For most of this week, the right has raged about Simone Biles. By deciding to withdraw from the Tokyo Olympics to focus on her mental health—a wholly reasonable decision given that gymnastics is an extraordinarily dangerous sport even when participating athletes are at peak condition—the greatest gymnast of all time had instantly become a collection of all the worst thing a person can be: a quitter, weak, a victim, a millennial. She was, moreover, a symbol. Not of American greatness, despite her 30 combined Olympic and World Championship medals, but of its decline.
“The blue checks have already rallied to Simone Biles’s defense and said, ‘Oh, it’s so brave,’” said Clay Travis, who took over Rush Limbaugh’s radio slot earlier this year. Travis’s co-host, Buck Sexton, then jumped in, wondering, “Why is this brave? What’s brave about not being brave? Cause that’s what we’re talking about here. This is ‘Oh, you didn’t stand up to the bully?’ So to speak.… No, I think that’s the not brave move.”
Piers Morgan, who would himself be mainly famous for failure and quitting if he wasn’t also such a world-historical asshole, tweeted, “Are ‘mental health issues’ now the go-to excuse for any poor performance in elite sport? What a joke. Just admit you did badly, made mistakes, and will strive to do better next time. Kids need strong role models not this nonsense.”
Turning Point USA co-founder Charlie Kirk—who once proved he could throw a football by filming (probably) someone else throw a football—went even further, blasting Biles on his podcast. “We are raising a generation of weak people like Simone Biles,” he said. “If she’s got all these mental health problems: don’t show up.”
“She’s totally a sociopath,” he continued. “What kind of person skips the gold medal match? Who does that? It’s a shame to the nation. You just gave a gift to the Russians.… If you’re not ready for the big time, we’ve got thousands of young gymnasts that would love to take your place. Thousands. Simone Biles just showed the rest of the nation that when things get tough, you shatter into a million pieces.”
None of this is that far from the kind of flabby, overheated rhetoric that makes the average sports debate show such a ponderous test of human endurance. Over the last two decades, sports journalism has been dominated by the argumentative mode perfected by frantic hacks like Skip Bayless—a rhetorical world in which any failure or weakness is not only unforgivable but a sign of deep and irreversible flaws. There is nothing worse than being a choker, than not coming through in the clutch. The right has, particularly over the last few years, increasingly tied itself to reactionary figures in sports media: Travis got his start blogging about football, Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy interviewed Donald Trump last year. But Kirk and his ilk are merging that rhetoric with that of the culture wars, all in the service of creating a narrative that Black athletes are destroying the country.
There are, in these complaints, a litany of well-worn right-wing grievances. Biles, who is 24, is the latest example of a coddled generation more interested in policing pronouns and bashing the police than it is in patriotism and American greatness. She is also, as Kirk put it, “selfish”—someone, like many in her cohort, who happily takes and takes but disappears when it’s time to produce. (That Biles is a Black woman is subtext—often barely—in much of the criticism she’s received.) Biles’s achievements and the obvious mental fortitude she needed to obtain them are ignored, discarded, or waved away. By backing out, she instantly became one of Donald Trump’s favorite words: a loser.
This brand of rhetoric is a cousin to the one that emerges from the right’s obsessive resentments toward racial justice protests during sports games or Major League Baseball’s decision to move the All-Star Game out of Georgia in response to the state’s passage of regressive and racist voting legislation. Ever since Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the National Anthem, the right-wing media has loved nothing more than telling its viewers that athletes intent on building a better world or privileging their mental or physical health are not only ruining sports but the country itself.
The most depressing thing about all of this commentary is that despite all the operatic vitriol and the volume of hot spittle on display during these campy rants against those who are the sporting world’s upper echelon, none of these critics actually care. They aren’t interested in gymnastics. None of them have an authentic interest in Simone Biles. Just as kneeling didn’t ruin the NFL, Biles’s withdrawal from the Olympics has not ruined the Olympics or, for that matter, America. But cynical opportunists rely on cynical opportunities. Biles’s achievements and her profound level of mental strength—shown not just in the volume of her achievements but also in the fact that she is the only victim of sexual predator Larry Nasser still representing Team USA—are obvious. But they were discarded the instant she stumbled into a preexisting narrative that could drive outrage and attention for talentless hucksters like Kirk and Travis.
But it also points to another emerging issue on the right in 2021. If Donald Trump still had his Twitter account, we know what his take would be: Biles was a quitter, she was weak, a loser who couldn’t hack it at the highest level. That horrific take would have led the national—and international—news for the next 48 hours, spawning thousands of blog posts and reaction videos. Trump is gone now, but the appetite for this type of outrage still exists. There is an attention vacuum, and outrage amateurs such as Kirk and Travis are sprinting to fill it, producing an endless stream of reactionary bilge on an hourly basis. They don’t care about what they’re saying. Their fortunes depend on the hope that you might.