ESPN & Politics
Up until I was 14 years old, I would listen to five hours of sports talk radio every day, on WFAN. That’s no exaggeration–I would get home from school and it would be on in the foreground or background until I fell asleep to the velvety pipes of Joe Benigno. After September 11th, sports were suspended in this country for a week, and all of a sudden politics dominated the conversation on my favorite shows. I found myself listening to angry, ignorant, middle-aged white men fully embedded in the aggressive male sports culture use their platform to spew xenophobic and racist rhetoric. Horrified, I stopped listening, and never started again.
So in some sense, I can understand the disillusionment that comes when politics and sports mingle, and sports journalists dip in waters outside of their expertise. But I find myself seething at the response to Jemele Hill’s criticism of Donald Trump on her personal Twitter account; it’s particularly stunning that the White House has tried to intervene, and call for her firing. ESPN has struggled to navigate this controversy, but to its credit, has held off on severely disciplining Hill (at time of writing), and Hill’s Tweets haven’t been removed from Twitter. In response to the incident, ESPN ombudsman Jim Brady has written an article that tries to evaluate Hill’s “transgression” as an employee. In closing, he editorializes that:
If you consume as much of ESPN’s content as I have for the past 22 months, it seems clear the company leans left. I don’t think anyone ever made an executive decision to go that route as much as the personalities the network has promoted into high-profile positions tend to be more liberal, and as their voices are amplified, the overall voice has shifted with it. But I still think it’s a problem that needs to be addressed if ESPN plans to better navigate the intersection of sports, politics and culture, and if it wants to hold onto a larger share of its audience in these days of unbundling… the answer is improved ideological diversity in ESPN’s overall products.
In an earlier article about ESPN’s handling of politics–in which Brady concluded then, as he does now, that the network needs to do a better job representing the full political spectrum of the United States–he quotes ESPN President John Skipper:
It is accurate that the Walt Disney Company and ESPN are committed to diversity and inclusion… These are long-standing values that drive fundamental fairness while providing us with the widest possible pool of talent to create the smartest and most creative staff. We do not view this as a political stance but as a human stance. We do not think tolerance is the domain of a particular political philosophy… Tolerance is not a playing-it-down-the-middle issue or a journalism standard… It is a cultural imperative at our company. Regarding our reporting and journalism, again, our intent is not to be political but to be fair and accurate.
As the Republican party veers Right off the grid of normalcy, tolerance has become the domain of a particular political philosophy, as has fairness and accuracy . In this toxic climate a “balanced” dialogue–where balance is defined on a Democratic/Republican spectrum–inherently creates a false equivalency, which the “liberal” media has recently struggled to grapple with.
ESPNs three largest properties are the NFL, NBA, and MLB. NFL and NBA players are roughly 70% African American, and MLB players are roughly 30% Latino; in other words, ESPNs largest business is built on the backs of minorities. This feels relevant when the President of the United States is a demonstrable racist who ran an explicitly xenophobic and racist campaign, with xenophobic and racist support. As a business, I understand the imperative for ESPN to not alienate, as Brady puts it, the “44 percent of the country identifies itself as either ‘Republican’ or ‘leans Republican,’” and lord knows there are many ways that ESPN has severely compromised its journalistic integrity to maximize its appeal while at once promoting its own properties, as exemplified by their truly unbelievable coverage of the father of a basketball player who I’d rather not name.
But as a business that claims standards of tolerance, fairness, and truthfulness, that is largely built on the exploits of minorities who have been repeatedly attacked by the President, ESPN also has a responsibility to use its platform to support its product and promote its ideals. Giving equal weight to both “sides” of the political spectrum, this day in age, amounts to a gross contortion of truth and a slap in the face to the minorities that line ESPN’s coffers.