How the Sports Media Is Manufacturing Consent Over Gaza

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Palestine players celebrate after Nour Youseff of Palestine scores her side’s second during the international solidarity match between Bohemians and Palestine at Dalymount Park in Dublin on May 15, 2024.  (Shauna Clinton / Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Many sports journalists are afraid to touch the issue of Palestine—but the stories are there waiting to be told.

After the police murdered George Floyd on May 25, 2020, people from across the sports world decided they could not just shut up and play. Athletes spoke out, protested, and, after police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot James Blake that August, even refused to take the field, court, and pitch.

In the face of this political surge, almost the whole of the sports media—cable stations, newspapers, and magazines—decided that sticking to sports was no longer an option. There were articles, podcasts, radio shows, and television specials about this collision of sports and politics. ESPN yap fests turned their attention to issues that mattered—even if their analyses sometimes left something to be desired.

That is why it is illuminating that the sports media in the United States is so quiet in the face of the biggest story in the world: Israel’s war on the civilians of Gaza. It is not like there is a shortage of sports angles. We have an organization, Athletes for a Ceasefire, whose members will give interviews and talk about what’s happening. We have Israel killing top-level Palestinian players and Olympic coaches. We have the campaign to ban Israel from the Olympics and World Cup. We have the Palestinian National Women’s Soccer Team traveling to Ireland, where they were feted as heroes. We have Palestinian teams playing amid unimaginable hardship and carnage. The stories are there for those who want to tell them.

Instead, the most recent article on Gaza on ESPN’s website is from five months ago, and it’s just a reprint of an Associated Press story about an Israeli soccer player who was “investigated” by Turkish authorities for trying to raise awareness about the hostages while on the pitch. That’s it.

The sports media is ignoring a story that has spurred violent mass arrests of young people on campuses and the revival of what are essentially House on Un-American Activities Committee hearings in Congress. Instead, we have obsessions with legal sports betting, pompous pronouncements about basketball star Caitlin Clark (by men who seem to have just discovered that women play hoops), and an overproduction of podcasts that brand themselves as being about more than sports but won’t touch Palestine. It’s a whole lot of fiddling while people are burned alive with munitions made in the USA. Instead of challenging the status quo, this is manufacturing consent. It reminds of George Orwell’s line in 1984: “…football, beer and above all, gambling filled up the horizon of their minds. To keep them in control was not difficult.”

This is especially galling because the Black Lives Matter movement, with which so much of the institutional sports media engaged, saw connections between its cause and the Palestinian struggle. BLM activists worked hand-in-hand with Palestinians not least of all because so many US police departments have been sent to Israel to learn crowd-suppression and “pacification” tactics. They also saw their movements as linked because of the common experience of second-class citizenship enforced through the barrel of a gun.

The sports media institutions are rotten with anti-Palestinian racism, but that’s not the only reason for the silence. In my own conversations with sports media folk—some of whom DM me with laments about how they wish they could talk about Gaza more freely—they tell me they are keeping silent not because of bigotry but because they think to touch the issue of Palestine is akin to French-kissing a light socket. It’s not even that editors or executives are turning down or killing stories. There is no cabal of billionaires demanding silence from sports writers the way a bevy of plutocrats ordered New York Mayor Eric Adams to arrest protesters and occupy campuses. Sports journalists are spiking these stories in their heads before anyone can say whether their publications should run them.

I know that I have the privilege to write for a publication at The Nation that allows me to explore these issues without a censor. I know that my television program on The Real News Network encourages me to pursue the intersection of sports and Palestine’s efforts at survival. I also know that I have an extra layer of protection not only because I’m a straight white man but because I’m a Jewish writer, which makes it harder to slander me as antisemitic. But members of the sports media world do have more space to make themselves heard than they realize. Look at the numbers in favor of a cease-fire. The sports media could and should take the opportunity to open the eyes of its audience. A shift in coverage won’t be driven by principled editors or executives. It will take newsroom rebellions challenging their bosses and responding to the curiosities and convictions of their audience. It will take a conscious refusal to whistle past the mass graveyards.

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