If you’ve ever rolled your eyes at a metaphor about how Tom Brady throws a football, you know that sportswriting can withstand a lot. What it hasn’t shown it can absorb—or, rather, what its gatekeepers haven’t shown they will tolerate—is shaggy political opining on Twitter. The case of Bart Hubbuch, a former pro football writer at the New York Post, is instructive. On January 20, Hubbuch was watching the inauguration on TV. As Donald Trump raised his right hand, Hubbuch tweeted, “12/7/41. 9/11/01. 1/20/17.”—the dates of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the 9/11 attacks, and what he regarded as analogous national tragedy. A week later, Hubbuch was fired. At the time, his sacking was considered a small story about journalistic propriety. But I’ve started to think of it as one of the most interesting stories of the last year. It speaks to a question we’re still figuring out: Can you offend people with your politics and still be a sportswriter?
Hubbuch is a tall, bearded veteran of Dallas newspapers whose Texas accent spills out when he gets worked up. Earlier this month, over barbecue in Brooklyn, he told me about the waking nightmare Trump created in his life.
Hubbuch was always a social-media brawler. Ask anybody from Boston. But Trump created a new kind of agita. Last fall, as the election kicked into gear, Hubbuch was diagnosed with high blood pressure. When Trump was declared the winner, Hubbuch couldn’t sleep. “I remember just walking around my neighborhood in Brooklyn in a state of shock,” he said. “Terrified. Like this is the end of the country or something.”
At that moment, Hubbuch joined a group of sportswriters who have been jolted by events that happened far from their regular beats. Red Smith covered the 1968 Democratic Convention and watched Chicago cops throttle protesters in the streets. After that, his column had a new, unapologetically lefty bent. After witnessing the same carnage, New Jersey columnist Jerry Izenberg considered quitting sports altogether. National emergencies remind sportswriters that they’re sitting out the real news whenever they do their jobs.
“Almost overnight,” Hubbuch told me, “all that stuff felt silly and meaningless and a complete waste of time when I felt like the country itself had this existential threat. My enthusiasm for writing about the Giants’ left tackle situation dimmed considerably.”
“It was just hard to focus, you know … ?” he continued. “I told my wife, ‘This must have been what it was like to cover the German League in 1935.’ That’s what I felt like it was, writing about totally inconsequential shit.”
What made Hubbuch feel even worse is that he was working for Rupert Murdoch. It was Murdoch’s Post that helped make “the Donald” a vainglorious-yet-endearing buffoon of the ’80s. Initially, the Post shared its owner’s skepticism about Trump becoming president. But it became clear that Trump’s base and Murdoch’s customers were one and the same. Before the New York primaries, the Post endorsed Trump, writing that he “reflects the best of ‘New York values.’” (The Post didn’t endorse a candidate in the general.)
“Even though I’d been at the Post for almost 10 years,” Hubbuch said, “overnight I felt like I was taking blood money.” He’d convinced himself that being a Post sportswriter meant he had nothing to do with the paper’s flogging of, say, the “Ground Zero mosque,” but now Hubbuch felt he was complicit in something. “I wasn’t able to compartmentalize anymore,” he said. “No longer was I just working for the New York Post sports department. I was working for the New York Post.”
Hubbuch was proud enough of his Inauguration Day tweet that he pinned it to his profile. Then his mentions blew up, his editor called, and he deleted the tweet. He offered two apologies and then deleted those, too. For a week, nothing else happened. Hubbuch covered the AFC championship game between the Patriots and Steelers. On January 27, he said, he got his itinerary for Super Bowl week.
That afternoon, Hubbuch’s boss, Chris Shaw, called and told him he was fired. Hubbuch was stunned. “I immediately hung up the phone,” he said, “and called the bar association and asked if they knew any attorneys that could handle [the case].” Within two weeks, he’d filed suit against the paper. But when I asked Hubbuch what he felt at the moment when he learned his day job would no longer get in the way of his politics, he said: “Relief.”
One way to think about sportswriter Twitter is as an arm of the anti-Trump resistance. Another way to think about it is as a bunch of people, many of them political neophytes, trying to figure out what their bosses will let them get away with. Hubbuch wasn’t the last to cross the red line. In February, Chicago sportscaster Mark Giangreco was suspended for tweeting that Trump was a “cartoon lunatic” elected by a “country full of simpletons.” Calling Trump a “white supremacist” earned Jemele Hill a reprimand from ESPN and a return volley from Trump himself. Earlier this month, ESPN Radio host Ben Finfer announced he’d been dismissed a few days before the end of his contract after he tweeted that Trump was a racist.
Though Hubbuch’s lawsuit against the Post ultimately went nowhere, the 17-page complaint his lawyer filed was the most sustained effort to think through a problem. Some of the arguments were unique to Hubbuch. For example, if comedy’s red line is mass murder, why did the Post once run a picture of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio dressed as Chairman Mao? The Post’s M.O. is to top every outrage it sees with a greater journalistic outrage of its own. And if the editors don’t get the point across on the front page, there’s always Phil Mushnick’s column.
Other arguments Hubbuch made were more universal. The Post claimed it had a social media policy; Hubbuch said he asked for one and never got it. “They didn’t want to be pinned down,” he told me. “They wanted to have that freedom to be offended at whatever the latest Twitter lynch mob was offended about.”
What the last 12 months have shown is that there’s no such thing as a workable social media policy for a sports publication. Writing a policy that would screen tweets for the right anti-Trump jokes, troll jobs, and other provocations is as impossible as writing one that would screen blog items and columns for the same thing.
OK, a media outlet might say, let’s remove all doubt. Let’s ban sportswriters from tweeting about Trump altogether. The problem is that Trump talks about the NFL, too. “He’s made everything politics,” Hubbuch said. If a football writer didn’t weigh in on Trump, he’d be taking a vow of silence that hasn’t even been taken by Murdoch’s employees on Fox’s NFL Sunday.
As Tommy Craggs has pointed out, another problem with social media policies at media companies is that they create a knucklehead alliance between critics who think it’s their job to enforce the policies and trolls who wave them around but wouldn’t dream of following such a policy themselves. One of the first sites to take offense to Hubbuch’s tweet was Barstool Sports.
“I don’t want to give the guy any credit, because I think he’s the Antichrist,” Hubbuch said. “But Trump has shown that if you just power through, it goes away. The attention span is like five minutes in this country now. I don’t understand why all these places are so willing to give in to their critics.”
In his suit, Hubbuch also spoke to a bigger dilemma for lefty sportswriters. His court filing noted that he tweeted about Trump “on his own time, from his own computer, and from his own home.” What Hubbuch was saying, then, is that he was two different guys: one who wrote sports for the Post and one who went helmet-to-helmet with Trump on social media.
Most journalists treat these as more or less discrete identities. But it’s not so easy to stick the latter on the bench. I asked if Hubbuch could imagine writing about football and not tweeting about Trump. “No,” he said. “I consider it my duty as an American almost to say something. To speak out. Because I just think he’s the worst thing that ever happened to us.”
The bigger question, then, is: Can you have “offensive” public opinions about Trump and still be a sportswriter? The biggest evidence you can is the illustrious history of writers—like the ex-Postie Dick Young—who stuck their most offensive political opinions not on Twitter but in their columns. Writers like NBC’s Craig Calcaterra and The Ringer’s Michael Baumann have proved that you can rough up Trump one minute and Bud Selig or Rob Manfred the next. Peter King tweets about Obamacare repeal and still maintains whatever the essence of Peter King is.
There’s something about snuffing out outrageous metaphors that goes against the very nature of sportswriting. In the old newspaper, sports was supposed to be the most uninhibited section, and the one least beholden to notions of journalistic balance. Hubbuch isn’t Richard Hofstadter. He was using one of the profession’s oldest tricks: looking at something that just happened and comparing it to a couple of things that happened before.
Hubbuch’s lawsuit didn’t turn on any of these arguments. It turned on an email. While Hubbuch claimed he was tweeting on his “own time,” the Post showed he’d answered an email from his boss three minutes before his inauguration tweet. As a legal matter, it proved fatal: Hubbuch withdrew his suit in late March. As a practical matter, all it proved was that, in 2017, sportswriters are never not working.
Since his firing, Hubbuch has written a single story for Deadspin. He and his wife invested in Brooklyn real estate after the crash, he said, and he’s doing fine. On Twitter, Hubbuch is now happily unrestrained. He can call Trump “human garbage” and a “loathsome POS.” When Mike Pence delivered an obsequious end-of-the-year ode to his boss, Hubbuch compared him to Deep Throat’s Linda Lovelace. But even with such gunslinging, Hubbuch told me his blood pressure is down. He doesn’t really miss sportswriting. He’s looking forward to a new career in a field with much less anxiety: the restaurant business.