ESPN fired baseball analyst Curt Schilling tonight, two days after he shared an anti-trans meme on Facebook. “ESPN is an inclusive company. Curt Schilling has been advised that his conduct was unacceptable and his employment with ESPN has been terminated,” said ESPN in a statement.
This was far from the first time Schilling crossed a line at ESPN. Two months ago, he said Hillary Clinton “should be buried under a jail somewhere.” Three months ago, Schilling joked about being fired from ESPN for his donation to Ben Carson. Seven months ago, ESPN had nothing to say about Schilling posting insane memes on Facebook. Eight months ago, Schilling tweeted a meme comparing Muslims and Nazis, and was suspended for it. Shortly after that, he emailed a long, strange rant to a blogger to clarify his thoughts about Muslims and Nazis, and was suspended for the rest of the season.
Schilling publicly and proudly proclaimed bigoted views on a regular basis. He posted repulsive things to Facebook nearly every day, frequently going from the repulsive to the despicable and continuously dehumanizing others. ESPN repeatedly and severely punished employees for far milder violations of its various policies, and yet Schilling just kept on spending his days degrading people who aren’t like him.
Finally, ESPN decided they’d had enough. Why is an interesting question.
ESPN has long struggled with how to deal with employees who post or say objectionable things and things that some people find objectionable—two different if related things. Eighteen months ago we reported on the “minefield” that ESPN suspensions were creating for talent, and even with Schilling’s firing, nothing has changed. The lack of consistency means that ESPNers have no idea what is fair game and what isn’t. Employees are justifiably angry that they and their colleagues have been suspended, or could be suspended, for doing things far less egregious than what Schilling repeatedly got away with until he couldn’t.
“They’ve been doing this ad hoc for so long,” one ESPNer told me. “What you do when you make it situational, is that you make it situational, and therefore it always needs to be adjudicated.”
Earlier this year ESPN sent a memo to talent, cautioning them about political commentary and warning against “personal attacks or ‘drive-by’ comments regarding the candidates and their campaigns.” It also added that “in other cases guidelines on social media, acceptable commentary and political advocacy should prevail.”
The most recent copy of ESPN’s social media guidelines seen by Deadspin reminds employees that they’re always representing ESPN, and to “exercise discretion, thoughtfulness, and respect for your colleagues, business associates and our fans.” Schilling’s social media postings clearly did not follow these guidelines. (ESPN would only direct me to guidelines that are five years old and clearly out of date. If you have updated ones, let me know!)
But while ESPN suspended Schilling for a previous posting of an anti-Muslim meme, and ultimately fired him over this latest one, the network didn’t do anything about these ones (or this, or this, or this, or any of the hundreds of other memes he posted). The only explanations are that the network considered those exercises in discretion, thoughtfulness, and respect, or that for some reason, Schilling, until now, had license that virtually no one else at the Worldwide Leader did.
Aside from the fact that by punishing some while ignoring Schilling the network was essentially implicitly endorsing his views—this is what happens when you selectively enforce a vague speech code—the episode also laid bare the inherent, and perhaps unavoidable, cynicism of ESPN’s policies. The network cracks down hard on even perceived criticism of fellow ESPN employees or of ESPN business partners. It has been less decisive in dealing with revolting expressions of contempt for perhaps the most vulnerable group of people in our society, or with the use of the Bible as a cudgel against gays.
Even with Schilling gone, that he was fired for posting a meme no worse than many he’s posted over the last eight months demonstrates that ESPN’s interest in policing what its employees say extends, essentially, to protecting its own business and its own brand. Curt Schilling’s naked expressions of bigotry weren’t deemed anywhere near the threat to either that, say, a mild shot at Roger Goodell was—until they were.
Over the last six months, I’ve had reason to ask ESPN numerous questions about Schilling and similar issues of speech. I asked if Schilling’s comments about Hillary Clinton violated their memo to talent; I asked about Mike Ditka’s endorsement of Donald Trump; I asked if ESPN had a position on the anti-LGBT law signed in North Carolina and the one almost signed in Georgia. To each of these questions and more, I either got no response, or a vague “we’re looking into it.”
The point here wasn’t to catch ESPN in a contradiction, or criticize self-evidently wrong takes, but to get insight into how what is by many measures the world’s most powerful media operation handles some extremely complex issues. Their inability to provide any sort of response indicates how vexing ESPN finds it.
How do you set a coherent policy that can adequately govern the behavior of thousands of employees across dozens of work settings in a lawful, empathetic, and fair way? Should talent have more leeway because they’re more valuable to the company, or less leeway because they more publicly represent ESPN? Is vociferously expressing mainstream, rather than extreme, political thought allowed? To what extent can ESPN act independently in this regard from Disney?
Even allowing that ESPN is in a real fix in trying to address all of this, the issue of what speech is allowed, by whom, and on which platforms, and why, has festered for years, and ESPN has never adequately dealt with it. Firing Schilling ends the immediate embarrassment; it’s still clear that a chronic infection has turned into an acute one.