Most of the time, when a sports story becomes mainstream, those that cover sports look at it as an opportunity. It's a chance to be critical and step outside of sticking to sports. But the latest story to intertwine between sports and politics could be their worst nightmare. That is because it involves the one thing the new media has declared untouchable: the NBA.
The Daryl Morey-China situation has really ruined things for the media and its narrative. This is a league that most media members under 45 - though, plenty over it too - say is much better than America's favorite league, the NFL. They call it more progressive, less about the greedy owners, and deserving of praise. Yet, it turns out, the great NBA is just as concerned about their bottom line as the evil NFL is. What a shocker, I know.
How sports media covers this story now and moving forward is worth watching. Meaning, how authentic they are when discussing it, if they even take the time to discuss it. Thus far, most of the bold takes that have come from the story are via those who are in the minority and have not joined in on this new wave of protecting the NBA at all costs: Clay Travis, Tony Kornheiser, and Keith Olbermann. The rest have talked about it very carefully and much less dangerously as they have in similar situations involving other leagues.
If you've watched and read how the NBA is covered over the past few years, you know this is not how the league is covered. Unlike with most things now - football, politics, business, entertainment - the NBA is the sole remainder of fun, positive coverage. Hosts on ESPN, writers at Bleacher Report, The Ringer, Twitter users, and podcast hosts spend most of their time talking about how great the games are, the exciting players, the trades, the free agent movement, and hyping meaningless regular season games. The NBA conversation is absent of criticism even when it's warranted. Not many have mentioned how anticlimactic the NBA Finals have been, now have they?
With this latest development, these same outlets and personalities are now forced to discuss the league they love from a standpoint they have not been willing to see it from. It's awkward, uncomfortable, and telling.
The coverage for this story thus far has mostly been bizarre, even hidden to some degree with most just tweeting out official statements on the story. If you go to ESPN's YouTube page, they are not promoting Morey-China topics. And like with most sports networks, history has shown they love to push NBA topics via social media. Already today, topics such as Kyle Kuzma and Zion Williamson are getting attention and being promoted over those relating to what is undoubtedly the biggest story of the day. ESPN has uploaded an abundance of NBA topics on their YouTube over the past day (Yes, on October 8 during football season and while the baseball playoffs are taking place). None relate to that massive story. Check the history, you will find many clips relating to the NFL's political troubles.
This was not in the plans of NBA media. They deal with much more friendly and open players, coaches, and executives. The NBA is not just player-friendly, but media-friendly.
Outside of a small percent, sports media has not covered the different leagues objectively. Instead, they have covered them based on how much their beliefs align with said sports league.
This story could make the NBA cheerleaders in the media look foolish. If this exact same situation involved the NFL, it would be open season. They would be thrilled. Just take a look back at how often the NFL was ridiculed when their league stepped into politics. In fact, they are still being crushed for it and some are bringing up Colin Kaepernick's name -- despite the fact that it's clear he is not going to be considered for any of the openings his name is being pushed for.
These are the same people who spent week after week blasting the NFL for their ratings decline. It led television and radio shows daily. They asked the questions: "Will the NBA overtake the NFL?" and "Is the NFL doomed?" or even "Are you still watching?" Left out of that discussion was the rise in cable news ratings going directly up against the NFL. There were no excuses then.
Did you happen to know that the NBA Finals were down 19 percent year-over-year? You probably didn't because it would be unheard of to mention that on a sports show. You instead, in between segments of them expressing their frustration with the NFL's current product, saw daily studio shows getting giddy about a non-competitive, uninteresting NBA Finals game. When I pointed out the NBA's regular season viewership decline in January, excuses were equated in the pushback.
The NBA looks bad right now, and it has forced the media to step outside their comfort zone and cover the league somewhat negatively. It doesn't fit their agenda. They have been hell-bent for years on convincing sports fans, despite looking at the ratings, that the NBA is better for you than the NFL. Both in and out of the game. The opening night of the NFL had fans ecstatic, and Dan Le Batard on Highly Questionable used the opportunity to go on a long rant about how bad football is for all of us. No, really, he did, watch it here. Clearly, this was not swaying viewers as the game later that night was up 14 percent from the previous year. What are the odds he will be dropping a monologue about the NBA's problems on October 22?
The networks are just as much to blame for this as the personalities. With so many pro-NBA talents getting shows, what did they think was going to happen? ESPN eventually made a move after pairing Mike Greenberg with a former NBA player and Michelle Beadle, who doesn't watch football, for their expensive new morning show. Even now, the network is not equipped to cover the leagues fairly. The network keeps their NFL daily show on at 1:30 p.m. ET following one of their lowest rated shows in OTL. While The Jump stays on at the much better 3 p.m. time slot year round. They then lead into High Noon and Highly Questionable, which feature hosts that have made it clear where they stand on the NBA versus the other leagues. This isn't even to mention their most talked about show, First Take, is clearly all-in on the NBA and its action.
The NBA is not only protected, but when it is actually criticized, it will be defended simultaneously. This morning, two days after the story broke, many are bothered by a New York Times headline that reads "The World’s Wokest Sports League Bows to China." Amongst them is ESPN's Bomani Jones, who is not alone, taking issue with the word "woke" being used. Whether or not "woke" is a word, if you go simply by the facts, that headline is accurate in every way.
The viewers have been the ones losing out. So much of the coverage in 2019 is the same. You get the same takes, from the same perspectives, on the same topics. And when an opinion differs, they are called to be omitted from the discussion. Those with voices cannot handle differing opinions or styles anymore. With the political media, you at least get options. You can go to Fox News or MSNBC. Outside of a select few shows on a few days of the year, you only have one option in sports media: Pro-NBA.
What will be most interesting in all of this is the reaction. Being critical of the NBA doesn't result in pats on the backs, retweets, or shares, it comes with angry Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit comments. This story it still young, but how the media covers it, may be even more impactful going forward.