ESPN in political hot seat after host's Trump remarks

ESPN in political hot seat after host's Trump remarks
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ESPN has earned the ire of both conservatives and the White House after one of its on-air personalities called President Trump a white supremacist and attributed his election to racism.

The sports media giant struggled to distance itself from anchor Jemele Hill, an African-American woman who co-hosts a "SportsCenter" spin-off called "SC6 with Michael and Jemele," after she unloaded on Trump and his supporters as racists and white supremacists in a string of tweets.

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Speaking from the White House on Wednesday, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called the remarks “outrageous” and said ESPN should consider the comments a “firable offense.”

ESPN did not respond to a request for comment.

The network reprimanded Hill but didn’t fire or suspend her, drawing accusations of a double standard from the conservatives. They compared Hill's treatment to what they see as harsher treatments for ESPN employees who have expressed right-leaning views.

To some, the controversy is the latest example of ESPN infusing its sports coverage with left-wing politics — a phenomenon conservatives view as pervasive across the political media landscape that has now spread into sports.

Right-wing outlets have been relishing the network’s ratings and financial struggles, with some attributing ESPN’s woes to its alienation of half of the country’s voters.

“They are alienating their core audience, which is guys and girls who just want to pop a beer and watch a football game,” sportswriter Clay Travis, an ESPN critic, told Fox News’s Tucker Carlson on Tuesday night. “I don't know how people who voted for Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pens op-ed on kindergartners learning tech Bharara, Yates tamp down expectations Mueller will bring criminal charges Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open MORE can feel comfortable at all watching ESPN when they know the values that that network espouses and how unwelcome their own values are.”

The left has rallied to Hill's defense, arguing that she was only speaking the truth in the wake of Trump’s equivocal response to the racially charged violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in August.

Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has drawn scorn from the right for kneeling during the national anthem in protest of racial injustice — a trend that has since become widespread in the NFL — tweeted support for Hill. 

The sports website Deadspin reacted to Hill's reprimand with a headline denouncing ESPN’s “craven apology” for Hill’s “accurate descriptions of Donald Trump,” underscoring the difficult spot ESPN is in.

The network relies on access to NBA and NFL players, many of whom are African-American. The public scolding of a prominent young black woman for expressing views held by some mainstream Democrats in Washington does not sit well on the left.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, a potential 2020 presidential contender, told The Hill that people who get paid to talk for a living should be able to express their opinions. Still, Cuban says, corporations and employees will have to weigh their appetite for political blowback in polarized times.

“Doesn't matter who you work for, you don't lose your right to be a citizen,” Cuban said. “Employers have to decide what is in their best interests. Employees have to do the same. The only problem I have is that we haven't learned how to disagree civilly. Life and opinion is not driven by absolutes. There is always a way to exchange ideas and opinions.”

Conservatives are increasingly advocating against the network for political activism that they say has tacked hard to the left.

For ESPN’s critics, the controversy is the latest in a long line of politically charged incidents that they say reveal the network’s liberal bias.

Last month, both left and right mocked an ESPN decision that was viewed as political correctness run amuck. The network reassigned a college football commentator from a University of Virginia game in the wake of the Charlottesville protests because the man had the same name as dead Confederate Gen. Robert Lee.

Former ESPN commentator Doug Adler is suing the network after it dropped him for saying Venus Williams used “guerilla” tactics, which some of its viewers misconstrued as “gorilla.”

The network has been criticized for its outsized coverage of Michael Sam, the first openly gay NFL player ever drafted, who never made the final roster for a pro team.

Critics, including famed broadcaster Bob Costas, have questioned why ESPN gave Caitlyn Jenner its Arthur Ashe Courage Award. The award has traditionally gone to cultural icons like Muhammad Ali and Nelson Mandela.

And the network has been accused of stoking anti-police sentiment with its coverage of Kaepernick and other NFL players who refuse to stand during the national anthem.

Hill's remarks about Trump have ignited the latest round of fury from the right, with critics and conservative media from Fox News to Breitbart saturating the airwaves with coverage of the controversy.

“ESPN has chosen a political lane,” African-American sports commentator Jason Whitlock, who was fired from the network in 2015 and is now at ESPN rival Fox Sports 1, said Wednesday morning on Fox News’s “Fox & Friends.”

“This is off-putting to a majority of the people that would tune in to ESPN.”

Carlson opened his Tuesday night show with back-to-back guests ripping the network on the matter.

Carlson joked that ESPN stood for “Endless Stupid Political Nagging,” while Travis, the guest sportswriter on the show, referred to the network as MSESPN — a reference to the liberal political outlet MSNBC.

In separate appearances on Fox News, Davis and Whitlock argued that Hill's remarks were sanctioned from the top and reflect the views of Disney CEO Bob Iger — who has been mentioned as a potential 2020 presidential candidate — and ESPN President John Skipper.

“They have clearly condoned what she did by not taking any action,” Whitlock said.

The network’s critics also see a double standard in the way it treats contributors who have conservative points of view.

The network cut ties with former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling after he voiced support for a Republican transgender bathroom bill in North Carolina.

Former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka, a Trump supporter who still works for ESPN, has said “there’s no question” the network “leans” liberal.

And Linda Cohn, a longtime SportsCenter anchor, has said the network’s left-wing bent is at least partially responsible for its loss of subscribers.

“That is definitely a percentage of it,” Cohn said on a New York radio show in April. “I don’t know how big a percentage, but if anyone wants to ignore that fact, they’re blind.”

ESPN reportedly suspended Cohn for the remarks.

ESPN has lost millions of subscribers in the past few years and laid off scores of veteran journalists as it faces an existential crisis of “cord-cutting” that has seen fewer viewers subscribe to the cable packages that carry the network.

The swirling political controversies are also damaging for the network at a time when it’s struggling to adjust.

“ESPN's recent ratings and financial difficulties are the result of several factors, the main one being the surge in cord-cutting,” said Jeffrey McCall, a professor of media studies at DePauw University. “But it is quite plausible that some of the cord-cutting is connected to the perception that ESPN is increasingly politically minded.”

“ESPN should not shy away from reporting the social or political aspects of sports,” McCall said. “But the executives there would be well-advised to carefully consider whether such coverage is truly balanced, and to provide some transparency to viewers about their approach to such matters.”

-This report was updated at 7:40 p.m.