During the fourth quarter of this week’s “Monday Night Football" broadcast, analyst Jason Witten offered some thoughts on a rule change that has been a major point of controversy for the NFL this season. However, his phrasing touched on an issue that his own employer, ESPN, has sought to tamp down.
Witten was reacting to yet another flag for roughing the passer, a penalty that has been called with greater frequency this season as the NFL seeks to further limit injuries to quarterbacks. More than a few observers, from fans to some of the NFL’s own coaches, have criticized the change as confusing, too broad, unfair to defensive players and/or harmful to the league’s product, and the former Cowboys tight end was in agreement.
“They’ve just gone too far with that rule,” said Witten, in his first season as an analyst after retiring from the NFL. “I knew they were going to make it about the health and safety, and protect these quarterbacks.
"It just seems like we went a little bit to the left wing on that, with our approach of trying to protect it,” he continued. “Not only are the players frustrated, but the coaches, they don’t know how to coach this. That’s when you have a challenge with this rule.”
Witten’s criticism of the torrent of roughing-the-passer calls was not what got the attention of many viewers. Rather, it was his seeming disparagement of the increased enforcement of the rule as being “left wing.”
There was an immediate reaction on social media, with some wondering whether Witten was revealing a political leaning by adopting a critique of liberals, frequently voiced by conservatives, as having a penchant for excessive, business-harming regulation. Or was it an apparently partisan way of saying, as some mused, that he agreed with Packers linebacker Clay Matthews’s assessment that the NFL was “getting soft”?
ESPN, though, is denying that was Witten’s intent. His remark “had nothing to do with politics,” a network spokesman told The Washington Post.
It’s a sensitive topic at the network, which spent far more of the past couple of years than it would have liked fending off accusations that it harbored a liberal bias. That criticism only ramped up after President Trump got involved, particularly with barbs directed at former ESPN personality Jemele Hill and over the network’s coverage of the national anthem and player protests.
Last month, new ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro placed an emphasis on less political commentary from his employees. “If you ask me is there a false narrative out there, I will tell you ESPN being a political organization is false,” he said. “I will tell you I have been very, very clear with employees here that it is not our jobs to cover politics, purely.”
Some of the reaction online, not surprisingly, was favorable to the analyst, at least in terms of what he was perceived to have meant. “Yes because this crap started under Obama and his cronies,” one Twitter user said. “Liberals ruin EVERYTHING FROM SPORTS TO COMEDY. GOOD CALL WITTEN.”
Ultimately, the reaction to the comment, both positive and negative, could be beneficial to ESPN. Witten, who replaced longtime “MNF” analyst Jon Gruden, has not elicited anything close to the widespread acclaim garnered by former Cowboys teammate Tony Romo last year, when the ex-quarterback moved from the field to the TV booth.
If people begin to view Witten as inclined to make controversial comments, or possibly unskilled at preventing himself from doing so, that could draw more interest to the telecast. ESPN, though, would surely prefer that he bring some hot takes that don’t happen to include a possible swipe at one side of the nation’s political schism.
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