ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro, whose biggest accomplishment since taking over the network more than a year ago has been tenderly kissing the NFL’s ass, is once again harping on the importance of sticking to sports. This time, however, he’s not just saying the network shouldn’t cover “pure politics”; he’s saying that fans, or at least a certain type of fan, doesn’t want ESPN to cover politics at all, blaming the network’s previous supposed failures at sticking to sports on “confused” employees.
Yesterday the Los Angeles Times published a fawning profile of Pitaro and his influence at ESPN, written by Stephen Battaglio. The report was all too happy to let Pitaro speak in vague terms about “politics,” without pressing him even slightly for any specifics about what counts as political, what fans are troubled by “politics,” or which employees were “confused.” From the story:
Pitaro has also satisfied ESPN’s more traditional fans by steering commentators away from political discussions on-air and on social media, which heightened during President Trump’s criticism of NFL player protests against social injustice during the playing of the national anthem.
“Without question our data tells us our fans do not want us to cover politics,” Pitaro said. “My job is to provide clarity. I really believe that some of our talent was confused on what was expected of them. If you fast-forward to today, I don’t believe they are confused.”
Without the benefit of basic questioning, the “traditional fans,” as Battaglio calls them, that Pitaro is so concerned with pleasing can be understood to be the older, whiter segments of ESPN’s audience, and “politics” is nothing more than a euphemism for any topic of conversation that those older, whiter consumers might find upsetting. Neither Pitaro nor Battaglio, who was no doubt thrilled to get an exclusive with ESPN’s president, make this explicit, but their meaning is clear given ESPN’s history of being hounded by mostly white right-wing dopes, who didn’t like ESPN discussing NFL players kneeling to protest police brutality. As one current ESPN talent who spoke to Deadspin on the condition of anonymity put it: “This is what it sounds like when a scared network takes the people of color in its audience—and in its offices—for granted.”
Not only is Pitaro’s reference to “confused” talent a cheap shot at the likes of Jemele Hill and Michael Smith, who spent a year (during their run as SportsCenter hosts) bearing the brunt of the lunatic horde’s criticism of ESPN, all for doing their jobs, it’s also a chilling vision of the future of the network. If Hill and Smith and others failed to do what was expected of them simply by understanding that there is no way to credibly and meaningfully cover professional sports without acknowledging how politics constantly animates the players and games and leagues, then we can only conclude that what is expected of ESPN’s talent going forward is to be stupid on purpose. Hill eventually left the network to work for The Atlantic, Smith is riding out his contract in a scaled-down role, and Pitaro seems to be actively encouraging his talent to dumb themselves down so that morons who set their Nikes on fire will stop getting mad when they turn on ESPN and hear something they don’t like.
Pitaro’s ideal ESPN, where talent are mooncalves who pretend politics have nothing to do with sports, might be bad for viewers, but as far as the business is concerned, apparently, dumber is better:
So far, Disney Chairman Bob Iger is happy with Pitaro’s progress. Appearing at a recent investor conference, Iger credited Pitaro with dialing down the political discourse on ESPN’s debate shows and its signature program “SportsCenter,” as well as lifting ratings. He also believes Pitaro has improved relationships with sport leagues doing business with the network, especially the NFL. (ESPN’s $1.9-billion-a-year deal to carry “NFL Monday Night Football” runs through the 2021 season.)
“We’ve done some brand research that suggests ESPN’s brand is stronger than it was a few years ago,” Iger said. “In general, if you look at what Jimmy’s performance has been ... it’s been really positive.”
The report doesn’t include any evidence to show ESPN’s supposed ratings lift is linked to Pitaro’s stick-to-sports mandate, probably because that’s bullshit, but even if it weren’t it’s worth looking at just how the no-politics rule gets enforced. For example, in April, Will Cain, ESPN’s newest Britt McHenry, took over a discussion about the Yankees replacing Kate Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America” with a rant about racism and outrage culture that sounded like he ripped it off from Tinky Lordhen. I doubt he faced any repercussions, and why would he? The viewers who would make a ruckus about politics contaminating their sports likely agreed with him, and those viewers who didn’t evidently could handle hearing an opinion they didn’t like without coordinating a full-blown meltdown and threatening to cancel their cable subscriptions.
This is where it’s important to remember that Pitaro’s whole plan to remove “politics” from his network is the result of him getting played by a legion of chuds who disingenuously held up ESPN’s declining ratings as evidence that viewers were abandoning the network because it had become too left-leaning and political. Meanwhile, those same chuds ignored all evidence showing that ESPN was simply suffering the consequences of widespread cord-cutting, like every other TV network in America.
Whether Pitaro is going around telling ESPN talent what “political” topics are and are not off limits (he’s probably not) is beside the point. What matters is that every time he publicly reiterates ESPN’s commitment to dumbing itself down and avoiding “politics” (truly, he never misses an opportunity to do this), he’s sending a message not only to viewers but to his own employees about what is important, what deserves to be talked about, and what doesn’t. These messages are carefully considered—the LA Times reminds us that Pitaro is a “former litigator” who is “always precise in his language”—and they don’t go unnoticed by the people who are meant to receive them.