Fox News wants to keep politics out of sports -- liberal politics, anyway

The latest Fox tirade against the US women’s national soccer team was both predictable and familiar

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

The U.S. women’s national team returned home after its 2-0 victory over the Netherlands in the July 7 final of the soccer World Cup to a thankful nation united in celebration of the team’s second straight championship -- well, mostly united. As the team basked in its deserved glory with a ticker-tape parade through the streets of New York and accepted the best team award at ESPN’s annual ESPYs award show, Fox News railed against the team and co-captain Megan Rapinoe in the latest example of the network’s long-running quest to micromanage the actions and statements of liberal athletes.

In an interview with Eight By Eight earlier in the tournament, Rapinoe was asked whether she was looking forward to visiting the White House if the team won, to which she responded, “I’m not going to the fucking White House.” Rapinoe is a lesbian, and she was one of the first athletes to join in Colin Kaepernick’s protest, kneeling in solidarity during the national anthem beginning in 2016. Given the Trump administration’s anti-LGBTQ policies and frequent attacks on Kaepernick’s protest, it makes sense that she may not be thrilled to snag some face time with the president. After her Eight By Eight interview went viral and elicited a predictably deranged response from President Donald Trump on Twitter -- who let her know that the feeling was mutual -- Fox News figures picked up that torch and began airing unflattering stories and criticisms about her and her teammates, both before and after the team’s World Cup win.

Fox host Jesse Watters called the women’s soccer team “unpatriotic.” Host Martha MacCallum responded to a comment Rapinoe made during a CNN interview -- in which she said America under Trump was not great for “enough Americans” -- by whitewashing Trump’s anti-LGBTQ actions and saying that she didn’t “know what [Rapinoe is] actually talking about.” America’s Newsroom guest Josh Holmes said Rapinoe should “try to be more of a sort of inclusive team player here” instead of criticizing Trump. Correspondent Griff Jenkins fretted over the team’s win being “overshadowed” by anti-Trump rhetoric. Fox News contributor Marc Thiessen chided Rapinoe for putting her platform to “waste” with an “anthem protest.” Frequent Fox guest Johnny Joey Jones called the whole team “selfish.” “Can’t we watch a sporting event and not have politics put in your face!?” asked Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade. Host Stuart Varney questioned “why don’t we just fire” Rapinoe from her role as co-captain.

This isn’t the first time Fox News has used its position as a 21st century conservative gatekeeper to slam athletes for bringing politics into American sports. It’s a trend that goes way back.

In some instances, as was the case with the U.S. women’s national team, the network has framed itself as something of an arbiter of patriotism. 

For instance, the hosts of Fox & Friends denounced three-time Olympic medalist skier Lindsey Vonn for her response when she said in an interview that she wanted to “represent the people of the United States, not the president. ... I want to represent our country well, and I don't think that there are a lot of people currently in our government that do that.” Vonn also said that she would not accept an invitation to go to the White House if she won at the Olympics.

The following morning, during the December 8, 2017, edition of Fox & Friends, co-host Ainsley Earhardt called Vonn’s largely diplomatic answer “un-American,” saying that she was “just another celebrity, another Hollywood person who doesn’t agree with the president.”

Similarly, Fox criticized skier Gus Kenworthy and skater Adam Rippon for their respective criticisms of Trump’s daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. 

“I think you’re going to have to take the Twitter away from the athletes,” said Fox anchor Bill Hemmer, referring to one of Kenworthy’s tweets. Kurtz said, “They don’t like this administration. That’s fine. When they go to South Korea [for the Winter Olympics], they are representing our country, and to turn that into an opportunity to push their own personal partisan politics just feels like the wrong message for me. We are rooting for them. They ought not to be using that stage, that world stage, the whole world watching, Bill, to go after Ivanka, Mike Pence -- save it for another time.”

In addition to critiquing American players who compete in international sports, Fox has also regularly directed its ire at domestic sports players. Back in 2014, after the St. Louis Rams drafted Michael Sam, the NFL’s first openly gay player, the outlet laid into the defensive end for celebrating the good news by kissing his boyfriend on live TV. Even though players kissing their partners are a common sight on television, the fact that Sam’s partner is a man didn’t sit right with Fox personalities.

“Let Mr. Sam play football. If he makes the Rams, great,” said then-host Bill O’Reilly during the May 12, 2014, edition of The O’Reilly Factor. “But the gay thing? Way overplayed. It’s annoying. It really is.” On Fox & Friends, co-host Steve Doocy suggested that Sam would be just as much of a locker room distraction as Michael Vick, who spent 21 months in prison for his role in a dog-fighting operation.

Rick Sanchez, a contributor to the now-defunct Fox News Latino website, published a homophobic rant, writing, “Sam’s behavior was an affront to the NFL's culture. And it had nothing at all to do with his being gay. If a straight man got drafted on national television, then spread frosting on a woman only to then lick it off for all to see, I'd be writing how he embarrassed himself and the NFL and diminished the accomplishment of being drafted.”

While reporting on the Phoenix Suns’ debut of “Los Suns” jerseys in 2010 to protest an Arizona immigration law, Fox & Friends displayed a chyron that read “protesting the American Dream.” After Jason Collins came out as gay, making him the first active player in NBA history to do so, Fox News Radio’s Todd Starnes mocked him, claiming that the NBA was “turning into Glee.” Fox host Pete Hegseth criticized Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry for speaking out against Trump’s racism, mocking him as a “millionaire millennial” who has lived “a coddled life” and “dribbles a ball for a living.” Ingraham told “ignorant” LeBron James, “Keep the political commentary to yourself or, as someone once said, shut up and dribble.”

There was also O’Reilly’s moral panic about the San Diego Padres hosting an LGBTQ pride game on the same day the team gave away hats to kids and his worry about “thousands of gay adults” showing up and and “commingl[ing] with straight families.” He lambasted the team for “putting it in a kid’s face at a baseball game” and called the event “social engineering by the Padres.” Fox legal analyst Greg Jarrett got upset that a New York Mets player took two days off of work for the birth of his child, and sports reporter Jared Max lamented the Cleveland Indians’ decision to retire their racist “Chief Wahoo” logo from uniforms, saying that the team “caved to folks maybe on the far, far left.” There was also the time when then-host Eric Bolling pushed back on teams acknowledging climate change because it hadn’t been “proven” in his mind.

But perhaps Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players who have kneeled during the national anthem received the most incessant attacks from Fox News. For nearly three years now, Fox has run segment after segment criticizing Kaepernick and other NFL players for their silent protests. Kilmeade has called it both “the laziest form of activism” and labeled it so disruptive that it was “creating chaos.” Others on the network used his protest as a jumping off point to accuse Kaepernick of supporting terrorism and to claim he and other protesting players were ungrateful. Prime-time host Laura Ingraham called players who joined Kaepernick in these silent protests “punks” on her radio show, and Hannity guest Jason Whitlock claimed that the protests were really about getting retweets. 

Fox News figures’ opposition to the crossover between sports and (what they view as) politics might be defensible -- if the network’s on-air personalities hadn’t cheered athletes who promoted conservative causes.

Back when Michael Sam was drafted, the Miami Dolphins suspended a player for posting a homophobic tweet about Sam kissing his boyfriend. This, Fox & Friends determined, was political speech worth standing up for. Then co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck came to the player’s defense on “free speech” grounds. Later in the show, then-Fox regular Trump said that the kiss “looked pretty out there to me” and that the suspension was a sign that “we’ve become so politically correct in this country that the country is going to hell. We can’t do anything anymore.”

The channel also heaped praise on NFL quarterback Tim Tebow for his on-field expressions of Christianity, going so far as to laud him for appearing in an anti-abortion Super Bowl ad sponsored by the organization Focus on the Family. O’Reilly accused anyone who thought it was inappropriate for CBS to air Focus on the Family’s ad of “trying to muzzle them,” saying that it’s “not the American way.” Fox also portrayed Tebow critics as having anti-Christian sentiment, an accusation thrown about with little supporting evidence. 

Likewise, prime-time host Sean Hannity came to the defense of former Major League Baseball pitcher and commentator Curt Schilling after he was suspended by ESPN for an anti-Muslim tweet, saying that Schilling was just highlighting that there is “evil in the world.” Hannity also defended Schilling after he was eventually fired for posting a transphobic meme on his social media pages, saying that maybe Schilling wasn’t “so wrong.” Starnes took defense of Schilling’s transphobia even further, saying that there was nothing controversial about what he said. Radio host Mike Gunzelman even said on Fox that ESPN’s decision to fire Schilling was “literally destroying society as we see it.”

These examples highlight a larger trend that goes beyond the world of sports, but in this instance it is bitingly clear: Fox News isn’t against politics being mixed into sports; it’s only against politics that run counter to conservative ideology.

Just as Fox has no problem ripping into celebrities who support liberal causes, it is more than happy to promote celebrities on the right. In fact, the network could display far more intellectual honesty if its on-air personalities dropped the pretense that they’re simply against politics or divisive rhetoric in sports. After all, Fox isn’t the arbiter of patriotism -- or sportsmanship.

Video by Miles Le.