This story appears in the Dec. 3, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
On the day after the recent midterm election, President Donald Trump dismissed the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and replaced him with Matthew Whitaker, 49, who had been Sessions's chief of staff. An important news story, to be sure—Whitaker became the nation's chief law enforcement officer—but there was another angle too. As instant Whitaker biographies popped up across the Internet, one detail took on a shine: He had been a tight end on the Iowa football team in the early 1990s and played in the '91 Rose Bowl against Washington. There was also video of one of Whitaker's two career touchdowns, among his 21 receptions in three seasons. He looked liked a classic Hawkeyes tight end, resembling a tackle with an H-back's jersey number (46). His shoulder pads were enormous, as was the style of the day.
It was not surprising that Whitaker's football history was incorporated into the fast-flowing narrative of his appointment. It was an easily verifiable fact—a value that can't be overstated at this time in history. And it's of seemingly unambiguous utility. Of all the details swirling around this particular government employee, many of them contentious, calling him a former college football player seemed distinctly safe.
On its face, this is pretty routine. We, the media, and particularly sportswriters, are generally delighted to find a sports connection in our news. Some politician or actor or CEO was a star high school javelin thrower or wrestler or soccer goalie? Awesome. So we find a teammate or two, maybe an old coach and if we're really lucky some grainy video (like Whitaker's touchdown), and voilà, we have a fresh angle or maybe even an offbeat feature story. It's often harmless. Hey, Bradley Cooper was a rower at Georgetown. That's cool.
But it's not always harmless. And we should rethink how sports is used to define identities and shape reputations.
In 2015, Brock Turner was arrested and charged with three counts of felony assault and attempted rape of an unconscious 22-year-old woman. An All-America high school swimmer on scholarship at Stanford, Turner became the focus of countless stories that referred to him as "Stanford swimmer Brock Turner." You might argue that this clause was merely descriptive, like calling him an "Ohio native" or a "21-year-old," but it's hardly a neutral phrase. It conjures images of passion and dedication and fitness and well-being and possibly high SAT scores. Through '15 and '16, Turner's athletic pedigree gave him a modicum of cover, which—whether intentionally or otherwise—mitigated the hideous act of which he was ultimately convicted (felony sexual assault). Some nonzero percentage of the public wondered if a college swimmer could do such a thing. (He could.) Even his six-month sentence, the brevity of which was widely criticized, seems to have been influenced by his being a Stanford swimmer.
Another, more recent example: When Cesar Sayoc, 56, was arrested on Oct. 26 in Plantation, Fla., and charged with sending 16 bombs to various critics of President Trump, media noted the soccer-related stickers on his van. Even this website published a story about Sayoc's soccer past. Outlets are quick to seize on these connections, not only because Americans are obsessed with sports but also because of our media ecosystem. Newsrooms obsess over search-engine optimization, chasing a share of clicks and eyeballs whenever #breakingnews enters the zeitgeist. This reactive and reductive journalism almost always distracts from the importance of the story. Sayoc allegedly attempted mass murder of distinguished Americans? And he played juco soccer? And?
When sports aren't being trotted out as a sideshow, they can force us to project our own beliefs onto people in the public sphere. The myth of the football player is a potent trope in American culture. While there might be some part of the populace that dislikes athletes for their indiscretions, many more—and males especially—are inclined to assign certain qualities to those who played the game: toughness, strength, commitment to teamwork. Many falsely equate such traits with character and leadership. (It's no surprise that Justice Brett Kavanaugh referenced his sports background nearly 50 times during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings.) The country is actively arguing over Whitaker's fitness to be attorney general of the United States. Football doesn't belong in the discussion, unless you're trying to manipulate that discussion, which is an entirely different issue.
The information universe is in a state of constant evolution, but the sports background of any controversial figure is almost always irrelevant.