Are Athletes Still Activists? With Will Leitch
The Deadspin founder talks waning athlete activism and the upcoming Roe decision
This week, we had the pleasure of speaking with veteran sportswriter Will Leitch. Leitch has been fighting the good fight in the sports media for decades, most famously as the founder of Deadspin, the pioneering sports website that for many years set the standard for scrappy, politically-engaged sportswriting. Deadspin was unceremoniously gutted by its new owners in 2019—after Leitch had left the publication—and it has since been resurrected in a much-diminished state. But the original Deadspin’s legacy stretches far across the internet. (Many of its former writers and editors have banded together to form Defector, an excellent employee-owned sports publication that we frequently cite in our stories.) For his part, Leitch is now a contributing editor at New York Magazine, where he writes a regular column about sports and politics. He also writes fiction and has a substack of his own. He’s a busy guy.
This past week, Will caught our eye with a fascinating column for New York Magazine called “Why Athletes Are Ignoring Roe v. Wade,” in which he explores some of the reasons that the sporting world is staying out of the political fight over the impending overturning of the Roe decision. We encourage you to read the whole column, but for some context, here are the six primary reasons that Leitch says sports leagues in particular are staying above the political fray on Roe:
They are all corporations.
Getting involved in political fights generally has not been rewarded.
They’re run, and played, mostly by men.
They’re waiting for someone else to take the lead.
Professional athletes are probably more supportive of overturning Roe than the general population is.
People are exhausted.
We called Will up to discuss his column and talk about some of the reasons that athletes seem to be returning to pre-2020 levels of political activity. You can find a lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation below.
-Ian and Calder
Athletes are largely ignoring the coming Roe decision. What does that mean?
Southpaw: To start off, can you set the scene for us a bit? What has the political atmosphere been like in the sporting world since 2020?
Will Leitch: Obviously, there was a massive accelerant in 2020 with the pandemic and George Floyd’s murder and the presidential election. It was hard for anyone to make any sort of argument that politics had no business in sports, because politics was part of every single part of American life, in every single way.
Just to back up, politics and sports are obviously connected, because everything is politics, and everything is connected—what mode of transportation you took to the game, how you bought your ticket, whether the stadium was publicly financed, never mind whether you stood for the National Anthem or not. But in 2020, it felt like a sea change. I wrote a long feature for New York Magazine where I talked to [the athlete-backed advocacy group] More Than A Vote specifically about how, in the wake of 2020, they were going to keep athletes engaged [and] what they were working on next. I don't think that numbers always necessarily bear this out, but I think a lot of people give a lot of credit to organizations like More Than A Vote and to the NBA for working to get their stadiums set up [as voting locations] to help drive turnout in cities [during the 2020 election]. It was a galvanized thing, particularly when it comes to the Georgia runoff . . . and I think there was a sense that it was the start of something.
And I talked to the people at More Than A Vote and they said, ‘This is something that athletes have always wanted to do, and we want to give them a place to do that.’ And for a while in 2020, the NBA was working hand in hand with More Than a Vote . . . And then Election Day happened and they stopped.
Southpaw: What’s changed since then?
Leitch: That’s a corporate thing, and that's kind of the NBA doing its thing. But I think you've started to [see something similar] with athletes a little bit, and I think there's a couple of reasons for that. It’s not that they don't care about the issues anymore. But I think it's a natural thing. We’re not in a [presidential] election year, and I think that, although you haven't seen the temperature turned down, you've certainly seen that people who are not constantly obsessed with the political world—or who at least want to try to escape politics—are able to do so more easily now than they were able to in 2020. And I think athletes are not immune from that. I think that they work in a field that is highly, highly, highly competitive, and there's always someone faster than you or someone on your heels to take your job. It requires a massive amount of concentration, so you can understand why, in a non-election year, they want to keep more focus off of that.
But I also think that you've seen a lot of these corporations and these leagues not being rewarded for getting involved [in political fights]. I think the best example is Major League Baseball taking the All-Star Game out of Smyrna [GA] . . . They moved it, the [anti-voting] bills became law, Smyrna’s gonna get another All-Star Game, everyone's gonna move on, and basically, they just got yelled at by Ted Cruz. The idea that corporations were ever going to save us was obviously foolish in the first place, but I do think that the moment when players and their leagues, if not aligned, at least seem to have mutual interests has mostly passed. We'll see what happens in 2022 and 2024 . . . but sadly, I think we’re seeing 2020 being the political aberration when it comes to sports, as opposed to some sort of new normal.
Southpaw: To what degree do you think that athlete activism is just a reflection of broader movement politics, and to what degree is it meaningfully distinct? For example, do you see athlete protests in 2020 as being substantively different from the broader protest movements that were happening at the time, and how might we see those differences playing out today?
Leitch: When I talked to More Than A Vote, one of the things they would always say was, ‘We don't have to push very hard for these athletes to get involved, because these are the issues of their own communities, and they feel a certain responsibility to get involved in ways that are going to help their community and help the places that they came from, now that they've been able to have this success’ . . . And I think that's true. But again, you know, More Than a Vote, despite the name, is still mostly about elections. Their primary missions are funding anti-voter suppression efforts and getting out the vote. So because of that, when there's not any major galvanizing election—and again, for crying out loud, there's a really huge [election] happening in Georgia, involving many of the same people we’ve seen in the past—there just isn't that movement.
I just think that athletes—like the rest of society—care about these issues, but they have other things to do. In the end, they're really only going to shine the brightest light on them when everyone is looking at them . . . And obviously, to me, [the overturning of] Roe v. Wade is something that we should also get really, really fired up about. But for some of the reasons I talked about in the piece, and because of the general mood and temperature right now, people just aren't doing it.
Southpaw: Do you think part of the reason why that energy existed among athletes in 2020 and doesn’t now is that back then, there was this clearly definable goal — defeating Trump — whereas saving Roe would require a much larger change to the ways that our systems of governance function?
Leitch: I don't want to say it was just the election in 2020. I mean, George Floyd made me want to go set the world on fire. [But] there isn't an emotionally devastating, galvanizing video or image for Roe . . . No one could watch that video [of the Floyd murder] and not think, ‘This is not one of the most horrible fucking things I've ever seen.’ Roe doesn’t have that sort of emotion. It should — it really should. It's a huge fucking deal. But it doesn't have that, and I think that’s because it's one of those things that you can pretend doesn't affect you — which isn’t true, by the way . . . But to see the clock being rolled back on this is really, really frustrating and really, really upsetting.
Southpaw: Pivoting a bit, you’ve been in these sports media circles for much longer than either of us have, and we’re curious to get your take on how the sports media’s coverage of sports and politics has changed—or not.
Leitch: I think certainly, it was very, very strange to have started Deadspin and then all of a sudden to see people being like, ‘Wow, ESPN, fucking Bristol, they're so woke.’ Like, really? It was just bizarre. Like, wow, if they are [on the] left . . .
I think you’ve seen a little [change], but if I'm being honest, I think you see it more in a performative way than in a substantive way. I would argue that your average beat reporter or a full-time sports journalist is probably a little bit more left than the average population . . . but the idea that the average sports reporter is some sort of hyper-woke person trying to move the sports world to the left feels more like a conservative talking point than some sort of reality.
Do you want to read about . . .
. . . new NCAA guidance on NIL rules? “NCAA targets boosters with new NIL guidelines,” by Liz Clarke in The Washington Post (May 9, 2021).
. . . another take on athletes and abortion rights? “On Abortion Rights, the Athletes Will Not Save Us,” by Dave Zirin in The Nation (May 11, 2021).
. . . an update on Brittney Griner? “Russian Court Extends Brittney Griner’s Pretrial Detention, Her Lawyer Says,” by Ivan Nechepurenko in The New York Times (May 13, 2021).