At a Sports Business Journal conference today, ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro— who said two months ago that ESPN’s future was in sticking to sports and kowtowing to the NFL’s interests—reiterated that ESPN was going to stay away from “pure politics.”
In a two-minute monologue, delivered with a confidence that belied its substance, Pitaro said the network would continue to stick to sports, except when sports and non-sports overlapped, in which case they would cover it, except when there was too much overlap, in which case ESPN would go back to sticking to sports.
Pitaro’s full remarks, which begin mid-phrase, are transcribed here:
“...should be dictated by data. Not everything, a lot of it is qualitative and lot of it is based on talent and the insights and gut —but a good chunk of it is based on what our research team is telling us. And what I’ve heard consistently from day one of getting this job is the more we lean into politically charged commentary, the more we are alienating not just our core fan but our casual fan. As we talk about expanding our audience, that’s a problem for us. Core and casual fans are tuning into espn—again, that’s backed up by data—they are tuning in because they love sports, they love ESPN, but also [because] during divisive times like we’re living in today, they are tuning into us for an escape, as an escape. And so every time we lean too much into that politically charged commentary we are alienating our fans. So that is clear and convincing data that I’ve seen repeatedly. And so we’ve been very vocal that that’s not what we do, that’s not who we are. I’m talking about pure politics.
Now, we’ve also been very vocal that there are exceptions. There is the intersection between sports and politics. When Tiger is talking about the president, when the anthem story, every time that there is an intersection, ESPN is the place of record. Of course, when you tune into ESPN, we should be, we need to be covering those stories, if there is a connection to sports. And again, our team understands that, so the question is how balanced we are. We’re looking at that right now, looking at that data and understanding there is some fatigue, making sure that we are striking a balance here and not going too far in terms of how often we are covering it in a specific day.”
Aside from the false premise that sports function as an “escape,” the biggest flaw in Pitaro’s rationale is the idea that ESPN programming ever included “pure politics” at all. NFL players kneeling during the national anthem as a peaceful protest of police brutality, for example, the issue right-wingers latch onto most often in order to screech about keeping “politics” out of their sports, is directly and intimately related to the sport of football. If ESPN didn’t cover this, it wouldn’t be doing its job. In fact, the only time ESPN got in hot water over something “purely” political was when former ESPN personality Jemele Hill called Donald Trump a white supremacist on Twitter. Bad-faith hordes, including the president, called for her to be fired. (Hill wasn’t wrong and she was using her own social media page to express herself, but ESPN still bumbled about and let itself be bullied into issuing an apology.)
So the balance Pitaro is really trying to strike is between appeasing the mush-brained morons who say they’ll change the channel if they’re at all bothered to think about the real world, and covering sports in a smart and comprehensive way, which necessarily requires situating what’s happening on the field in the context of what’s happening in the world. He did this by telling the stick-to-sports crowd that ESPN wasn’t interested in covering politics, then turning around and saying they would cover it, as long as it didn’t go “too far,” whatever that means. Pitaro attempted to deliver two different messages to two different groups and ended up saying nothing.