In January 2016, the Sinclair Broadcast Group bought Tennis Channel for $350 million. Sinclair Broadcast Group is currently embroiled in a scandal in which anchors at its many television stations read strikingly similar statements lobbing salvos against more mainstream news sources in the US. Sinclair did not publicize its role in crafting or promoting these statements. This is not the first time Sinclair found itself being criticized for promoting a political point of view. During the 2004 United States Presidential Election, Sinclair faced criticism and legal pressures regarding a documentary it aired on its stations in the weeks leading up to election day.
Regardless of one’s political leanings, and many of my readers are not from the US here at Tennis Abides, manufactured storylines raise specters of Orwellian control of information (and public opinion?). I do not expect Jon Wertheim to suddenly become a political pundit midmatch (“Serve and volley tennis is nearly as dead as the Whig Party.”).* At the same time, I think the Tennis Channel would be better off if its owners were not A. so political and B. engaging in information manipulation.
Tennis figures have not been apolitical. Arthur Ashe, Billy Jean King, Bud Collins, Martina Navratilova, John McEnroe, Andy Murray, Margaret Court Smith, John Isner, … have made political statements at different times in their careers. Still, it was always clear who was making those statements. Finally, ESPN is owned by Disney and both can be said to have massive cultural influence. It cannot be denied that a multinational such as Disney has many potential conflicts of interest, but as compared to Sinclair there does not appear to be a scripting of public opinion taking place. A Pixar movie such as Wall-E makes a critique of pollution while the marketing of Disney Princesses reinforces norms I’d prefer my daughter and sons not adopt. Disney is so big that the messages it sends are not terribly coordinated as far as I can tell. Muddled messages don’t make Disney non-problematic. However, the coordination and clandestine nature of Sinclair’s message are more troubling still. If you ever hear me say, “I love Big Brother”, remember that love means nothing in tennis.
*I tried to think of the least inflammatory statement I could weave into a tennis comment. The demise of the US Whig Party seemed soft enough, but if I offended fans of Millard Fillmore my pseudo-Wertheim comment was made solely for dramatic effect.