ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro, just six months into his new role, addressed reporters at ESPN Football Media Day on Friday in Bristol, Conn. The company set up the event to show off its college football and NFL programming, just before both of those seasons begin.
On a day themed around football, you might think politics wouldn’t come up. But such is the new reality for ESPN, which has become a political punching bag in the last two years.
Pitaro was asked what he thinks is the biggest misconception about ESPN.
“That we are a political organization,” he answered. “Because we are not. We are a sports media company. We are always going to cover the intersection between sports and politics, sports and culture… When the Eagles are disinvited to the White House, we are going to cover that. When someone takes a knee, if we think it’s newsworthy, we are going to cover it. Our partners across the industry understand that. But covering sports in an exemplary fashion is our focus, our priority. That’s not going to change.”
Indeed, there is a perception among some conservatives, spread vocally on social media, that ESPN at some point became a liberal-leaning network. Some say it began back in 2015 when ESPN gave Caitlyn Jenner its Arthur Ashe Courage Award, some point to the firing of baseball analyst Curt Schilling in 2016 for posting offensive memes, while others say it heated up during the network’s close coverage of Colin Kaepernick and his political protest during the 2016-2017 NFL season.
It didn’t help quell the narrative when SportsCenter anchor Jemele Hill called President Donald Trump a “white supremacist” in a tweet last September, and Trump responded with a tweet of his own.
With Jemele Hill at the mike, it is no wonder ESPN ratings have "tanked," in fact, tanked so badly it is the talk of the industry!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 10, 2017
ESPN employees told Yahoo Finance last year the claims of political bias became an “endless drumbeat.”
When Pitaro now says that ESPN’s partners “understand” that the network must cover the intersection of sports and culture, he’s clearly referring to the NFL. As both a broadcast partner that shows NFL games and an investigative reporting outlet that uncovers (occasionally unflattering) stories about the NFL, the relationship between the two has reportedly been tested in the last year.
Accusations of ESPN’s liberal bias have appeared to die down this summer, but that may simply be because the NFL was not in season.
Pitaro still sees a political narrative, and revealed he has explicitly told ESPN employees to tone down the politics. “ESPN being a political organization is false,” he reiterated. “I have been very, very clear with employees here that it is not our job to cover politics, purely. But we will cover the intersection. I believe in my heart and brain that when people tune in to ESPN they are not looking for political commentary from us.”
As football returns, with some players already kneeling again in pre-season, there are signs that Trump and political controversy will again hang over the league and its broadcasting partners. Pitaro said on Friday that ESPN does not plan to air the national anthem before its Monday Night Football broadcasts this season and has already informed the league of that plan “as a courtesy.”
Not showing the anthem is not new—it is in keeping with what ESPN did last season—but confirming that plan ahead of time is likely part of Pitaro’s effort to avoid the politics.