, “Quarterback—Inside the Most Important Position in the National Football League,” will be published in paperback next month. John’s website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com