ESPN, the “worldwide leader in sports,” has taken a lot of heat in the past year or so. Amid subscriber losses, a loud narrative has also emerged on social media: that the sports network too often now mixes politics with sports, and has ‘gone liberal.’
Much (but not all) of these accusations come from conservatives (and especially from conservative media, like Breitbart and Fox Sports). Those who believe ESPN skews liberal point to a number of specific events as proof: ESPN giving Caitlyn Jenner its Arthur Ashe courage award in 2015; or holding a town hall on race relations with President Obama last year; or firing conservative firebrand baseball analyst Curt Schilling.
ESPN anchor Linda Cohn even publicly echoed the sentiment: Cohn recently said on a radio show that politics is “definitely a percentage of it… if anyone wants to ignore that fact, then they’re blind.”
At the Hashtag Sports conference in Manhattan this week, three big names at ESPN responded directly to the narrative: anchor Jemele Hill, and digital executives Nate Ravitz and Michael Shiffman.
“Sports have always been political,” said Jemele Hill, the co-anchor of SportsCenter at 6pm (nicknamed SC6) and an on-air talent who has borne the brunt of much of the noise on Twitter (and often responds to it).
“I didn’t ask Colin Kaepernick to kneel”
“I’m annoyed by the story line,” Hill said, “because I think it’s just a really dumb narrative. I’m annoyed by it on a lot of levels.”
She continued (bolding ours):
“I just hadn’t noticed the correlation between us being called more liberal as you see more women in a position on our network… as you see more ethnic diversity, then all of a sudden ESPN is too liberal. So I wonder, when people say that, what they’re really saying. The other part of it is that we’re journalists, and people have to understand, these uncomfortable political conversations… The athletes are dragging us here. I didn’t ask Colin Kaepernick to kneel. He did it on his own. So, was I supposed to act like he didn’t? Gregg Popovich, every week at his press conferences, is having a 10-minute soliloquy on Donald Trump. Am I supposed to act like he’s not doing that? You have athletes saying they’re going to the White House, not going to the White House, that’s all sports news. It didn’t just start with this generation of athletes, it’s just always been that way. Sometimes when I hear a viewer say they don’t want their politics mixed with sports, I say, ‘Well, what do you think about Muhammad Ali?’ And then all of a sudden it’s glowing praise. And I’m like, ‘Well, the reason why you’re saying that is because you know he turned out to be right.'”
Hill’s comment about Muhammad Ali mirrors a point that Rob King, the executive who oversees all SportsCenter programming, made about the same issue when he spoke with Yahoo Finance in May. King used Jackie Robinson as his example.
“Imagine Jackie Robinson happened today,” King said. “Would we not cover Jackie Robinson, would we not try to engage in smart conversation about the significance of Jackie Robinson to our culture? I think about Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King. Today we find ourselves with Colin Kaepernick.”
Audiences want this content, even if they claim otherwise
Nate Ravitz, ESPN’s VP of audience development, followed Hill by making a point based on analytics.
When ESPN examined the audience metrics for stories about Kaepernick’s protest, Ravitz said, “There was audience against this topic. There was, every week… That was not that different, actually, than something like LaVar Ball, or Brett Favre’s retirement. When you hear, ‘You guys are beating it into the ground,’ but the data says otherwise, the data says the interest is there.”
And this, too, matches up with an analogy Rob King made about LaVar Ball, the controversial, headline-seeking father of UCLA star-turned-Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball.
King admitted that he personally doesn’t want to read more about LaVar Ball. But audiences do want it, and ESPN’s numbers prove it. On a random Thursday, King checked out a panel that displays insights into what SportsCenter’s roughly 32 million followers are buzzing about. “And the No. 1 topic among our followers was this maniac LaVar Ball,” King said. “And I’m like, ‘Oh, okay.’”
There’s one more sound bite Hill said that, arguably, sums up the issue of politics and sports perfectly right now. “We’re just responsibly covering the news, it’s not about how we feel about that, it’s about what’s there and what’s in front of our face,” she said. “And you’re not going to be able to put that toothpaste back in the tube in sports anymore.”
In other words: you may still disagree with Hill; you may believe that ESPN’s on-air personalities are sharing how they feel about these politics. But it’s difficult to argue that responsible sports media coverage in America can completely avoid covering political storylines that emerging from the sports world.
Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.