ESPN honored a Stalin Peace Prize winner on Monday Night Football this week. This non sequitur preceded something that did follow as the network learned that its broadcast of the last-second, come-from-behind victory of the New England Patriots over the New York Jets shed almost a third of its audience from last year’s Week Nine game. It stands as the least-watched Week Nine Monday Night Football contest in ESPN’s history.
The juxtaposition of events seems almost of cosmic design to catalyze a come-to-Jesus moment for the sports network that identifies as MSNBC. But if the Worldwide Leader in Sports cutting 500 jobs last week did not prompt bosses to rethink the wisdom of soapboxing during sports, then certainly a Monday Night Football ratings collapse this week causes no such epiphany.
Ideology blinds ESPN. It certainly blinded the Stalinist suckup it glorified on Monday.
ESPN called Paul Robeson an “activist” who achieved “worldwide notoriety” in its bizarre segment celebrating him. Of the tens of thousands of men who logged time in the NFL, Robeson seems a strange selection to highlight. He played in 15 games over the league’s second and third seasons after starring at Rutgers. His fame (mainly from singing and acting), and infamy (mainly from fealty to one of history’s great villains), came later.
Robeson joined the collective mental gymnastics during the Hitler–Stalin Pact, accepted a Stalin Peace Prize in 1952, and eulogized the mass-murderer thusly: “Glory to Stalin. Forever will his name be honored and beloved in all lands.”
He knew better. In 1949, Robeson again traveled to the Soviet Union, where he had sent his namesake to school during the 1930s. Robeson had met poet Itzik Feffer and actor Solomon Mikhoels at a Polo Grounds rally of 50,000 people — the largest pro-Soviet event in the history of the United States — that welcomed their Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in 1943. But by 1949 Stalin wished to kill Jews rather than use them for propaganda purposes. He murdered Mikhoels and later Feffer — but not before Robeson could visit his old friend the poet one last time. David Horowitz describes this meeting in Radical Son:
In America, the question “What happened to Itzik Feffer?” entered the currency of political debate. There was talk in intellectual circles that Jews were being killed in a new Soviet purge and that Feffer was one of them. It was to quell such rumors that Robeson asked to see his old friend, but he was told by Soviet officials that he would have to wait. Eventually, he was informed that the poet was vacationing in the Crimea and would see him as soon as he returned. The reality was that Feffer had already been in prison for three years, and his Soviet captors did not want to bring him to Robeson immediately because he had become emaciated from lack of food. While Robeson waited in Moscow, Stalin’s police brought Feffer out of prison, put him the care of doctors, and began fattening him up for the interview. When he looked sufficiently healthy, he was brought to Moscow. The two men met in a room that was under secret surveillance. Feffer knew he could not speak freely. When Robeson asked how he was, he drew his finger nervously across his throat and motioned with his eyes and lips to his American comrade. “They’re going to kill us,” he said. “When you return to America you must speak out and save us.”
Instead, Robeson, who later confessed what happened to his son, spoke out in praise of his friends’ murderer.
“Yes, through his deep humanity, by his wise understanding, he leaves us a rich and monumental heritage,” Robeson recalled of Stalin. “Most importantly — he has charted the direction of our present and future struggles. He has pointed the way to peace — to friendly co-existence — to the exchange of mutual scientific and cultural contributions — to the end of war and destruction. How consistently, how patiently, he labored for peace and ever increasing abundance, with what deep kindliness and wisdom. He leaves tens of millions all over the earth bowed in heart-aching grief.”
ESPN left all that out.
People watch sports, particularly six days after one of the most bitter and nasty presidential campaigns in American history, to escape politics. ESPN cut off that escape route by imposing a bowdlerized segment on a Stalinist. On the week in which normal Americans celebrated Veterans Day, the broadcast could have honored hundreds of NFL players who left the league to serve their country during World War II. Instead, they succumbed to an ideological compulsion by showcasing a man who pledged on foreign soil in 1949 that African Americans would never fight for their country against Soviet Russia, which caused Jackie Robinson to publicly denounce him and Sugar Ray Robinson to vow to punch him in the face if their paths crossed.
Perhaps most viewers overlooked the brief aside on Robeson (surely an obscure figure at this point) but only the blindfolded fail to see the politics that ESPN, and the major sports leagues that it broadcasts, aggressively, almost incessantly push. And only those wearing ideological blinders at ESPN fail to see how a bizarre preoccupation with matters so far afield from sports kills jobs and ratings at the network.
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