ESPN writer takes on sports’ sacred cows

Photos courtesy of Haymarket Books

Robert Scoop Jackson’s third book, “The Game is Not a Game: The Power, Protest and Politics of American Sports” (Haymarket Books) came out in March just as the national coronavirus lockdown began. It explores the role sports plays in American society, from the White House to the average fan, while also reinforcing many of society’s ills.

Each of Jackson’s 13 chapters successfully peels off layers like a ripe onion to expose the hypocritical standards by which athletes are often judged. He takes on such sacred cows as the NFL, the NCAA and team owners, and examines at length sexism and athletes’ social activism.

“The Game” also features a candid and honest conversation with journalist Jemele Hill.

“The original plan was for the book to be nine chapters,” Jackson said, but his publishers wanted something longer. It is part play-by-play, part op-ed. It challenges American sports’ “accepted ideology to push the boundaries of mainstream sports media beyond the comfort zone,” says its promotional press release.

As each chapter can easily be a standalone treatise, the book’s epilogue titled “Eddie” could just as easily have been its introduction as well. Jackson said it came after once being bothered by a sentence in an online article on the greatest football coaches, which included the late Grambling coach Eddie Robinson: “A great example of the ways in which racism, the subtle politics of the game, and the power of media to dictate the narrative in sports interact” is how he began the concluding section.

“I thought it summed up why a book like this had to be written…that you have to apologize on the only Black man you have on the list who was the most accomplished,” Jackson stressed.

Before he joined ESPN in 2005, Jackson lent his insightful, unapologetic voice on sports and society to previous editorial positions at Hoop, Inside Stuff, Slam and XXL. He also authored two books and was a former copywriter for Nike. He’s currently an ESPN SportsCenter senior writer.

On the NFL’s duplicity, Jackson offers examples of how the league treats its retired players, levies fines on current players but not owners when rules are broken, and how domestic abuse incidents are handled. “You go across the board over the course of years,” he explained. “Where there are some good things about the NFL,” the “shield” ignores important issues “or acts like they’re not happening. They do a good job of protecting the shield,” he says.

Robert Scoop Jackson
Courtesy of Haymarket Books

He shows how inconsistent the NFL is when it comes to dealing with social issues. “The NFL is pretty much representative of America in its thought process and its function… I will call out the NFL in its hypocrisy,” Jackson declares in his chapter on former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the anthem protests issue.

The author tackles the issue of how women athletes are disrespected and unfairly compared with males, a spinoff of a 2011 ESPN column he wrote, Jackson said. “It was basically how women actually were more dominant than men in a particular sport. I never said that women were better. I stated how they were more dominant in their own sport,” he recalled.

Jackson offers tennis star Serena Williams as an example: “She wasn’t greater than Michael Jordan, and that is arguable. Let Mike have a baby and come back…  I tried to look at the totality of it.”

Next week: Jackson provides a breakdown of selected chapters from his book.