Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Is There Creationist Sports Coverage?

(This article was originally published by Sports Media Watch on February 2, 2006.)

On the eve of the Super Bowl, and just following the State of the Union Address, it seems like a good idea to examine what it means to be an American sports fan at a basic level. How do sports, fans and media interact? There’s a town out there that has had more than its fair share of news stories in the last year and a half. Most of them didn’t contribute to the image the town wants to present to the outside world. And it reminds me a lot of my hometown.

Anyone remember that Pennsylvania town whose school board tried to install Of Pandas and People, a testamentary publication in the intelligent design movement, as the high school biology textbook? And before you click to a new page, be aware that this is in fact a sports column. But I’m serious, does anyone remember that school board or that town? Well I’ll tell you – it was Dover, Pennsylvania, located in the fringe of the Harrisburg-Lancaster-Lebanon-York media market, 41st largest according to the good people at Nielsen. And here’s what I’m wondering - what kind of sports and media live in a hotbed of the battle between evolution and creationism?

First, a bit of background on Dover and Kitzmiller v. Dover. Dover is a small town of about 1,800 people. In 2004, the town’s school board brought in Of Pandas and People as a text book and required high school biology teachers to read a statement to students, advising them that evolution is – at best – a theory and possibly – at worst – complete nonsense. Shortly there after parents and the ACLU filed a law suit against the school board, which was decided toward the end of 2005 by Judge John Jones, an appointee of George W. Bush, of the US District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

Marveling at the “breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision,” Jones decided that the policy was unconstitutional because it effectively broke the Constitutional separation of church and state. The decision was somewhat moot by that point, as every member of the school board that had supported the decision was voted off the island in the last election. There are more details on Wikipedia, and the really adventurous can read Judge Jones’s full 139 page opinion here, but those are enough basics for this column.

I read about this case and this town and I couldn’t help but wonder about the sports there. Without this law suit, Dover stays a sleepy town in the fringe of a midsized media market, completely unnoticed by the evening news and random people like me. It’s like thousands of other towns. What kind of sports coverage do these guys have?

Not surprisingly, it’s pretty standard. Almost quaint, actually.

The area around Dover is primarily served by two newspapers, the York Dispatch and the York Daily Record, the latter of which claims to have served York county (where Dover is located) for over 200 years. At first I had to double check to make sure they were actually two different papers – not only were the front page stories similar but each front page featured the same exact heating repair ad, a company that fittingly claims to be a York institution. God, I love small town newspapers – that would never happen on the Washington Post and Washington Times.

And I love small town sports, which appear to be growing in York. According to the Daily Record, York could be getting a baseball team soon. According to the story, the Atlantic League is in need of a new team because – and talk about a small freaking world – the Pride from Nashua, New Hampshire are changing leagues because of much smaller crowds than the other Atlantic League teams. Investor in York are looking to build a stadium in order to gain an expansion team by 2007.

By the way, for long time readers, York is looking to take the place of the same Nashua Pride that I wrote about in my first column, the same team that won the Atlantic League championship in 2000. And if you want an hysterical headline, check out this one: “Widger is World Champion! Former Rivershark and White Sox Sweep Astros.” Apparently a former Atlantic League player won the World Series and the White Sox came along for the ride. It was nice of him to do that; the Sox suffered a long time before he came along.

The Daily Record also covers the Hershey Bears, the local AHL franchise, affiliated with the Washington Capitals, featuring the typically biased home town coverage. Even more typical are the articles on Dover High student athletes, both current and former. Steve Navaroli published a story on the busy life of Jess Walker, a varsity basketball player who also plays trumpet in the Dover High marching band, which Navaroli gushes about.

But that pales in comparison to Steve Patterson’s article on John Kuhn, a former Dover High football player who is going to the Super Bowl as a practice squad player for the Steelers. Everyone loves a local-kid-makes-good story, but when goes bananas for a local-kid-makes-good-with-the-local-NFL-franchise story.

What’s funny is that Kuhn won’t even play in the game or get close to the field; as a practice squad player he’ll probably watch it from a sky box. But he’s a local boy, and he’s there, so it’s a good story.

The York Dispatch covers the AHL as well, but not with the depth that the Daily Record does; there’s only a listing of league standings and upcoming games. If I hadn’t read the Daily Record first I would have had no idea that there was a team in the league nearby.

In fact, when it comes to local sports, the Dispatch is highly disappointing. The paper is flooded with stories on Penn State, Pitt, the Eagles, the Steelers, the Ravens, and even the Redskins. But when it comes to sports about local minor league hockey, local high schools, and the potential for minor league baseball, the Dispatch has almost nothing.

By contrast on that last point, the Daily Record’s website actually has a side bar dedicated to local minor league baseball. As a reader or user, that puts it up with some fairly important topics: “Politics and Government… Health and Environment… War on Terror… Baseball in York.” I’m not arguing that York baseball should be in such company, but it shows an obvious concern for local sports by the paper.

That concern just isn’t there in the Dispatch. Even a general for “Dover sports” on its website was lackluster. Included in it were obituaries, birth notices and plenty of stories about Kitzmiller v. Dover, but really nothing on Dover high sports.

This is somewhat surprising, given that the Dispatch had an entire section, with its own sidebar on the main page, devoted to Dover’s court case. Maybe this shows an eye more focused on controversy than on the real nitty gritty details of local media coverage. Either way I was disappointed. When it comes to local sports, the Daily Record is clearly superior to the Dispatch. It has more coverage and it has it with the completely biased and supportive tone that I want from local coverage.

So what does this have to do with intelligent design or the court case or America or sports or media? Dover is a normal town. As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, it eerily reminds me of my own home town; not only did they steal my minor league team’s spot in the league, their minor league hockey team plays mine. The coverage by the Daily Record mimics the coverage of the Manchester Union Leader and the Nashua Telegraph.

But that’s not all: in 1994 the Christian Coalition took control of the school board in my hometown, Merrimack. In-school prayer was instituted, disguised as a moment of silence. Discussion of homosexuality was prohibited, even regarding historical figures who were in fact gay. Merrimack showed up on an ABC News Special because of it. It was two years before the town, by overwhelming numbers, threw them out of office.

I disagree with intelligent design being taught in American science classes and I dislike the Christian Coalition’s agenda in general. Nonetheless, they were in my school as I grew up, even though few people wanted them there, as witnessed by the huge voter turnout a year or two later.

Fringe media both supports and subverts the American goals that have been presented in the State of the Union Address and that will be marketed to hundreds of millions in the Super Bowl. Fringe media perpetuates the idea that small town America is completely within the bounds of normal. As long as minor league hockey, minor league baseball and high school sports happen, the country and our neighborhoods are fine.

But when those neighborhoods are seized by organizations and forces that work against American ideals and interests, our fringe sports media hurts us. It reinforces a sense of normalcy that prevents us from clearly seeing the danger of groups that would hurt our schools and towns.

Respect local sports coverage; appreciate its loyalty and charm. But don’t let it distract you from the serious job of protecting your hometown from people and groups that would bring it in front of the national media, that would introduce wrong and hurtful ideas. A true American sports fan is loyal to his local area, but distrustful of sports smokescreens.

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