ESPN has not always encouraged political commentary by its on-air talent. Just ask Curt Schilling. (Seriously, you can call in to his Breitbart Radio show and ask him.)

Now, however, the Worldwide Leader in Sports appears ready to talk politics, too. ESPN’s revised editorial standards state that “outside of ‘hard’ news reporting, commentary related to political or social issues, candidates or officeholders is appropriate on ESPN platforms consistent with these guidelines.”

“These guidelines” include such constraints as refraining from “overt partisanship” and sticking to topics that “relate to a current issue impacting sports.” Still, ESPN public editor Jim Brady wrote Tuesday that the change “is meaningful because, unlike the company’s previous policy, it states that commentary on political and social issues is okay.”

“The previous policy not only didn’t say that but also conveyed a tone that suggested that dipping into political waters carried more danger than reward,” Brady continued. “Put another way, the new policy has gone from ‘It’s dangerous out there, so probably best to stay home’ to ‘It’s dangerous out there, so here are some tools to best keep you safe.’ ”

ESPN's long-standing preference to avoid politics is understandable. Many fans use sports as an escape from more serious matters.

“I don’t think people are turning us on to hear us talk about social and political issues,” Craig Bengtson, ESPN’s vice president and managing editor of newsgathering and reporting, told Brady.

Yet the reality is that sports and today’s major political and social issues are inseparable. The most famous transgender woman in the country, Caitlyn Jenner, won an Olympic gold medal in the decathlon as a man. The Super Bowl champion New England Patriots are owned, coached and quarterbacked by supporters of President Trump. Atlanta Hawks forward Thabo Sefolosha and former top-five tennis player James Blake are among those with recent, personal experience with what many Americans consider overly-aggressive treatment of black men by police.

ESPN is acknowledging the obvious here.

In doing so, however, the network is thrusting its on-air personalities into the same confusing territory inhabited by political journalists — a world of fine lines and judgment calls where it can be easy to get in trouble (especially on social media) without realizing it. Consider the subjective nature of these new ESPN guidelines:

  • The subject matter should merit our time, space and resources.
  • The presentation should be thoughtful and respectful.
  • We should offer balance and recognize opposing views, as warranted.
  • We should avoid personal attacks and inflammatory rhetoric.

What qualifies as thoughtful? Where is the line between inflammatory and merely provocative? How do you know that a subject merits ESPN’s time, space and resources? When does an opposing view warrant inclusion and when is it so extreme that it is unworthy of recognition?

These are the kinds of questions news outlets confront all the time, when covering politics. They are difficult to answer — unless Schilling is involved, in which case it is pretty safe to assume that the comments are very inflammatory and far less than thoughtful.

A better case study would be Sage Steele, replaced Tuesday as the host of “NBA Countdown.” ESPN did not explain the move publicly, but news reports have linked the shake-up to Steele’s wading into politics on social media, as she did in a Jan. 30 Instagram post related to Trump’s original travel ban aimed at refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries.

On one hand, Steele’s post was kind of whiny and not directly related to sports. On the other, it did reflect some thought and balance: She applauded protesters for exercising their rights while noting that the cost of their exercise was the disruption of travel by other people, some of whom were, ironically, immigrants.

Is this kind of post okay, by ESPN’s new standards? The answer is unclear. And it is easy to foresee many more, similarly-complicated situations in the future.