Stick to Sports: the Communist Sportswriter and the FBI Plot to Ruin Him
Lester Rodney dared to write about sports from a communist perspective during the red scare. This got him the ire of none other than J. Edgar Hoover.
FBI description of Lester Rodstein, AKA Lester Rodney
Through a Freedom of Information Act request, VICE Sports has obtained what we believe to be the earliest known instance of "stick to sports," a now popular turn of phrase used against sports writers who venture off the field in their writing. The circumstances may surprise you, but the identity of Patient Zero will no doubt come as a great shock. It is someone you know.
Lester Rodstein, born in New York City in 1911, was a skinny beanpole of a man with thick, round glasses. As it happens, he was also an avowed communist. In 1936, he started writing about sports for the Daily Worker under the pen name of Lester Rodney. He covered a wide range of topics that, reading today, doesn't seem all that controversial. But questioning the established order in those days was riskier, as his 425-page FBI file demonstrates.
Rodney was a communist, but he was not a threat. His beliefs were certainly left of center, but never hostile to American sovereignty. By the FBI's own documentation, he did not consider himself a Soviet. As Rodney himself put it for his 2003 biography, "I was a sportswriter who happened to be writing for a Communist newspaper."
He was a man with friends, a job, and hobbies. He spoke and wrote about what he believed was right. In the entire dossier the FBI kept on him, they recorded no evidence that Rodney ever incited violence or hostility of any kind. In fact, his message was one of peace and justice. As his obituary in the New York Times noted, he was one of the earliest sports writers to voice opposition to baseball's color barrier, something that comes up often in his FBI file as a testament to his anti-establishment beliefs.
Because of his beliefs and the time at which he held them, Rodney was almost certainly the most surveilled sports writer in American history. For 35 years, the FBI followed his writings and exploits, becoming both his most loyal reader and his greatest adversary. No fewer than 49 different informants contributed to anonymous reports on Rodney's thoughts and movements. They snitched on every aspect of his life: what meetings he attended, when he threw parties and who was invited, to whom he sent Christmas cards, his employment status, his marital struggles, his relationship with his children, friends, and compatriots. He was snitched on by his neighbors, his friends, and his coworkers.
In 1952, Rodney applied to the State Department for a passport so he could cover the Olympics in Helsinki. But on July 14, only a few days prior to Rodney's scheduled flight, he got a letter from the State Department. His passport application had been denied because, in a November 1948 column, Rodney had explicitly stated he was a communist.
Rodney wrote in a subsequent column that the State Department informed him the reason for his denial was: "that you are a Communist."
Even mainstream media outlets were disgusted by the passport denial. On July 22, the Washington Post wrote about Rodney's passport denial under the headline "Another Inanity":
"Unfortunately, the denial does not, to use the State Department's gobbledygook, serve the interests of the United States. It tends, indeed, to make the United States look rather ridiculous—as though this country stood in fear of what the Daily Worker's sports editor might scribble about some athletic contests abroad. And it tends, too, to put a shadow on the first amendment's brave, and distinctively American, guarantee of freedom of the press."
A few years passed. The FBI continued to spy on Rodney through their army of informants. The 1956 Winter Olympics in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, approached. Once again, Rodney began fundraising for the expenses to cover a trip to the games and applied for a passport. Perhaps taking the Post's advice, the State Department granted Rodney a passport, but with a caveat: it was only valid for two months instead of the customary two years at the time.
In preparation for Rodney's trip, J. Egdar Hoover sent a letter to Dennis A. Flinn, Director of Office of Security in the Department of State. The letter was then forwarded on to the legal attaches in London and Rome.
"For your information there is transmitted here-with one copy of the report of Special Agent [redacted] dated January 13, 1956, at New York, New York. As set forth in this report, the subject [Rodney] was to leave for Europe January 9, 1956, to cover the Olympic Games for the "Daily Worker." Other reports regarding the subject have previously been furnished to you."
To verify his address before his departure, an FBI agent called Rodney's house on January 1, 1956, under a "pretext telephone call." The FBI agent posed as an acquaintance of Rodney's, calling to congratulate him "on his victory" in obtaining a passport and wished him a "bon voyage."
Rodney covered the Olympics well. According to the FBI's own file, he interviewed the U.S. ski jump captain about his impressions of the Russian team:
Rodney reported on the Olympics and used the opportunity to do a bit of traveling around Europe. As any savvy journalist would, he leveraged a trip abroad into a few extra trips and stories. He wrote some columns for the Daily Worker about his adventures and returned to the United States before his passport expired.
In April of 1956, it came to the FBI's attention that Rodney met with some of his friends in Europe, who also happened to be communists. Naturally, this ignited Hoover's fury. How dare Rodney use his benevolence to conspire against the United States?
On April 30, 1956, J. Edgar Hoover reacted to this news in a memo to Scott McLeod, head of the U.S. Department of State's Bureau for Security and Consular Affairs, reading, in part:
In this note, Hoover called Rodney an "alleged sports writer." But the page-break divides the big revelation. Hoover stated that Rodney "wrote concerning political matters rather than sports." Lester Rodney was the first writer who did not "stick to sports." J. Edgar Hoover is Patient Zero.
Like all angry internet commenters who have replicated this demand in the days since, Hoover was wrong. Rodney wrote about sports. Like any good journalist with a unique perspective, he wrote about other things, too. He quoted American athletes acknowledging the Russians were humans. He spoke to the locals, people in other parts of the world, about their perspective. Some call this reporting. Others call it conspiring with the enemy, or communism, or plotting against America.
The FBI continued to keep tabs on Rodney, updating his file at least every few weeks until the Daily Worker's financial collapse in 1958. For his part, Rodney had a falling out with the Communist Party U.S.A. and moved to Torrance, California, where he worked as a salesman and reporter for various publications around Los Angeles. The FBI continued to call him, his family, employers, and friends through more "pretext" telephone calls every few months, then every year. His file contains a rumor from one of his neighbors that he was having marital difficulties. It also regards a brief period of unemployment as a concern because "RODSTEIN is of employable age." One of the last notes in his file is a letter from Hoover in 1970, telling a redacted person that he cannot share information the FBI had collected on Rodney so the unidentified man could share it with his church.
In the summer of 1969, a decade after Rodney's last known communist activity, he went on vacation to Europe for a month. The FBI called him to make sure he came back.