By Jacqueline Farnsworth, George Porteous & Anderson Warshaw
The long-time voice of sports, ABC’s iconic commentator Howard Cosell, dubbed it the first rule of “jockocracy” – sports and politics don’t mix.
The last thing a nation of couch potatoes wanted to see was a political hot potato on their fields of dreams. Sports, for most Americans, were the sacrosanct refuge where we went to get away from it all, to escape the tension and drama and conflict that colors daily life.
But now many of our most divisive debates about class, race, religion, sex and the raw quest for political power are played out on the field. From the Pee Wee League to the Olympics and the Pros, sports mirror our polarizing divisions with athletes becoming icons of the polarizing debates razing the country’s cultural touchstones.
In “Common Ground with Jane Whitney’s second show of the season, a bevy of headline grabbing athletes and sports authorities will examine Americans’ perception of the appropriate social role of sports and why we increasingly demand that athletes become warrior avatars for our cultural civil wars.
Basketball Hall of Fame Coach Muffet McGraw, who turned a lifetime of courtside achievement into a national springboard to lobby for social reform as a dedicated activist on behalf of gender equality.
As the longtime head coach of Notre Dame’s women’s team, McGraw saw unparalleled success, guiding the Fighting Irish to seven championship game appearances, two national championships,
853 victories, and consistent rankings among the Top 3 of the Big East Conference.
McGraw, who will appear in person, became almost as well known for her off-court advocacy of women’s rights as her court-side accomplishments, leveraging her fame to fight for women’s ascendance to positions of power. “I want to see women leading as normal,” she once said. “We’re never going to get to the point where people think of women as leaders, until they see it.”
Our second panelist, who will appear in person, is Dave Zirin, a superstar of sports writing who has made a career of looking at sports through the lens of politics. His collected works, which cover a broad array of issues, provide what amounts to an alternative history of the United States as seen through the games its people play.
He views sports as a reflection of the political conflicts that shape American society. His 11 books - which include “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love” and “Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down” - are a thinly veiled campaign to challenge our modern conception of the world by providing new narratives that give a voice to the oft-ignored powerless.
When he’s not penning provocative novels, Zirin is the sports editor for The Nation magazine, a frequent contributor for SLAM Magazine and The Progressive, the author of the “Edge of Sports” column and the host of a Sirius XM weekly radio show.
The third panelist, appearing in person, is Jerry Brewer, an award-winning columnist for The Washington Post who is known for writing about athletes as human beings rather than icons and for connecting what happened on the field with what is going on in the world at large.
"The game is not the story. The game is a platform to tell a story," is how he describes his mantra for sports writing. In a brief self-description posted on the newspaper’s website, he says he sees his job as chronicling “the ups and downs, virtues and flaws,” of human beings who “stumble into iconic status” in a way that affects the community.
A former writer for The Seattle Times, his book “Pass Judgment” chronicled how the Seahawks blew a certain win in the 2015 Super Bowl, one of the defining defeats in sports history, and how Coach Pete Carroll, instead of hiding from national ridicule, embraced the pain as an opportunity to teach the ultra-competitive team about persistence.
Brewer’s penchant for using sports stories as life lessons characterizes his work. In preparing a column about a Seattle high school football coach, he became mesmerized by the coach’s daughter, Gloria, a seven-year-old who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The ensuing series about the family was nominated for a 2008 Pulitzer and led to his first book, “Gloria’s Miracle,” a morality tale about the collision between religion and cancer that united believers and non-believers.
Our final panelist, retired soccer star Brandi Chastain, made global headlines in 1999 for her World Cup-winning penalty shootout goal against China. Photos of Chastain’s subsequent celebration, which The New York Times called the “most iconic ever taken of a female athlete,” cemented her legendary status and evoked the emancipation and equal standing of women in sports worldwide. As a member of the United States national team from 1988 to 2004, she also became a two-time Olympic gold medalist and racked up 30 goals at international matches.
Since leaving the world’s most popular sport, Chastain has appeared on NBC, ABC, and ESPN as a color commentator and was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2017. She also has been vocal as an advocate for women’s equality in sports, supporting members of the United States women’s soccer team in their fight for equal pay. “We’re fighting for a much greater population,” she said in 2016.
“We want to make change.”