When prominent sports journalists weigh in on controversial issues that are outside of the realm of sports analysis, whether it’s politics, culture, or even commenting on labor or social issues relating to sports, they are met with a typical retort: “stick to sports.”
Legendary sports broadcaster Bob Costas would sometimes comment on issues like gun control or concussions in football. Jemele Hill, the former ESPN analyst, also would comment on topics outside of basketball, such as speaking about racial inequality, police brutality, and criticizing the racism of President Donald Trump. Both shared liberal or left-leaning points of view on politics and social issues, both were met with outrage that altered their careers.
Hill was eventually suspended by ESPN and removed from her role as anchor in 2018. She parted ways with ESPN months later. Costas’ comments led to tensions with his employer, NBC, and Costas opted out of his contract earlier this year.
But in Pittsburgh, there’s very little backlash, if any, when popular figures in sports media share political opinions. City Paper spoke with local sports journalists across the political spectrum to discuss the dynamics in Pittsburgh, and how sports and politics intersect in an area as passionate about sports as Pittsburgh during a time as politically fraught as 2019.
Mark Madden and Paul Zeise are two of the most popular sports personalities in Pittsburgh who semi-regularly wade into non-sports territory on their social media. Madden’s radio show is consistently one of the top in ratings for the Pittsburgh area. He has more than 140,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter combined. Zeise has his own late night talk show on 93.7 The Fan, the highest rated all-sports radio station in Pittsburgh. Zeise also has a weekly column in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Neither identify as conservative or Republican, but both often share conservative views. Zeise is known to reply critically to left-leaning politicians, like Elizabeth Warren, on Twitter and frequently decries paying taxes. Madden goes on rants about student loan debt and calls younger people “entitled.” They aren’t the only sports journalists in Pittsburgh to share right-leaning opinions, but their popularity provides them influence greater than most. And while sports personalities are as entitled to their views as anyone, these strong viewpoints don’t seem to be met with the same response as national names like Costa and Hill.
In Pittsburgh, “stick to sports” just doesn’t seem to have the same cache.
On June 24, Madden went on a tirade on social media, decrying efforts to lower or cancel student loans. Currently, Americans are collectively facing more than $1.6 trillion in student-loan debt, and the average student loan debt in 2018 was about $30,000.
“If you took a student loan. Pay it off. I did. Not everything’s a gift, or should be. Accountability is a dying art in this country,” Madden tweeted in June, which was followed by several more tweets on student-loan debt. (There were hundreds of replies, many of them criticizing this stance, though not as many as the 2,000-plus likes on the tweet.)
This came just a day after presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) introduced a plan to cancel every Americans’ student-loan debt. Support for student debt forgiveness varies, with some polls showing a majority of voters backing the plans and other polls indicating around 40 percent support. Democrats overwhelmingly back the proposal.Zeise also wrote some politically charged tweets regarding Sanders’ plan on June 24 and indicated support for the Republican tax cut plan.
If you took a student loan. pay it off. I did. Not everything’s a gift, or should be. Accountability is a dying art in this country.
— Mark Madden (@MarkMaddenX) June 24, 2019
“Because tax cuts aren’t paying out money. They are allowing people to keep their own money,” wrote Zeise. “People that whine about ‘tax cuts for the rich’ are intellectually dishonest and they know it. Writing a check for $1.6 trillion is silly, pandering to millennials and not practical.”
It’s not that sports media figures in Pittsburgh receive no pushback for conservative comments, but they don’t drum up calls to “stick to sports” the way they seem to in other cities or with other political opinions.
Neither Madden nor his producers at 105.9 The X responded to requests for comment for this story. Zeise’s employer, 93.7 The Fan, also didn’t respond to a request for comment.
However, Zeise points out that more than 90 percent of his tweets are focused on sports. This appears to be the same for Madden.
Zeise says he doesn’t share any political views on his talk show or in his P-G columns, with the exception of a crossover issue like the National Anthem.
“I try and minimize how much politics and religion I talk or write about because frankly it doesn’t make for good radio and we have political commentators to write about politics,” says Zeise, who identifies as a libertarian.
He says he gets some criticism on social media for allegedly aligning with Trump but rejects that assessment. He doesn’t see anything wrong with sometimes sharing his political opinions, calling social media “a different animal” and says he is an “independent thinker.”
“There is definitely a line where it can be too much, but I never cross that line. And I don’t hammer away at people with my beliefs day after day after day,” says Zeise. “Every so often I’ll venture into that world if it is appropriate.”
Zeise says he has been told in the past to reel back some of his political commentary and knows other liberal or progressive sports journalism that have been told the same.
He rejects any notion that the Pittsburgh sports world is more favorable to conservatives. He says most sports journalists in Pittsburgh are liberals and progressives.
But a local sports journalist and broadcaster who spoke to City Paper on the case of anonymity for fear of reprisal feels the opposite.
“There does seem to be more of conservative bent from prominent Pittsburgh people compared to progressives,” says the journalist.
The journalist says this could be the result of the demographics that follow sports closely, which is likely more male and older than the average population. The journalist also notes Madden’s and Zeise’s general popularity could be a factor as to why their political comments don’t draw criticism, especially from management.
Dan Kingerski, a former broadcast journalist at 93.7 The Fan who currently runs the website Pittsburgh Hockey Now, feels Pittsburgh sports media is somewhere in the middle between conservative and liberal.
“If you let Pittsburgh sports Twitter pick the next president, you would get a moderate Democrat,” says Kingerski. “I certainly don’t feel there are more conservatives in the local sports world. Perhaps they are more vocal.”
He doesn’t mind that Madden, Zeise, and even John Steigerwald, a longtime sports journalist who now talks conservative politics on AM radio, share political opinions, but he cautions sports journalists from going too far. Kingerski says strong political opinions, either left of right, can drive away sports fans and lower online engagement.
There is nothing more ridiculous than millionaire politicians, living millionaire lifestyles demonizing wealthy people. And the worst part is the people who support them buy this nonsense.
— Paul Zeise (@PaulZeise) January 29, 2019
“There is an inherent danger that diving into politics brings. Google might put you on the naughty list,” says Kingerski, noting that he has had to tell writers to stop the political commentary on social media because he believed it was lowering his site’s search engine optimization.
There are vocal left-wing and left-leaning sports personalities in Pittsburgh too. Jim Wexell, a freelance Pittsburgh sports journalist with a large following, still regularly tweets in opposition to Trump. Well-known columnist Gene Collier has always skewered politicians and offered political opinions, but he isn’t exclusively a sports columnist.
Ed Bouchette, a senior writer for The Athletic and former longtime P-G sports reporter, has retweeted posts with liberal takes on things like gun control but rarely posts about his personal opinion.
It doesn’t appear to be an apples-to-apples comparison on how much left- and right-leaning personalities stray for sports coverage and into political and cultural issues.
For example, in 2017, Bouchette mocked the goal of the Republicans tax cut bill in a tweet. This appears to be his only tweet about the political implication of taxes. Zeise, on the other hand, has regularly shared his thoughts in opposition to paying taxes, even defending the Republican tax cuts. Zeise has dozens of other examples of tweets that express an anti-tax mindset.
Also, Pittsburgh’s left-of-center sports Twitter appears to have less of a platform compared to those sharing right-of-center views. And the smaller engagement shows. Retweets, likes, and replies fill Zeise’s, Madden’s and Steigerwald’s political and cultural posts, while Wexell’s political and cultural tweets get far less engagement.
The anonymous sports journalist says the influence of Pittsburgh conservative sports journalists shouldn’t be discounted.
“I think we would be fooling ourselves in how big of a sports fan city Pittsburgh is, and what effect [sports personalities have] on our culture,” says the sports journalist. “For some, sports is a unifier, but it’s hard to separate that with some of this stuff on social media.”
Another Pittsburgh sports journalist, who spoke to CP on the condition of anonymity, says the vast majority of the time, local sports journalists are free to share what they want on social media, on air, and in print, whether liberal, moderate or conservative. But, when divisive topics are up for grabs, that’s when sides seem to be chosen.
“I would want to make clear that 99 percent of the time I pretty much get to say what I want and no one says word one to me,” says the journalist. “But it’s noticeable which way the wind blows on the rare times something truly divisive pops up.”
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