If you paid attention to ESPN channels yesterday, you saw the network repeatedly attempt to grapple with the story of Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey creating an international incident after tweeting and then deleting his support for pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong. You heard talking head after talking head castigate Morey for sending the tweet, speculation over whether he’d keep his job, speculation about the sincerity of his convictions, discussions about what this meant for the Rockets’ bottom line, the observation that it’s unreasonable to expect for-profit companies like the NBA to act morally, and the non-take that cowing to China is simply the cost of doing business in China.
What you didn’t hear was much discussion about what is actually happening on the ground with protestors in Hong Kong, why they’re protesting, or any other acknowledgment of China’s political situation, past or present.
This could be because Chuck Salituro, the senior news director of ESPN, sent a memo to shows mandating that any discussion of the Daryl Morey story avoid any political discussions about China and Hong Kong, and instead focus on the related basketball issues. The memo, obtained by Deadspin, explicitly discouraged any political discussion about China and Hong Kong. Multiple ESPN sources confirmed to Deadspin that network higher-ups were keeping a close eye on how the topic was discussed on ESPN’s airwaves.
ESPN first kicked off coverage of the Morey tweet Monday morning with SportsCenter doing a quick news hit on the topic. The segment steered clear of any political discussions, but notably called the protestors in Hong Kong “anti-government” protestors. Then, Mike Golic Jr. and Trey Wingo took up the discussion on their show, focusing mostly on how the story would have been different if James Harden or another star player had said what Morey said. Next, Stephen A. Smith went on the radio and delivered this gem. Highly Questionable featured a discussion with sportswriters Frank Isola and Israel Gutierrez that recapped the situation and wondered whether China would be placated by the league’s efforts at smoothing over the relationship. High Noon’s Bomani Jones and Pablo Torre dedicated more than five minutes to their discussion, which while thoughtful as usual, also elided any discussion about what exactly Morey was supporting with his tweet:
Around the Horn did a long segment on the ongoing story, and in doing so provided both the high and low points of the network’s coverage on the topic. The low point came right off the bat, when Tony Reali threw the topic to Ramona Shelburne, who alluded to “both sides” of the “issue” without giving any sort of explanation of what those sides or issues were. She said:
“Listen, I have learned more about the issue with China and Hong Kong in the last 48 hours because of this, and I think it is an example of how sports shines a light on the rest of the world. We go all the way back to ping-pong diplomacy in the 1970s when he U.S. ping pong team played against China and started opening up China to these discussions. People on both sides of this issue, whether you are in mainland China, Hong Kong, or around the world feel strongly about their positions. And I think it’s important for all of us to read about it and understand what is going on.”
The hesitance to get into specifics about Hong Kong is understandable, especially in light of the edict from ESPN brass, but the viewers were ill-served by Shelburne and the others so thoroughly dancing around what is at the heart of this story. You don’t have to be a scholar or expert in Chinese political systems to grasp and talk about what is happening in Hong Kong, especially with respect to Morey’s tweet. It’s not that hard for a pundit, even one that is not used to discussing politics, to spend some time reading up on a planned topic of discussion (here’s a good place to start!) so that they can at least engage with the relevant facts.
Any summary of the tensions between China and Hong Kong is going to be necessarily reductive, but a summary of what’s actually going on at least provides basic context for the rest of the discussion. The idea that Chinese politics are simply too complex to talk about on sports TV just isn’t convincing.
The high point arrived when another ATH panelist, Kevin Blackistone, became the only person across all of ESPN’s shows to actually talk about what is going on in Hong Kong. He said:
“I don’t think it was a mistake for Daryl Morey to express his sympathy for a movement against authoritarianism being implemented into Hong Kong. A struggle that has been going on now for four months, that reportedly has injured 1,100 people, reportedly now has live gunfire in the streets, which has injured a couple of people, which reportedly has left a journalist covering all this blind. This is a very serious situation.”
Blackistone gave the first sliver of an explanation for the motivating factor behind Morey’s tweet, and in doing so situated the story in terms of why it matters beyond discussions about Morey’s job status and corporate greed.
Last year, then-newly appointed ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro said this about when ESPN would cover politics:
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.
This particular story fits with Pitaro’s definition of politics and sports overlap, and yet ESPN execs still felt the need to send out a “stick to sports” mandate in order to guide coverage. The only question that remains now is whether they did so because Pitaro has narrowed the window for when ESPN is allowed to talk about politics even further than he had previously stated, or because ESPN is worried about pissing off Tencent, the massive Chinese internet company that it struck a deal with in 2016.