ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro’s purpose has been clear from the start—he is the massager of the balls, there to soothe the company’s corporate interests, the reactionary to predecessor John Skipper. But with employee Dan Le Batard’s honest and true radio rant two weeks ago about how a “stick to sports” philosophy is “cowardly,” Pitaro’s had to defend his strategy. To do so, he resorted to ... data.
Pitaro has pushed this point before, and he did so again in Friday’s Washington Post feature written by Ben Strauss. (No mention in the lede as to what Pitaro was eating. Instead, the story began and ended with his desperate journey to get a foul ball at a Yankees game. Great improvement.)
From the article:
When Pitaro was appointed president in March 2018, he saw internal data that showed a significant gap between how Republicans and Democrats viewed ESPN’s on-air talent and the entertainment value of the production. He held a series of town halls with employees and stressed in public comments that politics would be discussed at ESPN only through the lens of sports. The network also says its research finds that fans, regardless of political affiliation, do not want to hear about politics on ESPN.
Sure, “regardless of political affiliation.” Never mind that people who worship Donald Trump hate being reminded that the majority of athletes as well as the country despise that guy’s guts. The Post article notes that the survey did not define what “politics” means, which would be a pretty serious flaw of any survey not trying to arrive at a certain result, but also: We all know what “politics” means. “Politics” is a code word, because the people who portray it as something bad or something separate from sports coverage don’t really mean that. The NCAA’s exploitation of college athletes is politics. Stadium financing is politics. Lockouts are politics. Black NFL coaches getting fewer opportunities than white ones is politics. Having the crowd at a sports game stand up and applaud military members is politics. Putting a Blue Lives Matter flag on a baseball uniform is politics. Playing the national anthem before a game is just as much politics as is a player kneeling during it.
As for Donald Trump, he’s the former owner of a failed football team, among his many failed sports ventures. Obviously, his current job is a bit different, but it entails him messing with policies that would directly fall under ESPN’s remit. Le Batard wasn’t arguing that the Around the Horn crew should debate kids in cages—though it would be perfectly in line with the spirit of that show if a winning panelist used their Face Time to talk about that—but ESPN employs and covers people whose identities mean they’re directly affected by things that the Trump administration does, and it’s a load of crap to categorize a person’s entire existence as “politics.” A certain section of people don’t want to hear that because it makes their lives inconvenient, and Pitaro is willing to bend over backward to make sure that they’re satisfied.
The mask falls off occasionally. While Le Batard had to have a sitdown meeting for his statements, Stephen A. Smith was stepping up for the NYPD when someone threw water on them in what was clearly the crime of the century. The reason Smith was allowed to do that is because the audience that would be angry about Le Batard’s point is totally fine with praise for the police, something seen in their minds as obvious and bipartisan. And yet, for some reason it wouldn’t fly if an ESPN personality claimed, on their own time, that we can all agree NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo got away with homicide.
At least one person thinks Pitaro’s on to something, and surprise, it’s a former ESPN suit who now works for the company that oversaw a lucrative streaming deal between the Worldwide Leader and the UFC:
“What Jimmy has done well is bring a sense of calm and make sure the place isn’t a bull’s eye for people,” said Mark Shapiro, a former ESPN executive and now president of the media conglomerate Endeavor.
Well, if the media conglomerates are happy, that’s a good sign.
“Keep politics out of sports” is an insipid, cowardly stance to hold as the mission of a media company, especially one that occasionally practices journalism. It’s a confession that you do not trust your employees’ editorial judgment and have no respect for the realities they face in the world, because you don’t want to expose the privileged to the acknowledgment—not even the experience, just the acknowledgement—of that reality. It means you put more value into the thoughts of a random person who saw an opportunity to spend three minutes taking a poll to get a gift card.
Just like absolute objectivity, the separation of politics and sports is a goal only a fool would set, because it’s unattainable. The only possible outcome of that impossible pursuit is to withhold newsworthy information from your customers out of fear that the dumbest and loudest among them will disingenuously pretend to be angry for a day or two before they find some other ginned-up slight into which they can sink their rotten teeth. Jimmy Pitaro is willing to allay the fears of the simps because he is one.