The new political battlefield: ESPN

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Sports is supposed to be the ultimate getaway from reality, especially now, during the most ugly election season of our lifetime. But on ESPN, whose parent company is Disney, politics is now baked into the broadcast cake, and an increasing number of viewers are going elsewhere in droves. Just look at these headlines:

ESPN strangles Walt Disney Co (DIS) stock AGAIN

ESPN continues to plague Disney as revenue misses  

ESPN is crushing Disney

Is one-way political talk on the network a factor? 

{mosads}Instead of speculating, let’s go to ESPN’s public editor, Jim Brady, who wrote about this very topic on Thursday.

“As it turns out, ESPN is far from immune from the political fever that has afflicted so much of the country over the past year,” observes Brady. “Internally, there’s a feeling among many staffers — both liberal and conservative — that the company’s perceived move leftward has had a stifling effect on discourse inside the company and has affected its public-facing products. 

“Consumers have sensed that same leftward movement, alienating some.” 

Brady spoke to ESPN employees about that sense consumers have.  

“Inside ESPN, however, some feel the lack of tolerance of a particular political philosophy is a problem,” he wrote. 

“Many ESPN employees I talked to — including liberals and conservatives, most of whom preferred to speak on background — worry that the company’s politics have become a little too obvious, empowering those who feel as if they’re in line with the company’s position and driving underground those who don’t.” 

To that point, ESPN personalities and hosts taking a side on political issues and controversies is painfully obvious to anyone who watches the network. Much like cable news is veering more toward opinion than straight news, the sports network is less about pennant races, box scores, ERA and quarterback ratings, and more about opinion and debate programming. 

Examples: On its slightly self-serving annual sports award program, “The ESPYs” (yup, it named an award show after itself), the 2015 edition gave Caitlyn Jenner its annual heroism award, over a double-amputee Iraq War veteran who now competes in hard-core CrossFit events. 

This year’s ESPYs also featured an ode to Black Lives Matter and pleas for gun control. You can agree with BLM and advocate for better gun control, that’s fine. But ESPN is supposed to be a getaway from these kind of topics, or at the very least, offer a balanced debate on them — and if ratings and outright cost-cutting is any indication, it’s killing the network. 

ESPN’s actions around which personnel it decides to fire and which to ignore when making provocative statements is raising some eyebrows, and in some cases, ire. 

Curt Schilling, who is considering a run against Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts for senator, didn’t like North Carolina’s new transgender bathroom law all that much. He wasn’t even suspended. He got fired outright.

Chris Broussard is an ESPN reporter and pundit on one its many debate programs. In 2013, he said the following on the air about Jason Collins, the first openly gay NBA player, who had just come out:

“If you’re openly living in unrepentant sin, whatever it may be, not just homosexuality, (but) adultery, fornication, premarital sex between heterosexuals … I believe that’s walking in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ,”  Broussard said. “I would not characterize that person as a Christian, because I don’t think the Bible would characterize them as a Christian.”

Broussard is a practicing Christian. You can agree or disagree with this perspective, but he has a right to say it, especially since this is what ESPN pays him to do.  

No matter. The network quickly took a side.

“We regret that a respectful discussion of personal viewpoints became a distraction from today’s news. ESPN is fully committed to diversity and welcomes Jason Collins’ announcement,” ESPN said in a statement that same day. 

But the network didn’t take a side or even respond when Tony Kornheiser said this on ESPN air. “Are they (the Tea Party) like ISIS trying to establish a caliphate here?!”

It also said nothing when pundit Kevin Blackistone called the national anthem a “war anthem.”

The list goes on and on, most recently with almost everyone on the network standing by Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit during said anthem. Again, you can cheer or boo Kaepernick — the risking of alienating half of ESPN’s audience by turning the network into MSNBCNN is the real point here.

In July, ESPN decided to pull its Celebrity Golf Charity event from Trump National Golf Club due to its owner. 

“Our decision reflects our deep feelings for our former colleague and support for inclusion of all sports fans,” ESPN said in a statement. “Diversity and inclusion are core values at ESPN and our decision also supports that commitment.”

Yup. ESPN is all about tolerance. 

Except, of course, when it cannot tolerate any viewpoint but the one held by most of its pundit class. 

If profits were humming along like they always have, the network would likely continue down this ill-advised path rooting for the blue team over red on the political front. But when Disney stock starts to fall and ESPN gets the blame, it can be assured changes will be coming. 

“If ESPN continues to let its personalities debate the issues of the day but finds a way to better balance those conversations, it will be richer for it, Brady concludes. “In more ways than one.

In more ways than one indeed. 


Concha is a media reporter for The Hill.

The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Disney Elizabeth Warren espn Politics

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