Why is NPR’s Sports Coverage so Bad?

Like many new projects, when The Diss began there was no clear identity. Hell, I thought we were doing a Basketbawful thing, so I wrote under a pseudonym for the first year.

The biggest influence on both Jacob and my understanding of basketball was FreeDarko, so much so that we dedicated an entire week to FreeDarko’s legacy. The other big inspiration wasn’t a blog, but rather the lack of one. We wanted to write the kinds of stories NPR would write if NPR actually covered sports in any meaningful way. Whether we succeeded or not is a different conversation, but that was the goal.

I recount this history because yesterday NPR’s Code Switch, which explores the “frontiers of race, culture and ethnicity” posted an excellent piece on how the stereotypes of basketball players has evolved throughout the history of the sport. Readers of The Diss will be familiar with the racialized language used to describe players today—black players are “animals”, “freaks of nature” and “naturally gifted” while white players are “heady”, “display basketball IQ” and are “hard workers”—but Gene Demby shows how these stereotypes weren’t always the norm.

In the early days of basketball, Jewish players dominated the game. Demby pulls great quotes from the New York Daily News in 1938, where Paul Gallico writes that Jews excel at basketball because the sport, “places a premium on an alert, scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging, and general smart alecness.” The takeaway is that stereotypes aren’t just a reaction to what we see in the world, but actually take part in shaping how we see the world.

This is the NPR sports coverage that The Diss has asked for over and over and over and over and over. But while every week or so Code Switch will write about sports—I really enjoyed this piece on why some English speakers prefer hearing soccer matches broadcast in English—on the whole NPR’s sports coverage is extremely lackluster.

With rare exceptions, NPR runs two and only two kinds of sports stories. The first is a newsy story, often embedded in All Things Considered or Weekend edition, like this piece on FC Barcelona’s transfer ban.  The other fits into what I call the “whacky shit” category, like a segment on trash talking Bhutanese archers.

When you think about it, these programming decisions make sense. There are two main constraints limiting interesting NPR sports programming: the audience and the medium. Compared to other radio stations, NPR’s audience is older, more female and interested in many “serious” topics. The average listener isn’t very engaged in sports, so the material is better presented in the NPR news story style—calm, monotonous, “I talked to blah blah, Professor of blah blah at the blah blah University of blah blah”—than anything else. And because segments aren’t typically longer than five minutes, the (rough) equivalent of 750 typed words, there isn’t much time for depth.

This is how we end up with the “whacky shit” segments. The newsy stories aren’t particularly interesting to the core audience, and they are even less interesting to the actual sports fans among NPR listeners because they mostly just repeat things they already know. The solution is to cover things that nobody knows about in order to satisfy sports fans, while the weirdness of the story interests the common NPR listener.

This is all completely understandable and defensible. NPR has a core audience and they need to present things in a digestible way to that core audience. Where NPR fails is in its lack of an interesting dedicated sports shows. NPR has great stuff for niche audiences. Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me is a great trivia show. This American Life is a great story show. Car Talk is a great auto show. Radiolab is a great science show. Where is NPR’s great sports show?

NPR’s most well-known sports commentator is Frank Deford, who has had a weekly segment for approximately forever. Frank Deford was one of our Miss Guys from a couple of months ago, with Kris Fenrich writing that his commentary on basketball was, “overly naïve, unnecessarily simplistic, and most uninformed – whether that’s by choice or by ignorance, I don’t know.”

The other sports coverage comes from Bill Littlefield’s Only A Game which, to put it lightly, just doesn’t do it for us. Its problem is twofold. To its detriment, it rarely deviates from a tone that could be mistaken for a parody of NPR’s tone. There is none of the uncertainty, drama or excitement that is what makes sports so interesting to follow, just monotonous recitation of things that have happened. The tagline for the show is, “There’s the sports world and there’s the rest of the world; NPR brings them together on Only A Game,” but it is criminally inaccurate. That’s the most disappointing thing. NPR is the perfect venue to, rather than see sports as apart from the rest of society, use sports as a lens to better understand the world around us. Only A Game—and I think the name is supposed to be an ironic joke—really does treat sports just like that.

If you want to see what NPR’s sports content should look like, just go to Slate. Josh Levin solicits excellent freelance sports pieces, and writes some great ones himself. The crown jewel, however, is the weekly Hang Up and Listen podcast, where Levin, Stefan Fatsis, Mike Pesca and sometimes guests tackle notable stories in less than an hour. It is no coincidence that Fatsis is a regular contributor to NPR, or that Pesca just left NPR after ten years to join Slate. In his farewell letter to his NPR colleageues, Pesca wrote, “But I have always wanted NPR to be a weeee bit more ambitious or daring, to be willing to take risks outside our comfort zone.” So have we, Mike, so have we.

Call us parodies of upper middle class liberals if you will, but NPR is great. There are many issues or topics in which its coverage is outstanding, but sports isn’t one of them.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

About Kevin Draper

Kevin “Franklin Mieuli” Draper was born and raised in Oakland, California, and loves it more than you can possibly imagine. Follow him on Twitter @kevinmdraper
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2 Responses to Why is NPR’s Sports Coverage so Bad?

  1. jacob says:

    Wanted to offer a few thoughts because few things get my goat media-wise quite like NPR’s shoddy sports coverage. That, and I listen to NPR more than just about anything out there.

    Based upon the eye-test (well, ear-test), it has seemed that NPR has faced the same problem nearly every outlet of “traditional” news journalism has: attracting newer, younger listeners without totally disregarding the older ones who provide ample amounts of listener support. So, they have the unenviable task of trying to create programs that will hook both kinds of listeners. The crazy thing is that it’s largely worked. More young people are listening to all sorts of new interesting shows, such as the ones you mentioned (Radiolab, This American Life, The World from Public Radio Intl, Marketplace), as well as tuning into the old standby’s that our parents/grandparents continue to enjoy (Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Fresh Air). Even more impressively, younger listeners have given new cultural capital to some older DJ’s like Ira Glass, Terri Gross and Carl Castle.

    With that all in mind, it is straight CRAY that NPR hasn’t begun to experiment with combining their mediums to create more nuanced sports analysis, both on the radio. In the way they have made science cool (Radiolab), or personal interviews cool (Fresh Air), or history/storytelling/citizen journalism cool (This American Life), they have not done the same thing with Only A Game. I can’t explain why this hasn’t happened, given that there have been successful efforts online. Demby’s piece was a great example. Jamilah King’s piece about Kobe from a few weeks back is another. Furthermore, it’s also clear that some of NPR’s DJ’s are sports fans themselves. Robert Siegel will slip in small basketball and football references on All Things Considered, as will Steve Inskeep on Morning Edition. Ky Rysdaal (sp?) does the same thing on Marketplace, and actually has produced some rather interesting hybrid sports spots. This hasn’t been the norm.

    In many ways it feels like NPR is having a major identity crisis across the board. They are schizophrenic when it comes to their music, with excellent, progressive music stations like 89.3 The Current in the Twin Cities, or KEXP in Seattle, balanced by COUNTLESS other stodgy smaller stations bogged down by tired folk, Americana and classical tunes. They haven’t really found that middle ground between sports being “Only A Game” and a thing where “All Things Considered”. They DON’T consider all things in their sports; they don’t take them seriously. If they were able to put the effort and diligence into sports coverage. That’s a shame.

    And a final note…it would’ve been interesting to see what the joint partnership between PBS and ESPN would’ve produced. Of course, the two outlets were going to work together to produce League of Denial, a documentary about head injuries in football. However, ESPN, under the pressure of their executives and directors, pulled out of the project. It was a shame. ESPN could’ve used the cache that PBS has. And PBS could’ve used the younger viewers.


  2. Ana says:

    Frank Duford’s weekly sports piece is one too many. I go to NPR for news, not to hear about World Series and other boring sports updates. If I wanted to hear about sports I would put on an a.m. station. Can we please keep interesting news stories on and leave the boring sports updates to dedicated sports stations (who it seems according to this story do it better anyway).

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