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'Imagine Jackie Robinson happened today': SportsCenter chief on ESPN's politics

Daniel Roberts
Senior Writer

Amid ESPN’s subscriber losses and profit declines, many vocal viewers on Twitter these days scream that the sports network is reaping what it sowed for “going liberal.”

They point to events like giving Caitlyn Jenner the Arthur Ashe courage award in 2015, holding a town hall on race relations with President Obama last year, and firing conservative firebrand baseball analyst Curt Schilling, as examples that ESPN has revealed itself to be a liberally-biased company. At least one ESPN on-air anchor, Linda Cohn, believes it: Cohn made headlines in April when she said on a radio show that politics is “definitely a percentage of it… if anyone wants to ignore that fact, then they’re blind.”

Regardless of whether you believe ESPN has grown more overtly political, it is a misunderstanding of the business to say that politics is the reason ESPN is losing subscribers. That is a symptom of cord-cutting. People aren’t calling up their cable provider, outraged over politics, demanding to cut just ESPN. They can’t really do that. At best, they could cut out an entire premium package that includes ESPN and a handful of other networks. But mostly, the subscriber losses are people canceling their entire cable subscription.

Nonetheless, the narrative persists. ESPN executives are well aware of this narrative, ESPN employees are aware of it, and ESPN viewers are aware of it. One longtime ESPN employee calls it an “endless drumbeat” these days.

Rob King, the executive in charge of SportsCenter and all of ESPN’s news programming, has a response. (King sat down with Yahoo Finance at ESPN headquarters in Bristol to discuss major changes ESPN is making to its SportsCenter programming lineup.)

SportsCenter senior VP Rob King in 2014. (via ESPN)

“Imagine Jackie Robinson happened today,” he says. “Would we not cover Jackie Robinson, would we not try to engage in smart conversation about the significance of Jackie Robinson to our culture? A lot of what people are talking about in terms of political commentary is really social commentary, and sports has always been about the broadening of our society… the unification, or in some cases the division. I think about Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King. Today we find ourselves with Colin Kaepernick… and it becomes our responsibility to consider it.”

In other words: Yes, ESPN is interested in covering social issues that often take place off the field of play. And it would be doing viewers a disservice, King argues, to ignore these stories.

But then King gets more direct: “I do think that we, like any other company, are free to express our values, and we value inclusion and diversity. And boldly stating that can lead us into some very… vivid moments.”

Vivid moments, and harsh tweets.

Recent tweets about ESPN’s politics

King’s spin on the issue is that sports fans who don’t like ESPN’s inclusiveness were always there, but simply seem louder now because of the amplification of social media.

It does not, he reasons, mean ESPN should change its approach. “We’re watching more video than ever before, we’re reading more stuff than ever before, but we are also much more vividly present,” he says. “We can actually see that interaction. And seeing that is hard! It is hard to read tweets that are personal and angry. But that anger was always there. It was always there. Imagine Twitter when Jackie Robinson took the field.”

In his office in Bristol, King has three televisions, and on a recent Thursday they were tuned to ESPN, the Players Championship of pro golf, and CNN. “And if you look at CNN,” King says, “it looks a lot like ESPN.”

That’s the very complaint so many people have, of course—talking heads. But in an age where you don’t need a television channel in order to get sports scores and information, that’s where ESPN feels it can add value: with personality-driven programming. Critics see that as political.

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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