On occasion, the invisible hand of the NFL taps ESPN on the shoulder and reminds the Worldwide Leader who really runs the show. We saw it with Playmakers. We saw it with the Frontline concussion documentary. More often than not, though, what you see is something like the video above, taken from the past day of ESPN's coverage of the Ray Rice suspension, in which you find network personality after network personality expressing a seemingly reflexive sympathy for the league's position. And why not? When you've carried water for the NFL for so long, it gets to be like muscle memory.
Elsewhere, the response was overwhelmingly negative. NBC, CBS, and Fox—all NFL broadcast partners—freely attacked the league for its light discipline of a player who'd knocked his now-wife unconscious. But ESPN's coverage was broadly supportive of Roger Goodell's decision. NFL reporter Adam Schefter wondered, inexplicably, if the punishment was "lenient enough." ESPN PR was quick to note in a damage-control email that Schefter was also asking if the punishment was too lenient. But Schefter's question implied the existence of a debate that literally no one was having, and shifted the meter away from the position most sane people held upon hearing the news. If you ever had any doubts about the First Take-ification of ESPN, well, here was proof.
That's not to say that Mickey Mouse's stance on the NFL has been a monolith. A handful of brave souls—Michelle Beadle chief among them, but also such unlikely allies as Skip Bayless and Colin Cowherd—have spoken out against the lax Rice suspension:
There was also Keith Olbermann's masterful performance last night. And Jane McManus wrote a screed called "The NFL's Domestic Violence Problem." You probably didn't see it, though. It was tucked away in the hinterlands of ESPNW.