Sports Talk That Matters

Arthur Solomon, Public Relations Consultant

Years before switching to the public relations business when newspapers began to fail, my first job was as a sports reporter in what I considered the legitimate news business – journalism – as opposed to the manufactured news business – public relations.

In those days, there were several unwritten rules to which the great majority of sports writers and editors followed:

  • If it happens off the field, it’s not a sports story.
  • Team owners, league presidents, managers and especially the commissioners were written about as if they were demigods.
  • Players who spoke about the poor treatment by management were labeled “clubhouse lawyers” by reporters.
  • Many sports writers protected players who behaved poorly by not writing about their sleazy behavior.

There were also other unwritten rules that were followed by players, team owners, and sports marketing sponsors:

  • Players grumbled about, but hardly any spoke for attribution to reporters about team contracts that resembled those of indentured servants.
  • That the bottom line was the most important aspect of owning a franchise was never mentioned.
  • Because of the hero status given to players by protective sports writers, sports sponsors would team up with athletes despite their despicable off-the-field behavior.

But the most important unwritten rule was that team owners, the leagues, sports sponsors and players would not speak publicly about political issues.

Things have changed since my sports writing days, some for the worse, some for the better, some for the best, and some aspects that have not changed.

The Worse:

  • Serious sports journalism is disappearing, except for a few major pubs, as news outlets cut investigative reporters and beat writers.
  • Coverage of sports on television has followed cable political coverage and has largely become a panel of pundits.
  • Team owners contrive to keep the negative aspects of their business from becoming public, as do all businesses.
  • Most team owners and sports sponsors still wilt when political issue becomes entwined with sports.

The Better:

  • Most sports reporters no longer cover-up when players misbehave.
  • Players have better working conditions, because they have organized and are represented by unions.
  • Some sports marketing sponsors don’t mind if their athlete endorsers speak out on social or political issues.
  • Some sports marketing sponsors speak out about social and political issues.

The Same:

  • Some sports journalists, especially football team TV commentators, still talk about owners as if they were the best people on Earth, neglecting to mention how for years they ignored scientific evidence that shows concussions can destroy an athlete’s life and attempted to cover up the evidence.
  • Some sports marketing sponsors still wilt when asked about how political issues affect their marketing plans.
  • Some sports journalists still downplay the unsportsmanlike conduct of athletes.

The Best:

  • For decades sports was considered to be an element of American society to be protected by sports writers from the realities of our culture. That has changed as many sports writers, marketing sponsors and some team owners admit that sports cannot be a stand-alone protected and encapsulated facet of American life.

The confluence of sports and society was demonstrated once again after the tragedy in Texas and Ohio.

While President Trump tried to explain that his inflammatory language has no affect on the hatred in segments of our society that has become virulent since he first began running for president, a few athletes spoke about their fears.

At football’s Hall of Fame ceremonies last weekend, new inductees Ed Reed and Champ Bailey spoke out about the mass shootings, their sorrows and fears. So did Major League Soccer player Alejandro Bedoya, who said after a game, “Before I’m a soccer player, I’m a human being first.” These athletes know that sports is not the most important facet of American society, unlike those who say politics has no place in sports or that sports journalists should stick to covering ballgames.

Unlike Republicans in Congress who refuse to say anything negative about the rabble-rousing language used by Trump, because they are fearful of being primaried, the above and other athletes who have spoken out about the evils in our society express their views even though it might cost them sponsorships or future employment in the sports industry.

Unfortunately, for many Americans sports is a too important focus of their life. They are more interested in the state of the teams they root for than the state of affairs in America.

The Republican caucus in the House and Senate are largely mute about the un-American views that Trump sprouts out on an almost daily basis.

President Trump’s inflammatory language has made bigotry come out from under the rocks and hoods to become mainstream in segments of our society. It proves that words matter.

That’s why I congratulate all the athletes who don’t limit their views only to what happens on the ball fields. Maybe their words will get through to those among us who only care about hits, runs and errors and to those Trump supporters who are interested in the truth and are tired of the president’s demagogic rhetoric.

There’s an important lesson that people in our business can learn from the present and past athletes who spoke out about conditions in our society that they deplored. Never be afraid of speaking the truth to people you report to. Being a “yes” person will set back, not help you in your career. Speaking the truth might upset your superiors for a while, but experience shows that you’ll be looked at as more than just a run of the mill employee number. You will become known as a person who is not afraid to take incoming flak from supervisors when you tell them that they are wrong. Just be certain that you have facts and ideas that back up your disagreements. And don’t be afraid of going over your supervisor’s head to top management. You can be assured that many of your supervisors, and top management, did the same. Doing so will help your career.


The Unspoken PR Tenet: Bad News Is Good News for Our Business By Arthur SolomonAbout the Author: Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com or artsolomon4pr@optimum.net.

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