The role of sports in a post-fact world

Note: I work in the news industry. Opinions herein are my own and are not endorsed by my employer.

If the world were “normal” right now, we’d be watching baseball. The NBA playoffs would be going on. The NHL would begin its long, slow march toward the Stanley Cup. Nobody would know anything about Bill Belichick’s dog. We’d be into Triple Crown season.

This past Saturday would have been the running of the Kentucky Derby (it will be run in September). I’ve never been to the Derby, but I’ve been to the horse track, and it is a supremely weird environment — so weird that it launched Hunter S. Thompson.

There are two distinct crowds at the track. One owns or rents covered boxes. They wear gaudy suits and elaborate hats. They sip bourbon — mint juleps specifically at the Kentucky Derby — and place bets and food and drink orders via a monitor at their box. The other drags coolers full of cheap beer and camping chairs in, places bets at windows with tellers or ATM-type machines and watches races on giant monitors; sometimes there’s a little bit of standing room in one portion at the bottom of the grandstands that house the boxes. They wear dirty jeans and sleeveless t-shirts.

The actual sporting event is a series of 2-minute sprints, run every half hour by horses carrying jockeys. The worst horses are either put out to stud, or, if injured, euthanized. The best horses get to run their sprints again in a few weeks. The jockeys, trainers and owners of the winning horses are celebrated.

But here’s something about a horse race: A horse crosses the finish line first. Sometimes it takes a camera and a second look to see who it was, but once the determination is made, that’s it. The rules are everyone has to wait until the gun to leave, you can’t do stuff like collide intentionally, and the first one across the line wins. Swale won the 1984 Kentucky Derby. Funny Cide won in 2003. Those are facts. If you argue that Funny Cide won in 1972, you’re wrong — that was Riva Ridge. If you argue that Michael Jordan won in 1984, you’re wrong. He is a retired professional basketball player, not a horse.

Bob Costas talks to Cal Fussman on Big Questions about sports and news and the current political environment.
If for some reason you don’t know who Bob Costas is, he’s been a sports commentator forever. Football, baseball, the Olympics, the Kentucky Derby — he’s done it all, and he has dozens of Emmys for it, and probably hundreds of other awards. And then at some point, he started adding commentary.

Maybe you don’t want commentary with your sports, but his commentary was always reasoned, thought-through and supported by examples. By facts.


The news media industry has changed a lot since I entered it a little over 20 years ago, and even more since I started paying attention as a kid.

I remember lying on our living room sofa in 1992 when the U.S. attacked Iraq in retaliation for that country’s invasion of Kuwait. We turned on CNN and watched the missiles fly live, the first time something like that was available.

The research on media influence through the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s said that media told people what to think about, but not what to think. In nerd terms, salience, not valence. For example, we would talk about whatever was in the paper or whatever Walter Cronkite was talking about, but we as readers, listeners and watchers formed our own opinions.

I don’t know what the new research says, but it’s clear that some outlets are fans of teams (political parties) rather than watchdogs. There’s also this new thing happening with the internet. With unlimited news hole and sites getting paid for views, it behooves sites — regardless of whether they belong to newspapers, TV or radio stations — to write about whatever’s trending on Google, and to get it fast without independent verification. It also leads to a lot of story aggregation, wherein perhaps a site like TMZ reports something and then a reporter for another outlet writes a story about what TMZ said, without doing any original reporting.

The other thing this period in journalism has brought is a much wider competition. The newspaper in Buffalo, New York, used to only have to compete with the TV and radio stations in Buffalo. Now, that newspaper is also competing with other regional papers like those in Syracuse and Albany, as well as all the news outlets in Minneapolis, Albuquerque, Sacramento and everywhere else.


We seem to be in a post-fact environment right now. I’ve been writing about this since before President Donald Trump’s inauguration, but the reality is that truth has been politicized.

Remember alternative facts?

In his discussion with Fussman, Costas points out that you can argue about whether not playing against people of color boosted Babe Ruth’s stats, but you certainly can’t declare that Ruth wasn’t a good player. Much like the Kentucky Derby winners, there’s a truth to sports that isn’t subjective.

The return of baseball after 9/11 was the mark of some normalcy. David Ortiz declaring Boston to be “our fucking city” was the start of healing after the Boston Marathon bombing. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, pro sports are looking at a $12 billion revenue loss, but when they start back up, we’ll know things are on the way back.

And when things are on the way back, we know we’ll argue about Red Sox vs. Yankees, Tom Brady as a Buc, and all the other things sports bring. But we won’t argue about whether the Red Sox are a basketball team, whether Tom Brady is one of the worst quarterbacks to play football or whether ice hockey should be played on horseback.

Play on.

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