ESPN has always struggled with addressing politics. Traditionally, the president coming on SportsCenter for a lighthearted segment picking a March Madness bracket represents the far edge of its political engagement, and even FiveThirtyEight, the network’s boldest experiment in this area, is more about politics as sport than about the life-or-death consequences of policy. Certainly, ESPN prefers for employees to avoid all political talk, and to act as if they’ve been very narrowly lobotomized. But it is a huge company with thousands of employees with a range of viewpoints and access to 24/7 social media megaphones, which makes this an impossible edict to enforce. Last year, a memo went out urging talent to avoid commentary on the presidential election; it was violated daily by dozens of ESPNers.
Over the weekend there were nationwide protests at airports and other locations against Donald Trump’s thinly-disguised Muslim ban, which was and is tearing apart families, preventing permanent residents of the United States from entering the country, subjecting toddlers to detainment, and causing a near-constitutional crisis as U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers flagrantly violate federal court orders.
Even more worrisome than all that, the protests at Los Angeles International Airport caused NBA Countdown anchor Sage Steele to miss a flight.
Steele’s Instagram post—and more generally ESPN’s policies on how to talk about politics—put out Dan Le Batard, the child of exiles who fled Cuba to the United States and increasingly ESPN’s moral conscience, and he spent two good chunks of his radio show (at 4:50 and 34:30 here) speaking his mind.
Via Slice Miami:
Now Mike Ryan put in front of me—diligent executive producer—some sort of memo about how we’re supposed to talk about everything that happened this weekend in immigration and I don’t want to look at it. [...] They don’t want you talking about things in a way that calls the president an idiot who thinks that he’s smart. That’s the most dangerous kind of idiot, an idiot who doesn’t know he’s an idiot. They don’t want you doing things like that, that then opens up the portal for everybody at ESPN bashing the President in a way that doesn’t discuss the facts and is just anti-Trump ...
Le Batard repeatedly expresses how he understands why ESPN doesn’t want employees talking about politics on the air, but thinks the way ESPN goes about it is weak. The “memo” he is referring to is an email sent this morning by David Roberts, ESPN’s vice president of audio, to a couple dozen audio employees telling them how to approach talking about Trump’s order and the subsequent protests. In that email, a copy of which a source provided to Deadspin, Roberts notes that global warming denier and idiot grinner Will Cain—whose routine is basically “third-most urbane guy in the Breitbart comments” and whom ESPN inexplicably hired 18 months ago—is available to present an opposing viewpoint on the immigration ban should one be needed for the purposes of (what else?) balance. This essentially acknowledges that the default response of more or less everybody at ESPN is to correctly believe that the ban is a bad idea that hurts people and makes America less safe, and yet presents the main concern of brass as making clear that both sides have been heard.
The email doesn’t get into whether Cain would be available to present a balancing view in a heliocentrism debate, but does suggest a workaround for anyone who wants to express their opinions without doing so, noting that ESPN has audio of Steve Kerr criticizing the ban that can be used. Le Batard rightly views the use of Kerr as a “meat shield” as craven:
But I think the way that we are doing it is weak. “Hey Steve Kerr is talking about it, let’s talk about Steve Kerr talking about it.” Or “the NBA is asking the State Department what do we do about Luol Deng,” talk about it that way, through the prism of sports, stay in your lane, stay in this corner, as some things that are happening around American that feel hugely un-American have people protesting in the streets that shuts down airports, it just feels unbelievably weak to me to only talk about this through the prism when it is a story that effects the entire culture, in a dangerous time, this feels like the weakest possible way ESPN could enter this discussion, using Steve Kerr as a meat shield. Look at what he said, when some things are happening in this country that have not happened in this country since before the start of this country.
Le Batard, among other things, pushes back against the people who write in every time he talks politics to accuse ESPN of being liberal and gloating about how politics is why ESPN is losing subscribers, accurately noting that the company doesn’t have politics, and that ESPN is losing subscribers because 99 million people were paying for a channel that 98 million people barely watch. (In all, he has a much better understanding of the effects of talent expressing political views than ESPN’s public editor does, at least to go by this willfully stupid column.)
He goes on to address how stupid Steele’s Instagram comments were, and how ESPN has a real problem if Steele is allowed to discuss the issue but Le Batard is not:
The genie is out of the bottle on this because we all have our own Twitter accounts and all have our own social media,” he said. “This is what ESPN is trying to prevent because once one person does it, it opens the floodgates for the rest of us because of course, I, as the son of exiles, look at this and I’m like what the hell are you talking about your travel plans were affected? What are you talking about? It’s the height of privilege. And so, once you start opening that portal, you get ESPN-on-ESPN crime, you get all of this stuff that ESPN doesn’t want to have, as people think of ESPN as “liberal” leaning. But you can’t give this a voice and then muzzle the rest of us. You can’t give Sage Steele this voice and then muzzle the son of exiles.
What Le Batard dances around, but does not outright say, is that ESPN finds itself contradicting itself so often and so badly here because it is institutionally incapable of viewing electoral politics as anything other than a form of competition. ESPN coverage has always been inflected by politics—what was Skip Bayless and Colin Cowherd’s race-baiting if not an appeal to the same constituency Will Cain only slightly more nakedly represents?—with the only real change being that over the years, the necessary pretexts have become thinner and thinner. Finally, at a time of national crisis, we’re presented with the thing itself: Sage Steele expressing her disgust at being inconvenienced by citizens protesting the establishment of domestic black sites, and Dan Le Batard expressing his at how un-American America is capable of being.
ESPN vice-presidents and whoever else would like to do so can attempt to draw a ring around sports and direct coverage to work only at the point where what’s inside the ring touches what’s outside it, but that won’t—can’t—work. The danger Donald Trump and his white-nationalist advisers represent, and the real effects they’re already having on every aspect of our society, aren’t matters of political opinion but of demonstrable fact. No one, at ESPN or anywhere, should be expected to discuss them only in terms of what a basketball coach has to say about them, or to feel chastened about expressing empathy and support for the victims. Probably, no one will.