“Stick to Sports” Has Gone by the Wayside on Right-Leaning Sports Talk Radio

Donald Trump’s near-frantic desire to reopen the national economy in order to salvage his reelection hopes has been about as subtle as an earthquake in a nail gun factory. He has found support for this push from within his voter base, from certain portions of the business community, and from conservative governors in less-populated states where COVID-19 has not (yet) done substantial damage.

It is a high-risk gamble fraught with lethal consequences that are already being felt. While cities like New York and Boston are only now allowing a measure of normalcy to return after several long, brutal months, other more rural locations threw caution to the wind at Trump’s behest weeks ago, and the butcher’s bill for their rash impatience is coming due.

“The increase of coronavirus cases in counties with fewer than 60,000 people is part of the trend of new infections surging across the rural United States,” reports The Washington Post. “Health experts worry those areas, already short of resources before the pandemic, will struggle to track new cases with the infrastructure that remains. Adding to the disparity in health-care support, residents in states such as Mississippi, Florida and South Carolina are living under only minor-to-moderate restrictions — even as their average daily infection rate is rising.”

The “Reopen” advocates — from Trump to his pet governors to the heavily-armed blivets harassing officials in Michigan — have been vividly and publicly noisy with their demands. Yet, another hard “Reopen” push has been taking place since March in a sector of the media that has been entirely overlooked during this crisis, despite its long reach and significant impact: sports talk radio.

At first blush, it makes little sense: Who listens to sports talk radio when there are no sports to talk about? Answer: People like me, and there are a hell of a lot of us. Listening to radio discussions on sports nowadays is a light whiff of normal in a world gone sideways, and because of that, there remains an audience for the product even as the bats fall silent and the cheers have disappeared.

This has created an under-the-radar opening for sports talk radio — long a bastion of unvarnished right-wing opinions — to push the “Reopen” argument with gusto by way of a daily drumbeat of rhetoric straight out of the Donald Trump playbook.

Without question, the professional sports industry — most especially on the men’s side of things — is in too many respects a toxic stew of violent hypermasculinity wrapped in government-funded militaristic nationalism. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is as corrupt as Tammany Hall and as racist as the Minneapolis Police Department, and the women’s national soccer team — which literally conquered the world not long ago — has been forced to sue the league in order to be paid the same as the men.

The NFL, which has long been a frothing cauldron of these grim social phenomena, was caught flat-footed amid the eruption of public outrage after George Floyd was murdered on camera by a Minneapolis police officer. The league’s tepid statement on the subject was still too radical for the Fraternal Order of Police, which slapped the league for daring to even suggest that police in the U.S. could possibly be better at their jobs.

All that being rightly said, the realm of professional sports is not utterly bereft of important progressive voices. Muhammad Ali has been my personal hero ever since I met him in the lobby of the Parker House Hotel in Boston 41 years ago. His refusal to fight in a war that so thoroughly damaged my father has been a guiding light in my activism for as long as I can remember.

Celtics great Bill Russell has been an avatar for social justice for many decades, and recently landed on Trump with both feet. Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar penned a moving editorial about the murder of George Floyd. Bruins player Patrice Bergeron and tennis star Venus Williams have taken equally strong stands on the issue. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich sounds a whole hell of a lot like Bernie Sanders whenever he opines on the politics of the day.

And, of course, there is NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose kneeling protest against police violence four years ago ended his playing career. Role models like Kaepernick have inspired a new, younger generation of athletes to speak out against the systemic racism that pollutes the body politic right along with their sport. A top-tier cohort of Black NFL players released a profoundly moving video demanding the league allow players to publicly protest in the manner of Kaepernick, and the league — amazingly — bent to their will, even as that decision inspired yet another eruption of Trumpian wrath.

When the sports talk radio hosts are not talking about the games, the conversation tends to veer into the murky swamps of blunt right-wing blather. Sports talk radio, by and large, has been home to conservative opinion for many years, with egregious examples found in men like Gerry Callahan, who spent 20 years spewing racist, sexist and homophobic rants into the Boston airwaves until his act finally got stale enough to bounce him in 2019.

Which brings us back to sports talk radio in the immediacy of this moment. When sports figures like Kaepernick and Popovich dare to cross the “stick to sports” line espoused by conservative sports radio personalities, even as those personalities fail to follow this hypocritical creed themselves, those sports figures become chew toys for the day’s broadcast.

This was certainly the case before COVID arrived. After COVID, however, and in the complete absence of any games to talk about, sports talk radio has been filling the airwaves with ham-fisted, right-leaning Trump talk about the pandemic. I have given close ear to the evolution of this broadcasted conversation in my corner of New England since the pandemic began, and in doing so, I found a significant vector for the reckless “Reopen” push that has gone largely unnoticed.

Around these parts, the three main venues for sports talk radio are WEEI and the Sports Hub, which compete with the national Fox Sports broadcast. All of these stations, in their own fashion, began in March by downplaying the severity of COVID to one degree or another. When that proved to be an embarrassingly incorrect stance, they spent several weeks lamenting the lack of games, before pivoting more recently to a hard push toward getting the leagues going again. The games, according to many of these radio personalities, are worth the risk.

Of course, these sports talk radio people are carrying water for the billionaire owners who want the games to begin again so they can resume raking in massive profits from ticket sales, concessions and advertising revenues. They are also carrying water for themselves, so they can get back to the sports-oriented broadcasting that brings in ad revenues for their stations. The owners aren’t saying much in public on the subject, because they don’t have to; the radio guys are saying it for them, and they have a substantial audience listening in when they do.

As with Trump and the “Reopen” governors, the push to begin playing games as if the COVID pandemic is over has come with consequences. Per CNN:

Several universities this week joined a growing list of schools reporting coronavirus cases within their athletic programs. Arkansas State reported that seven athletes from three sports programs tested positive last Wednesday. They were all asymptomatic and will remain in quarantine for 14 days, the university said.

Three football players from Auburn University in Alabama tested positive, an Auburn athletics spokesperson confirmed to CNN. The three athletes are asymptomatic and have been placed in self-isolation in a dorm away from the rest of the team. The Texas Tech athletic department on Monday confirmed recent positive tests for Covid-19 within the men’s basketball program. It did not provide a number of affected athletes.

The University of Iowa athletics department said out of the 237 Covid-19 tests administered to staff and athletes since May 29, one person has tested positive. Marshall University and Oklahoma State University announced they’ve each had several athletes test positive. And Iowa State University reported one new case. The new cases come after multiple reports surfaced last week that at least five players on the University of Alabama football team tested positive for the virus.

The murder of George Floyd has inspired an explosion of athlete activism, the likes of which I have not seen in my lifetime. COVID has given that activism an even keener edge, and progressive voices that have long been relegated to the background are finally being heard.

Even so, the NFL is hungrily eyeing September as a target for restarting league play. Hockey is cobbling together a plan to salvage the season, and the NBA could be playing games by the end of July. Only Major League Baseball appears poised to lose the season, but only because the owners and players are squabbling over money. Meanwhile, the massively lucrative college sports industry appears all too willing to feed its student-athletes into the maw of the virus even as experts like Anthony Fauci warn against such a precipitous decision, and as the pandemic spreads its wings over the wider world.

Is the dangerous “Reopen” push in the realm of pro sports entirely due to the not-so-whispered campaign that has been waged by conservative sports talk radio hosts since March? Not entirely, to be sure, but their impact remains unmistakably evident, and their rhetoric has certainly fortified “Reopen” opinions regarding the vagaries of daily life. They’re not hiding it. You just have to find the right station.