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As Ben Zobrist’s sensational lawsuit proves, sticking to sports is hard to do

The former Cub is in the news for something that has very little to do with the game he played, baseball, and very much to do with a game lots of people seem interested in, alleged marital infidelity.

The 2016 World Series Most Valuable Player Ben Zobrist celebrates with his wife, Julianna, after the Cubs defeated the Indians in Game 7 of the Fall Classic.
The 2016 World Series Most Valuable Player Ben Zobrist celebrates with his wife, Julianna, after the Cubs defeated the Indians in Game 7 of the Fall Classic.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

I’ve always been confused by the stick-to-sports dictate that some readers place on sportswriters. Is it that we’re supposed to write only about the games? Nothing else? Or is there more we’re allowed to address? Athletes’ interesting hobbies or pursuits? Off-field issues? Personal lives? Their opinions on topics that might have little to do with the sports they play? What’s OK and what’s off limits?

You can understand why a poor scribe might feel adrift.

The questions reached a boiling point several years ago when 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, hoping to bring attention to social injustice, took a knee in protest during the national anthem. This riled up a large segment of fandom that thought politics and other hefty issues belonged as far away from stadiums and ballparks as possible. Some of these same people had gushed about Tim Tebow’s faith in God whenever he knelt in prayer on the field before games. Religion, apparently, is as much about football as the forward pass is. Got it.

I bring this up because former Cub Ben Zobrist is in the news for something that has very little to do with the game he played, baseball, and very much to do with a game lots of people seem interested in, alleged marital infidelity. A story about a sensational lawsuit he has filed has been one of the most-read articles on the Sun-Times’ website for days. I can’t help but think that more than a few in the stick-to-sports crowd eagerly lapped up the juicy details of Zobrist’s suit.

If you’re one of those people who only want to read about what happened during a particular ballgame, I’d suggest you skip the following paragraph, though if I know anything about human nature, it’s that you’ll read every word:

In the lawsuit, obtained by the Peoria Journal Star, Zobrist claims that his wife, a Christian singer, had an affair with their minister. Zobrist is asking for $6 million in damages from his former pastor, who he claims defrauded his charity foundation. The minister, Byron Yawn, had provided counseling for Zobrist and his wife, Julianna, over the years. According to the lawsuit, Yawn and Julianna Zobrist began an affair in the spring of 2019. They used prepaid mobile phones to communicate with each other, Zobrist alleges.

Zobrist took a leave of absence from the Cubs in May 2019 to deal with his marital troubles and missed four months of the season. If you want to argue that the extremely popular lawsuit story is actually about sports because Zobrist’s absence affected his team, fine. But he took that leave two years ago. My guess is that you were drawn to the latest Zobrist news because of the possibility of salacious specifics — just like everybody else.

During the same week as word of Zobrist’s lawsuit emerged, Raiders defensive lineman Carl Nassib became the first active NFL player to come out as gay. That news brought me back to those of you who believe sports coverage should be exclusively about on-field competition. It’s hard to believe that anyone would look at the dynamics of professional sports and not think Nassib’s announcement worthy of discussion. A gay athlete in a locker room fueled by machismo — will there be issues? Or have we finally turned enough corners in society that teammates won’t blink an eye?

Stick to sports? How?

It goes on and on. Think of all the topics that pop up that can’t be contained by the white lines of a field. Athletes who get into trouble with the law. College athletes who want to get paid for their name, image and likeness. Pro athletes who refuse to get a COVID-19 vaccination.

Here’s the thing: Life is messy, and sports, being something of a reflection of life, is messy, too. To think that sports can be penned up and told to stay put like an obedient pet is ridiculous.

You’ll stick to the purity of youth sports for entertainment, you say? Avoid the bigger, uglier topics? That works well, until a parent punches an opposing coach or, God forbid, an opposing player. This type of thing happens often enough that someone with a working brain asks, “What makes otherwise normal adults act like this?’’ Suddenly, instead of sticking to sports, a reporter is asking sociologists and other experts about the deeper meaning behind all of it.

Elite athletes are human beings with very human problems, like the rest of us. They have opinions, like the rest of us. The stick-to-sports tribe doesn’t want to read about any of that unless, you know, the particulars are steamy. Then they’re all ears — and eyes.