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Laid off by ESPN, Britt McHenry is having ‘an awakening’ as a vocal conservative

Since being laid off by ESPN, Britt McHenry has commented on a range of political topics. (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

Before Britt McHenry published her blog post criticizing Colin Kaepernick for his comments about the 4th of July, she sent a draft to her agent.

Why worry? After all, the former ESPN reporter had made it clear at various points in her career that she was politically conservative. But after McHenry lost her job during ESPN’s sizable layoffs this spring, she was back on the market, and unsure whether a public political activation would be a wise career move. Even after getting her agent’s approval, she said, her finger hovered over the publish button.

“Because I never have been this vocal before,” she said. “The opinion was going to really ruffle media feathers. And I’ve never done this.”

But she published it and tweeted it — “Colin Kaepernick can’t get out of his own way. Any good deed he does come at the expense of bashing the United States of America,” she wrote of the former San Francisco quarterback, who sparked months of debate by kneeling during the national anthem before 49ers games last season. As you’d expect, the passionate reactions poured in, from both sides of the political spectrum. That feeling, McHenry said, was “kind of addicting.”

“I have a voice that a lot of people agree with, and a lot of people disagree with,” she said during a lengthy conversation this month at a coffee shop in Northern Virginia, where she still lives. “I feel like I broke the wall, and now it’s like ‘Wow, there’s something here.’ … This is what makes me passionate again. Like, I found something that I believe in, so just go for it.”

That McHenry is going for it would be obvious to anyone who’s glanced at her Twitter account. In the three weeks since she wrote about Kaepernick, she has tweeted about Made in America week and Black Lives Matter. She’s retweeted Glenn Beck and Fox News. She’s argued that President Trump is “everyone’s president,” and criticized the media’s coverage of the Russian interference probes. Her finger does not seem to be hovering.

“What’s attractive to me right now is more than just sports,” she said. “And there aren’t a lot of women who are not afraid to express their opinion, like I have been, on the Right side. And so again, does that limit outlets? Yeah, but I think if you hate me, or if you love what I’m saying, it’s true to what I think. I’m not making it up. … I feel like a weight’s lifted off my shoulders, that I can say what I believe.”

Which takes us back to McHenry’s tweet late last month suggesting that her ESPN layoff was linked to her politics. She deleted the tweet, she said, because she didn’t want to offend her former colleagues at ESPN with a flippant tweet, “didn’t want to be like a bitter ex” — and also was about to go on a date while her phone was lighting up with responses. She also thinks she needed more than 140 characters to give context to her beliefs. But when asked about the sentiment in that deleted tweet, she wrote that she stands “by what I believe and how I feel.”

So here’s what she thinks about the ESPN question. She was a reporter for the network, not a commentator or a “personality.” Her job wasn’t to provide opinion, political or otherwise.

But she also believes that politically conservative viewpoints are dramatically underrepresented in sports media, both at ESPN and beyond. She said her Twitter account was monitored for political content while she worked at ESPN, and that she sometimes raised eyebrows in Bristol with political sentiments she tweeted and political tweets she favorited.

(The network’s guidelines urge on-air personalities not to put anything on social media that they wouldn’t say on air, and an update during the presidential campaign cautioned against political editorializing. An ESPN spokesman declined to comment for this story.)

She said some colleagues advised her to take the word “conservative” out of her Twitter biography, which she did. And she said she mostly swallowed her long-standing conservative views while working for ESPN over the past three years, and was “very very very careful” about steering clear of politics. Now that her situation is changed, though, she’s having “sort of an awakening” as she plans her next step.

“I wasn’t really fully open to expressing my opinion like I am now — like I wanted to be — because I was a bureau reporter,” she said. “I wasn’t deemed a personality. That’s what SportsCenter’s shifting to. I would have loved to be included in that, but I wasn’t. …

“I saw the move towards commentary and personality in sports in general, and I just felt like why isn’t this counterpoint being talked about? When there’s a panel talking about how great Colin Kaepernick’s stance is, why wasn’t there a person to counter that? So it’s nice to be able to kind of say things. And I don’t care if people hate on me, I really don’t.”

And that brings us to McHenry’s history. The former reporter and anchor at WJLA, Washington’s ABC affiliate, has been somewhat of a polarizing figure since going viral for berating and insulting a Northern Virginia towing company employee during a disagreement caught on tape more than two years ago. That incident, for which McHenry apologized, led to a week-long ESPN suspension and turned her name into Internet gold. Which at least partially explains why she continues to wind up in so many headlines. Heck, it partially explains the existence of this story about her politics.

ESPN reporter Britt McHenry - who was caught on tape insulting a towing attendant - is only the latest in a long list of ESPN suspensions. From Tony Kornheiser's "sausage casing" comment to Rob Parker's "cornball brother," here's five times ESPN suspended on-air talent. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

Her father, who shares her political views, has suggested she err on the side of caution on social media, at least until she’s settled at a new job.

“You could possibly offend future employers by doing it, but she wants to speak her mind on some issues, and that’s how Brittany is,” Bill McHenry said in a telephone interview. “She grew up in a very conservative household. There hasn’t been anything she’s said that I don’t totally agree with. So she’s speaking her mind. I don’t tell her what to do or what not to do. If you know Brittany, you know she’s independent and headstrong. She’s going to do what she wants to do.”

Indeed, McHenry said she is used to being polarizing. which means she isn’t worried about driving people away. Many readers of this piece, for example, will argue that there’s no courage in criticizing Kaepernick — certainly not as much as he needed. But the fact is, some people do not like McHenry, and her political turn will further alienate some of her potential consumers.

“I’m not going to say for the good or bad; just my life changed when the towing video happened,” she said, describing herself as a “lightning rod” since that incident. “There’s so much stuff out there about me, and I don’t really care anymore if it’s bad. … In general, I’ve just started to care less. If you’re hating me, you’re still having a reaction to stuff that I’m saying, you’re still paying attention to stuff that I’m saying.”

And people are, in fact, paying attention to her political views. In the last few weeks, a New York Daily News writer labeled her the “Jerk of the Week,” and a San Francisco Chronicle columnist suggested she was one of the “yahoos and jackals” unfairly criticizing Kaepernick. The Federalist asked her to write a freelance piece. Conservative readers have thanked her. Liberal readers have scolded her.

There’s more from her, too. Like how she admires Fox News host and sometime-presidential adviser Sean Hannity. (“I like his fearlessness in being able to say what he wants,” she said. “I don’t know where the lines are in this new media, but I like the honesty. It makes for great TV and it’s fun to watch.”) And how she questions Chelsea Clinton’s criticism of Trump. (“It just always struck me as a little hypocritical, given what happened with her father.”) And how she believes the Golden State Warriors should accept an invitation to visit the White House if one is offered. (“I think it’s showing respect to the highest office in the country,” she said. “And I guess I just have a lot of pride in the country, in our armed services.”)

And her thoughts about health care. (“The Republican Senate needs to deliver for the voters who got them there,” she tweeted.) And especially how she believes views like hers are underrepresented in the sports media.

“Maybe I was naive, but I didn’t realize it was as liberal as it is until recently, until I started sort of expressing my opinion,” she said. “It’s across the board. It’s all sports media. I’m not trying to attack my former employee. Why is the other perspective not represented? Because a lot of sports fans still feel that way. … Who’s really voicing it? And I can. And maybe I’m crazy, but at least you know sitting down with me, I’m not making up what I’m saying.”

Some friends have wondered if being a vocal conservative might cost McHenry potential jobs — gigs such as sideline reporting, where controversy isn’t likely prized. But McHenry isn’t sure jobs such as that are in her future anyhow. She once interned in the political division at Fox News, and she can see herself reentering that sphere. Whatever she does next, she wants to remain free to express her opinions. Which means you’ll likely see her name in more headlines.

“If I have these social media platforms, if things are getting picked apart and they’re put into headlines, then I guess I realized maybe I have a voice, that I can speak to people and address things I’m riled up about,” she said. “I can be unplugged; I just don’t know how unplugged I should be right now.”

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