ESPN launched a 28-hour programming marathon to promote fantasy football Monday, and it wasn’t long before a related segment caught some people’s attention. Playing off the “auction” format of selecting fantasy teams, the network interspersed its coverage with a more elaborate version, in which a fast-talking auctioneer got the bidding going on a number of well-known NFL players.
A Twitter user uploaded a clip of Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. being “sold” at the auction, and given the racial dynamics, with the auctioneer, the winning bidder and almost everyone else in the scene being white, many responded online with reactions ranging from eye rolls to outrage. Even Beckham declared himself “speechless” at the scene.
Some claimed that the clip, and others like it showing black players being auctioned off, were taken out of context and that white players were put up for auction as well. Others noted that the auction format dramatized by ESPN is widely used in fantasy leagues and is a way to create a fairer, more competitive process of allocating players to a league’s teams, as opposed to the more standard “snake” drafts, in which participants take turns selecting players in a preset order.
New York Daily News columnist Shaun King said on Twitter, “Dear @ESPN, Apologize now for doing a sketch where you auctioned a Black man off to the highest bidder.” He added, “I know what it is. The optics are TERRIBLE.”
Other NFL players, such as Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan and Rams defensive end Dominique Easley, also expressed dismay and confusion with ESPN’s staged auction.
In response to Dan O’Donnell, a conservative radio and podcast host who tweeted at King, “Yes, liberal SJWs even think fantasy football is racist now,” the latter replied, “No, I don’t. I think how they did this was outrageous. Auctioning off Black men, with an auctioneer, to an all white audience looks bad.”
Kenny Mayne, an anchor for ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” told King on Twitter, “The optics aren’t good — agreed. But it was replicating Fantasy Football auctions — whites up for bid too. We appreciate you.” King said in response, “As a general rule, white men NEVER need to be bidding for Black men on the auction block.”
On Tuesday, ESPN issued an apology, saying in a statement. “Auction drafts are a common part of fantasy football, and ESPN’s segments replicated an auction draft with a diverse slate of top professional football players.
“Without that context, we understand the optics could be portrayed as offensive, and we apologize.”