Robert Lipsyte, a former sports columnist for the New York Times shares a lot of (unpopular) answers to that question in his memoir An Accidental Sportswriter.
Lipsyte describes himself as the fat kid bullied by the cool boys in high school -- and consequently fairly quickly able to overcome the hero worship of too much sports writing. He sees U.S. sports as fostering a distinct and often socially destructive milieu.
I like to think the contradictions embedded in spectator sports culture are more obvious to women -- after all, in "jock culture" the true outsiders are "girls" -- but too many women sports writers and especially TV sideline commentators seem to have absorbed its norms. Watching football, I sometimes want to scream at these women: "Nobody cares about your latest hair do, girl!" But I supposed they do.
Lipsyte found that other sportswriters responded to his noticing how the structure worked with confusion:
I can relate to that. Fortunately, I have found friends who are sports fans who, like me, insist on looking at the politics.
Lipsyte lasted as long as he did as sportswriter in the late '60 and '70s because, for a moment, some of the athletes were political too -- determined to understand the power relations that framed their lives and take some control. He ended up collaborating on writing Dick Gregory's autobiography and manifesto unhappily titled Nigger, ran at times with Muhammed Ali's entourage, met Malcolm X, and later the group of northwestern athletes who had some vague connection to the Symbionese Liberation Army. Though close to these figures, he believes he kept his integrity as a journalist, an observing outsider.
That last statement catches how the better reporters I've known seem to move in the world. It always looks a little painful.
Lipsyte's sports writing subsequent to that brief politicized era 40 years ago was more sporadic. He dipped in and out of a setting in which he was both knowledgeable and always at arms length from the many hustlers, promoters and con men who live there.
He gradually came to articulate the gender role implications of how our spectator sports are structured:
He came to admire Billie Jean King for not only breaking up the gender hierarchy in tennis, but also for organizing the world's best players to destroy the phony amateurism of a sport based on under-the-table payoffs.
Today NCAA "student" athletes, whose "scholarships" often amount to contracts for indentured servitude that earn universities profits and acclaim, need an equivalent leader, especially in basketball and football!
Lipsyte is particularly interesting on why it took so long for sports reporters to admit the obvious and "out" the many athletes who are using various drugs to try to gain an edge.
This book is a true treat -- a window on sports for the politically oriented that entices the reader to sit back, relax, and watch a journalistic performer show his stuff. What's not to like?