Curt Schilling's firing by ESPN and Bobby Knight's endorsement of Donald Trump showcase the inevitable conflict of what happens when sports and politics cross paths.
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Humans are basically herd animals. The average sports bar is proof enough of that. What makes humans unique is that we are the only herd animals that can speak to each other. This is the reason we have politics. That, at least, was Aristotle’s opinion, anyway. He also thought that habituating yourself to the rules of athletics makes you more capable of following the laws of society. The centuries since have proven him right about the former. The police blotters of various college towns lead me to believe that he may have been premature in his latter conclusion.
Anyway, Aristotle, a veteran scribe by any measure, knew what an explosive mixture sports and politics could be. Each volatile on its own, putting them together is very much like combining fertilizer and diesel fuel. This is why our sports-entertainment complex generally is so terrified when one of the employees decides to go into the business of politics for himself. Good Lord, man, what about The Brand?
(The tyranny of The Brand is the worst, most deadening thing to happen to sports—and to American culture in general—in two centuries. It makes the athlete complicit in the athlete’s own commodification. It makes the athlete a walking sales strategy. It also makes the athlete as boring as it is possible for a human being to be.)
Recently, we’ve had a couple of examples of what happens when athletes go into business for themselves as regards the events in the wider world. Curt Schilling lost his gig at ESPN for passing along something crude and stupid once too often on his social media accounts. And in Indiana, former Indiana University head basketball coach, and career misanthrope, Bob Knight endorsed Donald Trump in what had become a crucial Republican presidential primary in that state. In both cases, loyalty to The Brand was deeply involved. Schilling’s dismissal came because his personal brand—being a noisome conservative blowhard who knows very little about what he thinks he knows a lot—conflicted with ESPN’s brand, which is essentially being a timid colossus terrified that someone, somewhere, will say bad things about it on the Internet. For his part, Knight finally found a politician whose basic appeal was essentially identical to Knight’s persona as a basketball coach. Schilling fought for his own brand against his company’s. Knight found the perfect expression of his brand in a political campaign.
Let us deal with the Constitution straight off. Curt Schilling does not now, and never had, a constitutional right to a job with a particular television network. The Bill of Rights constrains only government action. (That an alleged media organization should be more sensitive to the spirit of the First Amendment than is the average widget plant is another argument, as we shall see.) And, in case it has eluded him throughout both of his professional careers, one of the most fundamental phenomena of work in the modern corporate economy is that the government doesn’t have to abridge your fundamental liberties. It can outsource the job to every other institution of your life until the exercise of those liberties becomes so inconvenient and economically perilous that you decide the game isn’t worth the candle.
Take, for example, drug testing. Almost every job now comes along with mandatory drug testing, almost always without any resemblance of probable cause. This began in the 1980’s, when the most recent of the country’s historic drug frenzies broke out. In sports, of course, this has become manifest most clearly in the case of Performance Enhancing Drugs, the subject of what legal blogger Scott Lemieux has called The War On (Some Classes Of People Who Use Some) Drugs.
As it happens, Schilling is a longtime warrior in these particular hostilities. He has unlimbered himself on the subject in a number of different forums—most notably before Congress in 2005, when he completely turtled on many of his previous public comments once he was put under oath. Now, having been dismissed from his commentating job at ESPN, Schilling is making the rounds of the conservative media, posturing as a free-speech martyr and as a victim of rampant political correctness. He thinks that ESPN ought to have had more respect for the spirit of the First Amendment. Of course, when it comes to drugs, he thinks his former employers in Major League Baseball should have shredded the spirit of the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments.
As it happens, I agree with him on his first point. I do think his firing was unjust, although he probably should have taken a break from social media after the first couple of times he was warned. I do think that corporations—especially media corporations—that meddle in public expressions of opinion by their employees outside the workplace, to say nothing of penalizing those employees for expressing opinions, are a threat to the public discourse. This is even worse when it is done by a media corporation. (I have some first-hand experience with this.) I don’t think what Schilling did was a firing offense, but I am not a curator of The Brand. Basically, Schilling has been a know-nothing know-it-all for his entire adult life. He should be subject to mockery. That’s all. At the very least, it would keep him from driving nails into his own palms on unwatched internet video stations.
As for Knight, well, there never has been a more perfect match of candidate and endorser than Donald Trump and Bob Knight. Both of them share a taste for bullying, an enthusiasm for denigrating those people they don’t like, and an unaccountable animal instinct for leading a noisy mob in their respective arenas. There are very few moments in life in which everything aligns just perfectly. Watching Bob Knight introduce Donald Trump by mangling the events at the end of World War II was one of those moments.
“Harry Truman, with what he did in dropping and having the guts to drop the bomb in 1944, saved billions of American lives. And that’s what Harry Truman did and he became one of the three great presidents of the United States and here’s a man who would do the same thing because he’s going to become one of the four great presidents of the United States.”
Billions of lives?
Old Harry as one of the three great presidents?
As Otter once said to Boon in the living room of Delta House: Forget it, he’s rolling.
I would caution my liberal friends about being either too critical or about laughing too hard. For years, a lot of us deplored the fact that our sports celebrities largely took a pass on the important political and social issues. Michael Jordan was a particular target in this regard. It wasn’t like the good old days with Muhammad Ali, or Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the victory stand in Mexico City. Recently, of course, there has been a shift in the zeitgeist. NBA players took a serious stand against the various police shootings of unarmed black men, giving a PR boost to the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement. This was altogether a good thing—not least because “Stick To Sports” is a monumental temptation to civic disengagement and moral blindness.
However, the door has to swing both ways. If you want celebrity athletes involved in the issues of the day, you should assume that many of them will line up to the right on those issues. This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever been around elite athletes. It certainly shouldn’t shock anyone in the executive suites, where you’ll find a lot of people who line up to the right on those issues, and who can exert a great deal more influence on them in the real world beyond the arenas. The marketplace of ideas isn’t supposed to be a boutique shop on the concourse level of whatever new stadium an owner has managed to blackjack out of a municipality. It’s supposed to as loud and as unruly as a Moroccan bazaar. Brands can find themselves damaged in the scuffling. This is not necessarily a bad thing. I hope Schilling gets another broadcasting gig, and I hope Knight is having the time of his life trying to sell Donald Trump to large groups of enthusiastic Hoosiers. I reserve my own First Amendment right to laugh hysterically at what they’re all trying to do.
The concept of the Know-Nothing Know-It-All has a long history among athletes, who often confuse their talent with a kind of general knowledge of the world. It didn’t hit politics until relatively recently. The culture and our politics has gone so tribal at this point that it has more in common with the Yankees and the Red Sox—or Indiana-Kentucky—than it does with the business of government. Everything is sports now. The cross-pollination always has been inevitable. Aristotle wouldn’t approve, or even recognize it, but I think he’d understand. He was a fairly smart guy.