Sports have always been political—but ESPN hasn’t.
That tension, which has existed quietly for years at the sports-media giant, has turned into an outright controversy that reached a new height on Friday when President Donald Trump targeted the company via his Twitter account.
ESPN, long a neutral space for sports, now finds itself the frontline for America’s politico-culture war.
ESPN is paying a really big price for its politics (and bad programming). People are dumping it in RECORD numbers. Apologize for untruth!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 15, 2017
The tweet comes after ESPN has been criticized by the right and the left over its handling of Jemele Hill, a TV personality who called Trump a white supremacist in a tweet.
That immediately kickstarted a controversy, with plenty of Trump supporters calling for Hill to be fired. ESPN put out a statement saying Hill’s comments did not represent the company’s views, and that the company had spoken to Hill, who “recognizes her actions were inappropriate.”
Hill released a statement in which she did not back down, but expressed regret about the impact her comments had on ESPN. That didn’t stop Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders from taking the rather unprecedented stand that she should still be fired. The entire situation has fueled the notion among those on the right that ESPN has become a left-leaning institution.
Meanwhile, ESPN has also been criticized by those on the left who believe the company has not done enough to support Hill—and are ready to turn on ESPN if it chooses to remove Hill (which, according to at least one report, it did try to do).
“If ESPN eventually caves to Trump’s pressure, it will be party to shutting down not only a vital cultural voice, but a growing consciousness among athletes, commenters and viewers about racial inequality in America, at the behest of an administration more comfortable building walls than bridges,” wrote Nation sports editor Dave Zirin, one of the foremost progressive sports journalists, in a Washington Post column.
For years, ESPN existed mostly outside of politics. There were still politics in sports, but those issues were fodder for publications like The Nation or more recently blogs like Deadspin. ESPN remained a nearly pure-sports outlet, a place where it was just about athletics and athletes.
That is still mostly true. Though ESPN has gone through changes, politics—up until very recently—remained a mostly untouched subject in an explicit manner. The notion that ESPN has gotten more political on its own has merit. The company’s elevation of people, such as Bomani Jones and Mina Kimes, who are not shy about discussing the politics of sports has led to an overall increase in the discussion of topics that might have once seemed more appropriate on CNN.
But in the current atmosphere, even implicit changes are seen through a political lens. As Hill recently said during a public appearance, the company has been called liberal just for elevating the voices of women and minorities.
“I just noticed the correlation between us being called more liberal as you see more women in a position on our network in terms of driving content, as you see more ethnic diversity, that all of sudden ESPN is too liberal. So I wonder when people say that what they’re really saying,” she said.
Hill then added an important point: “The athletes are dragging us here.”
There have been politically active athletes for decades, but not like now. As Hill pointed out, the protests of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick have become a major story, but he’s far from the only person. Hardly a day goes by without a major athlete expressing a political opinion in public.
That puts ESPN in a new and uncomfortable position, particularly as the left and right are holding individuals and institutions to higher standards as far as drawing lines on where they stand on these issues.
It also puts ESPN in a rather important place in the current politico-culture battle. The traditional places in which political and cultural clashes occurred have become siloed. Fracturing of the news media has left few shared spaces for these conflicts to play out.
Sports remains one of the few remaining spaces outside ideological bubbles, with ESPN its town square. Whether right or left, people still want to watch the game, as Hill said in the video above. And with politics an unremovable part of the current sports scene, people who might otherwise not be exposed to the other side find themselves forced to stomach it.
This leaves ESPN in a tough spot. It has spent years cultivating a brand that is welcoming to all. The company is sometimes colloquially referred to as Every Person’s Sports Network (it’s actually Entertainment and Sports Programming Network). That brand helped the company become one of the most successful media companies in the world.
Now, the company is having to learn quickly how it will play this newfound role. For now, it’s trying to remain neutral. The company is sticking by its rules that limits employees from making political statements that could be seen as endorsed by ESPN. It has previously parted ways with employees for that kind of thing, firing Curt Schilling in 2015 for ignoring several warnings.
Whether it can remain neutral… that’s another issue. Both the left and the right have become impatient with institutions that have declined to take a stand. If Hill or someone like her forces ESPN’s hand, it may have to make a decision—one that could have serious repercussions for a company already struggling with declining subscriber numbers.
With sports only getting more political, it may only be a matter of time until ESPN is, too.