Last week, Bert Blyleven spouted off some ignorant opinions via Twitter about the city of Detroit as a whole, calling it “ugly.” Blyleven’s remarks were neither original nor insightful; they were tired, recycled comments that have become part of a larger narrative surrounding the city of Detroit: Detroit is ugly, run-down, blighted, broken, and needs to be fixed. The narrative has become so ubiquitous in the media over the last several years that these adjectives have become as entrenched in the American psyche as those describing any other major city. Chicago is windy. Miami has beaches. New York never sleeps. Detroit is in ruins.
The trouble is that pervading narratives soon become truth to people who don’t know any better. Perception becomes reality. Ask any person on the street what they know about Detroit, and the conversation of a crumbling city is just as likely to creep up as the topics of Motown, Henry Ford, or the Tigers. Most Americans, by the way, do not live in or have never visited Detroit. That’s important because their only impressions of the city have been formed by ruin-porn, media outlets, or rich businessmen who have a vested interest in perpetuating the idea that Detroit is broken and in need of a savior. Those same people, who have intentionally ignored problems in Detroit for decades, allowing it to reach its current condition, now propose to be that savior. “Detroit is plagued with blight,” they’ll say, “And we can fix that!”
This word, “blight,” is intentional: it paints the picture of Detroit as diseased, cancer-riddled, infected. Blight is scary and dangerous. Blight must be removed. But according to the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force (Oooooh, a task force! This MUST be serious!) houses like this one, which belongs to the family of a friend of mine, are considered blight:
“Blight removal” is about more than rebuilding vacant lots or demolishing crumbling buildings; it’s about more than “revitalizing” Detroit by bringing new businesses to the area. It’s about doing those things regardless of what may stand in the way: homes, families, people. It’s not about renewing the Detroit that exists for those who have lived there for generations, but about destroying and paving over Detroit to build a new city altogether, eradicating its people and culture in the process. It’s no surprise that blight removal efforts disproportionately affect people of color and those living below the poverty line. Have you seen some of the mockups for renovation projects in Detroit? Sure are a lot of happy, middle-class white people there! Just imagine what Detroit could look like if it weren’t for all those darned minorities!
This widespread perception of Detroit-as-catastrophic-hellhole has made its way into sports reporting as well, which is another reason why what Blyleven (whose first name, let me remind you, is Bert) said is unsurprising. Consider this headline from NFL.com in 2011, previewing a matchup between the Denver Broncos and Detroit Lions.
Or this image from the cover of ESPN the Magazine of Suh, who, despite being one the best defensive players in the entire NFL for several seasons in a row, can’t seem to get any sort of attention for anything other than being a dirty player.
Words like “evil” don’t get thrown around to describe athletes too often, unless of course they’re from Detroit. Granted, Suh has a reputation for playing after the whistle and resorting to tactics that are downright mean on the field. But I’ve never heard anyone use these pejoratives to describe Bill Romanowski, Dick Butkus, or Joe Green, who were notoriously dirty players themselves. The NFL headline is additionally troubling when we consider the athlete with whom Suh is juxtaposed. It’s Tim “White, Handsome, Christian” Tebow vs. Ndamukong “Black, Sinister, Probably Voodoo Practicing or Something and Besides What Even is That, Some Kind of Tribal African Name?” Suh. There really wasn’t even an attempt to be subtle on that one. The ESPN The Magazine Cover is problematic as well, featuring Detroit’s Suh prominently on the face of an issue dedicated to “renegades.” Even the ESPN logo is stylized to look like graffiti, a nod to urban decay. It’s the only time in the last two years that the ESPN logo has been altered on the cover of the magazine. Even the photograph itself leaves Suh looking rough around the edges, which is much different than the close-ups featured on this cover, or this one, for example, which are edited to flatter their subjects. Add in the fact that the only red text on the page appears in Suh’s name and the issue title and the deal is pretty much sealed.
You could argue that the examples I’ve just mentioned are more “anti-Suh” than they are “anti-Detroit,” and you may not be totally off the mark, but I would say that either way you look at it, one narrative is only used to strengthen the other. Suh was scrutinized more than other players because he played in Detroit, where aggressive players have been called thugs ever since the Bad Boys era; likewise, Suh’s tactics came to precede the reputation of the Lions as a whole: many have argued in years past that the Lions are the dirtiest team in the NFL, despite the fact that in 2014 there were five other teams who were penalized more often. The top two offenders? Super Bowl contestants New England and Seattle, neither of whom (despite the former having been caught cheating more than once) have ever been characterized as sinister.
Sports Illustrated has taken its jabs at Detroit too. Consider the various covers of the 2013 Baseball Preview issue. Justin Verlander had just come off two fantastic seasons for the Tigers, winning MVP and Cy Young honors in 2011 before following it up with an equally stellar 2012. Each cover featured a star pitcher from a different team, along with an attention-grabbing headline of sorts. Clayton Kershaw was “The Blue Streak.” Stephen Strasburg was “Mr. October.” CC Sabathia was “Big and Rich.” James Shields was “The Real Deal.” You get the picture. So what’s the deal with Verlander’s cover, then?
Justin Verlander, arguably the best pitcher of the bunch at the time this cover was published, was accompanied not by a tagline dedicated to his dominance, but to Detroit’s perceived proclivity for vandalism and burglary. Even the subtitle below is a wink-wink-nudge-nudge to criminal activity in Detroit: scary Verlander sees jewelry, and since he plays for Detroit, HE’S GONNA STEAL THAT SHIT. Let’s also take into consideration the fact that nearly every tagline that was used to describe other pitchers would have actually been more appropriately assigned to JV. Take “Mr. October” for example, which was given to Stephen Strasburg, who hadn’t appeared in a postseason game until just this past offseason. Verlander, meanwhile, had already appeared in two World Series at the time of publication. He certainly looked like “The Real Deal” every bit as much as James Shields did prior to the 2013 season. And with the massive contract JV and the Tigers agreed to at the end of March, he was every bit as “Big and Rich” as Sabathia. Well, maybe not as big, but definitely as rich.
When Detroit isn’t being picked at, it’s generally being dismissed or ignored altogether. Even the Red Wings, one of the most successful franchises in the history of sports, can’t get much love outside of Detroit circles. The Red Wings have now made the NHL playoffs in 24 consecutive seasons. When I Google “Detroit Red Wings consecutive playoffs” I get a few results from the official team website, followed by an article questioning whether or not that streak even matters.
Regardless, with every passing year, Detroit is coming closer to reaching that [consecutive playoff appearances] record, but how does that matter? After all, while the Red Wings are making the postseason, lately they haven’t done much in the playoffs.
This article, by the way, is from last season, when the streak was at 23 years. Nothing even turns up from a non-Detroit source discussing the streak in its current state. While Wings fans would surely like to see the team win a Stanley Cup just as much as Tigers’ fans want to see a World Series title, I doubt there are many Wings fans out there who would say 24 straight playoff appearances is no big deal. The New England Patriots make the NFL playoffs fourteen of the last 18 years and they’re a dynasty. Red Wings make the NHL playoffs 24 years in a row: who cares?
The answer is that major sports media outlets don’t care about the Red Wings, or about Detroit sports in general, unless there is a negative narrative to advance. Let’s look at ESPN’s coverage of the Tigers as an example. Since 2006, ESPN.com has published 27,203 articles with some sort of mention of the Tigers. In that same time, there have been 48,732 articles published about the Yankees, 43,838 about the Red Sox, and 30,405 about the Dodgers. The Tigers have appeared in two World Series since 2006 and have won four division championships. The Yankees, Red Sox, and Dodgers have appeared in three combined World Series, and only the Yankees have matched Detroit’s division championship total during that time span. The argument that the likes of ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and whoever else are more interested in winners goes out the window when you consider the success the Tigers have had compared with these other teams. Sure, the Tigers have won the AL Central in each of the last four years, but does that even matter? Eye roll.
Just before the 2015 MLB season began, ESPN The Magazine ran its annual baseball preview, featuring Giancarlo Stanton on the cover. You won’t hear me complain about the cover choice here: Stanton is an incredible talent who signed a monumental contract with the Marlins this offseason, and is deserving of the cover. But inside the issue, ESPN’s writers made their division-by-division predictions. Each division breakdown featured an image of a player from the predicted division-winning team. Each division, that is, except the AL and NL Central. Despite the fact that ESPN predicts the Tigers to win their division, they did not have a player featured in the article. The blurb devoted to analyzing the team, meanwhile focused more on the challenges the Tigers will face as they seek to defend their AL Central crown and become the only team since the ridiculous Cleveland teams of the mid-90s to win five straight titles than it did on the promising factors that led them to predict the Tigers as winners.
Skeptics will read this post of mine and give it no more thought than they’ve given Detroit sports teams in the past. “So what? Your favorite team didn’t get its picture in ESPN. Cry me a river.” That response would be fair if any of the examples I’ve provided were isolated occurrences. That response would be appropriate if there weren’t countless other examples out there of times when teams from Detroit have been passed over in favor of teams less deserving of attention. Say what you will, but the anti-Detroit bias in sports reporting is real, and neither I nor Detroit sports fans will be gaslighted into believing otherwise.
After his most recent on-field incident in this year’s playoffs, every major sports outlet analyzed Ndamukong Suh stepping on Aaron Rodgers ad nauseum. Even Business Insider chimed in, for some reason. Was it on purpose? Were Suh’s feet numb? Should he be fined? Should be be suspended? Is he the devil incarnate, stepping on the leg of a football-throwing angel in disguise?
This looks pretty unintentional to me, and should look as such to anyone with functional eyeballs. Still, none of the scrutiny was surprising. It’s what we’ve come to expect as Detroit sports fans over the years. But the icing on the cake came the following week when the Lions’ Joique Bell was stepped on by a Cowboys player, and nobody batted an eye.
Actually, that’s not true. It’s not that nobody batted an eye; Detroit fans took notice. But nobody else seemed to care, and some media sources even denied that this ever happened. Bell was interviewed after the game and asked his thoughts on the play, and his response couldn’t be truer: “Detroit vs. Everybody.”
To the sports world, Detroit is a city that is often forgotten despite its long history in major athletics. Many only remember Detroit exists when it’s time to demonize some of its athletes. To the rest of the world, Detroit is a black mark on the face of America that must be removed or, at the very least, covered over. Either way, when it comes to Detroit, if you’re not standing with the city, you’re decidedly against it. This may never change. The people of Detroit may not be able to do enough to stop the powerful elite from colonizing their city, and that is a sad truth. But when it comes to sports, even if it is Detroit vs. Everybody, I’ll take the Motor City.
Every. Single. Time.