How ESPN became a political punching bag in the Trump era

By now you likely know the basic play-by-play of why ESPN is in the news this week: SportsCenter anchor Jemele Hill called President Donald Trump a “white supremacist” in a tweet on Monday; a reporter asked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders about the tweet and Sanders called it a “fireable offense” on Wednesday; and inevitably, Trump sent out a tweet on Friday morning: “ESPN is paying a really big price for its politics (and bad programming). People are dumping it in RECORD numbers. Apologize for untruth!”

But the general public may be mostly unaware of the larger context here, a long-simmering narrative that has gained traction on social media for a year already: the idea that ESPN at some point became an overtly liberal network.

One high-ranking ESPN staffer calls it “an endless drumbeat.”

The narrative is mostly false. ESPN is a sports network; it does not have any overt, intentional political bias. And there are likely more conservatives at ESPN than liberals, especially among football analysts. (ESPN even commissioned a survey in May and found that only 18% of people surveyed saw a political bias, and 30% of those people saw ESPN as too conservative, not liberal.)

But now the noise is drowning out the truth. (And make no mistake, the noise is loud: on any story we run about ESPN — even straightforward, factual news reports about the business, or about parent company Disney — the majority of the reader comments are furious, often all-caps screeds about how ESPN “went liberal” or how it needs to “fire Jemele Hill” or how the commenter will never watch ESPN again because of its politics.)

In the era of Trump, when everything has become a partisan issue — when candy brands have to clarify that they respect women, and the maker of tiki torches has to clarify that it does not support white nationalism — ESPN has become a perfect political punching bag, a target for all the vitriol that bubbled to the fore in the 2016 election cycle.

So, how did ESPN get here?

Jemele Hill (L) and Michael Smith on Feb 1, 2017. (via ESPN)
Jemele Hill (L) and Michael Smith on Feb 1, 2017. (via ESPN)

Caitlyn Jenner, Barack Obama, Curt Schilling, Colin Kaepernick

Those who insist that at some point ESPN took a liberal turn typically point to one of these moments: ESPN gave Caitlyn Jenner its Arthur Ashe Courage Award in 2015; it fired baseball analyst Curt Schilling, a vocal conservative, in April 2016; and it held a special town hall on race relations with President Barack Obama in October 2016. Then, more broadly, critics say ESPN covered Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protests obsessively during the 2016 NFL season.

It didn’t help when ESPN anchor Linda Cohn, in April of this year, said in a radio interview that she believes ESPN’s politics are partially to blame for its subscriber declines. Politics, Cohn said, are “definitely a percentage of it … if anyone wants to ignore that fact, then they’re blind.”

But regardless of whether you believe ESPN has a liberal bias, it is a misunderstanding of the business to say that politics is to blame for ESPN’s revenue declines. That is happening because of one simple equation: fragmentation of cable plus rising programming fees. ESPN is paying more money to show games just at the time when more people are canceling their cable package. Consumers aren’t calling up their cable provider, outraged over ESPN’s politics, demanding to cut ESPN; they can’t really do that. If they wanted to do that, they’d have to cut their entire cable package.

Nonetheless, the narrative persists.

And that brings us to the past month, in which two major incidents have happened in a short time, both reigniting and strengthening the ESPN political controversy.

ESPN declined to comment on the record for this story.

Robert Lee and Jemele Hill

First, in August, ESPN made an internal decision to switch a part-time announcer named Robert Lee off of calling a Sept. 2 University of Virginia football game on ESPN3, under the logic that in the wake of the violence at the Charlottesville rally (which began over the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue), the employee would be subject to mocking tweets and blog posts about the tone-deaf coincidence of assigning a guy named Robert Lee to that particular game.

A source at ESPN told Yahoo Finance, “We have a million college football games, we move people around all the time, a producer discussed this with him, it was a mundane decision.”

That sounds reasonable. But an ESPN employee leaked the decision to Clay Travis, a Fox Sports commentator and the most prominent ESPN critic on the internet (he calls ESPN “MSESPN” a reference to MSNBC), and by that night, Travis was on Tucker Carlson’s program insisting that this was yet another example of ESPN having a political agenda.

Critics argued that ESPN should never have removed the announcer; but if someone hadn’t leaked it, this never would have become a story. ESPN (and many of its on-camera personalities, on Twitter) argued that it only had its employee’s interests at heart.

And this brings us to the latest incident, with Jemele Hill. There’s some important background here: Hill was already a target of vocal vitriol on Twitter ever since ESPN made her and Michael Smith (previously the two had their own talk show, “His and Hers”) the co-hosts of the 6 p.m. SportsCenter slot, renaming the show “The Six.” The new show debuted in February and ratings have not been good; Smith and Hill infuse pop culture into their show, which many traditional viewers don’t like (but many of the critics, Hill says, may just be racist).

Smith and Hill are a prime example of ESPN’s companywide direction, in the words of president John Skipper: “personality-driven programming.” And Hill is well aware of the narrative around ESPN’s politics: in June, on stage at a sports conference, she told Yahoo Finance, “I think it’s a really dumb narrative… Sports have always been political… As you see more women in a position on our network, as you see more ethnic diversity, then all of a sudden ESPN is too liberal. So I wonder, when people say that, what they’re really saying. The other part of it is that we’re journalists, and people have to understand, these uncomfortable political conversations… the athletes are dragging us here. I didn’t ask Colin Kaepernick to kneel. He did it on his own. So, was I supposed to act like he didn’t?”

So Hill knew what she was doing when she sent that tweet; she had to have known it would cause major problems. And make no mistake: the tweet was a violation of ESPN company policy, which states, in the employee handbook, “Employees should avoid unnecessary or unproductive arguments and refrain from discussing sensitive or inflammatory subjects that are not related to work, such as politics or religion.” It isn’t about whether Hill’s tweet was true or not, or fair or not — it was a violation of company policy. That is a fact.

But now, curiously, both liberals and conservatives are criticizing ESPN for its disciplining of Hill.

Conservatives rage that ESPN should have suspended or fired Hill; its statement (“We have addressed this with Jemele and she recognizes her actions were inappropriate”) wasn’t enough, they say. (Breitbart called it a “wrist slap.”) Meanwhile, liberals are criticizing ESPN for even issuing that statement — they threw her under the bus to appeal to conservative critics. (Deadspin called it “craven.”)

Those criticizing ESPN’s handling of Hill point to its firing of Schilling as evidence. They say that ESPN fired Schilling for being a conservative (not true), and that if it doesn’t fire Hill now, it’s a double standard.

But in fact, ESPN has, so far, disciplined Hill basically the same way it disciplined Schilling.

ESPN fired Schilling for repeatedly sharing hateful memes on social media, not because he is a conservative, and not because of a single incident. In 2015, he shared a meme on Twitter that compared Muslims to Nazis; months later, he said in an interview that Hillary Clinton ought to be “buried under a jail”; in 2016, he shared a meme on Facebook that supported the North Carolina bathroom law by showing a man in drag trying to enter a women’s bathroom, with the text, “Let him in! To the restroom with your daughter or else you’re a narrow minded, judgmental, unloving, racist bigot who needs to die!”

A meme Curt Schilling re-shared on Facebook in 2016.
A meme Curt Schilling re-shared on Facebook in 2016.

ESPN first reprimanded Schilling, then suspended him, and then, only after repeatedly asking him to stop, fired him.

Hill’s Trump tweet violated company policy, so the company publicly reprimanded her. She then apologized, said the tweets represented her “personal beliefs,” and ESPN accepted the apology.

Hill has been suspended once before, in 2008, for invoking Hitler in a column, so you could certainly argue that ESPN should have suspended her again this time—that it was inconsistent not to suspend her. But if it fired her over this, that would not match the pace at which it disciplined Schilling. (Whether statements like the one she made about Trump are appropriate is a different, larger debate playing out in newsrooms across the country for the past eight months.)

The larger point is: ESPN can’t win now. Every single situation that arises that in any way involves politics is lose-lose for the network. Rob King, ESPN’s head of news programming (including SportsCenter), described the ongoing noise this way: “It is hard to read tweets that are personal and angry. But that anger was always there. It was always there. Imagine Twitter when Jackie Robinson took the field.”

The only thing ESPN can do is try to stay out of politics, try to simply cover sports. And that is what ESPN has tried to do, but in 2017, the internet, increasingly, will not allow it.

Dan Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

Read more:

Inside ESPN’s plan to reinvent SportsCenter

ESPN’s Robert Lee debacle is reminder of its larger problem right now

SportsCenter chief Rob King on ESPN’s politics: ‘Imagine Jackie Robinson happened today’

SportsCenter anchor Jemele Hill on ESPN’s politics: ‘The athletes are dragging us here’

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