Last September, Travis appeared on CNN to discuss ESPN’s suspension of the “SportsCenter” anchor Jemele Hill, who had tweeted that President Trump was a “white supremacist.” Travis, who describes himself as a “radical moderate,” explained that he believed “in only two things completely: the First Amendment and boobs.” Although Travis had used this line before, it caught Brooke Baldwin, the show’s host, off guard. A new controversy branched from the original one, and Travis says he was banned from CNN.
This moment opens Travis’s new book, “Republicans Buy Sneakers, Too: How the Left Is Ruining Sports with Politics” (Broadside), an exploration of how he, a longtime Democrat, began to reject what he perceived to be the sports media’s liberal bias. The book is made up of a series of interconnected takes on, among other things, ESPN (“MSESPN”), diversity and political correctness, and the outspoken politics of athletes like LeBron James and Colin Kaepernick. What Travis describes as his “red pill” moment happened during a 2015 protest at the University of Missouri. The football team threatened a boycott, joining student activists who were concerned about a string of racist incidents on campus. But Travis was troubled that few in the media had scrutinized the students’ stories. He felt that the students were exaggerating, maybe even making stuff up. Even if these things actually happened, were “a poop swastika” and “an alleged racial slur, with no witnesses, happening off campus” really in the purview of a university president? “This wasn’t about right or wrong,” he writes. “It was about white men being afraid of being publicly branded as racists.”
These “fake racism allegations,” and the media’s defense of the campus’s “little terrorists,” inspired Travis to become a sort of radicalized bro. He began blogging about the “sham nature” of the protests. Some people found his responses glib, if not racist. This initially disturbed him. But, as often happens nowadays, he read these reactions as attempts to “silence” or “scare” him and so as proof that his skepticism was merited. He came to see the First Amendment as representing “a marketplace of ideas” hospitable to all inquiries, no matter how uncomfortable they might make some people feel. In his book, he speaks his mind with a confrontational verve. He wonders why nobody questioned whether a well-publicized incident involving racist graffiti scrawled outside LeBron James’s home actually happened. He suggests that black athletes are a protected class, insulated from media criticism. He also theorizes that the predominantly white sports media vilifies Ryan Lochte and Grayson Allen because they are white and, therefore, safe targets.
None of Travis’s grievances in the book have to do with the games themselves. Rather, he’s incensed by the stories we tell about those games. He’s particularly relentless when it comes to ESPN, and the “far-left-wing liberal” leadership of its former president, John Skipper, who stepped down last December, amid substance-abuse concerns. In the past few years, ESPN has come to be seen as a cautionary tale of what happens when traditional media companies, accustomed to domination, grow complacent. In 2016, with cable subscriptions on a seemingly irreversible decline, the company spent an estimated $7.3 billion on content. While other outlets spent comparable sums to build libraries of on-demand content that could theoretically live forever, much of ESPN’s spending went toward live sporting events, which rarely make for repeat viewing.
Travis’s chapter on broadcast economics offers a cogent gloss on the challenges that changing viewing habits pose for traditional media entities like ESPN. (A belief that the well of cable-subscription dollars would never run dry in turn affected the professional leagues themselves, whose fortunes depend on lucrative broadcast deals.) One of the ways that ESPN has tried to modernize quickly—and adapt to changing demographics—is by building programs around hosts who are often young, charismatic, and nonwhite. There’s a conspiratorial edge to Travis’s criticism of what he sees as the network’s cosmetic makeover, as well as the increasingly politicized outlooks of its on-air talent. It’s open to argument whether ESPN’s occasionally clumsy on-air strategy has slowed or accelerated the network’s over-all decline in viewership. ESPN has always pursued celebrity, whether it was Tim Tebow or the network’s own anchors. But there’s a viral stickiness to Travis’s charge that it was the politics that drove people away, not the larger reality of cord-cutting. In today’s conversational arena, the burden of proving otherwise always rests on the powerful institution, which is held to a different standard than smaller, nimbler, more openly partisan outlets.
The title of Travis’s book comes from a widely circulated anecdote about the basketball superstar Michael Jordan. In 1990, Jordan allegedly refused to endorse a black challenger to the North Carolina senator Jesse Helms, because “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” Whether Jordan actually said this is beside the point. (The quote has been revised over time by the reporter who claims to have heard it, and Jordan, despite his behind-the-scenes support of liberal politicians and causes, is famously taciturn about his politics.) But it has been repeated enough times to be part of Jordan’s off-court legacy as a superstar who understood his place and his limitations, and whose innovations as a kind of human brand were in the name of bringing different people together.
Travis contrasts Jordan with James, who quarrels directly with the President on Twitter. Muhammad Ali, whose refusal to serve in the Army during the war in Vietnam once inspired government prosecution, is remembered fondly as someone whose grievances were clear, detailed, and issue-focussed, unlike those of Kaepernick, whom Travis regards as a cliché-spouting social-justice opportunist. Plus, times have changed. “If anything,” he writes, referring to affirmative action, “the United States government’s laws discriminate in favor of black people based on their skin color.”
That Travis could work an aside about affirmative action into a book about sports speaks to the strange paradox of his career. He writes that sports once constituted our “national connective tissue, the place we all went to escape the serious things in life. It didn’t matter if you were a neurosurgeon or a janitor; everyone’s opinion on sports was equal. Even better, sports was the one place where we could all go to escape the partisan rancor afflicting our country elsewhere.” Yet while he wants athletes to keep their politics to themselves, and networks to stop treating those views as newsworthy, his career has flourished by doing the opposite. Travis’s vision of the past helps explain why sports, full of hallowed traditions and strict hierarchies, pairs well with politically conservative outlooks. When he laments the present-day media’s role in our “national balkanization,” he’s simply describing a world that is open to a wider, more unpredictable array of voices. Of course, this is a world in which he’s a star, weaving riffs about overpaid point guards and noble linemen, whiny celebrities and showmen politicians, into a story about his America.