An illustration of scales of justice holding sports items like basketballs.
HBO and Vox

Politics isn’t sports — but sports stories can help explain our politics.

We’re excited to announce our new documentary series, Level Playing Field, premiering Tuesday, September 14, at 8 pm ET on HBO Max.

Each of the four episodes tells a different story from the world of sports to reveal a broader social inequality impacting all of us. In one case, that means following the plight of an NCAA student-athlete to understand what it can tell us about American labor policy — policy that is often shaped to serve the interests of employers in all sorts of industries. In another, that means revisiting a debate over midnight basketball in the 1990s to understand how racial politics warped a debate over funding a youth sports program.

Our decision to create a show focusing on the intersection of sports and politics was motivated by the increasing overlap between these two different worlds. Despite the number of people who desire to “keep politics out of sports,” the impossibility of that goal is evidenced by the long history of sports figures playing a key role in determining the political future of our country. In the United States, sports is politics.

In fact, much of today’s media tends to cover politics similar to how SportsCenter might. It has for a long, long time. It makes some sense, since politics, like sports, is full of rich stories that make the most of our inescapable tribalism, but that can reduce the life and death stakes of complicated public issues to something we can yell at the screen about.

It’s no coincidence that sports language often finds its way into political debate: whether it’s winning and losing, choosing a side and sticking to it, or getting over a hurdle to reach the finish line. Politicians and activists of all stripes use it as a metaphor for how they want the world to work: People want fair competition, so rules should be designed in a way that allows for a level playing field.

To address this, most major sports leagues organize their competition to try to reset their own starting lines in creative ways: The NFL distributes its massive television income equally despite the far larger viewership for some teams, so those finishing last have a chance to catch up. Both the NFL and NBA give the worst teams the best draft picks.

The rest of the world generally … doesn’t. Change is slow, and it’s difficult or impossible to redraw long-outdated lines, to reflect our grayscale world. That’s where Level Playing Field focuses. Our stories show the overlap between sports and politics in four different topics: labor, immigration, racial justice, and elections.

By grounding our storytelling in personal journeys, viewers will see firsthand how abstract policy decisions translate to very real impacts in someone’s day-to-day life. Altogether, what they show is just how extraordinarily difficult it is to make the world reflect our idealistic desire for fairness.

Midnight Basketball revisits President Clinton’s 1994 crime bill to understand how a few lines of funding for a youth sports program became the touchpoint in a racialized national debate over the decision between investing in crime prevention versus punishment.

September 14, 8 pm ET

Misclassified follows the experience of a single “student-athlete” who became an Uber driver after his college hoops career came to an end. With added perspective from former Stanford tight end and current Sen. Cory Booker, we dive into the little-known history of how the term “student-athlete” was created by the NCAA and its team of lawyers. That enabled a system of exploitation that shares a lot in common with the economy the rest of us work in.

September 21, 8 pm ET

Down the Backstretch goes to the other side of the horse racing track, where a group mainly of immigrants do the unseen, dangerous, and difficult work that powers the sport — like millions of jobs Americans simply don’t want to do.

September 28, 8 pm ET

The Assist follows the extraordinary story of how WNBA star Elizabeth Williams made a new blueprint for athlete activism by leading her team in a fight against their owner, Kelly Loeffler, on behalf of Rev. Raphael Warnock and his attempt to win her Georgia Senate seat in the 2020 election.

October 5, 8 pm ET

The series represents something new for Vox and demonstrates how our short documentaries, spanning from YouTube to Netflix to, now, HBO, will continue to evolve. So please watch, share with friends, and tell us what you think.


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Author: Joe Posner

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