Ahead of football season last fall, ESPN held a media day for reporters at its campus in Bristol, Conn., where the company’s new president, Jimmy Pitaro, gave one of his first news conferences. Pitaro, who had been on the job for just a few months, was asked to name the biggest misconception about ESPN. He did not hesitate.
"I will tell you I have been very, very clear with employees here that it is not our jobs to cover politics, purely,” he said.
Pitaro was responding to a growing critique of ESPN from many on the right, including President Trump, who charged that ESPN and some of its high-profile employees had veered too far into politics for a sports network. ESPN was sensitive to the criticism, and Pitaro wanted to address it.
Since Pitaro took over, ESPN has largely avoided political drama. But he and his network were thrust squarely back into the political spotlight Thursday afternoon when Dan Le Batard, the popular radio and TV host, rebuked both Trump and the network on his ESPN radio show. His comments came after supporters at Trump’s rally in North Carolina chanted “Send her back! Send her back!” in reference to the Somali-born Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.).
“It is so wrong, what the president of our country is doing, trying to get reelected by dividing the masses, at a time when the old white man, the old rich white man, feels oppressed, being attacked, by minorities,” Le Batard said, saying the rally and chants “felt un-American” and “deeply offensive.”
He also took aim at his own network.
“And we here at ESPN don’t have the stomach for the fight,” he said. “We don’t talk about what is happening unless there is some sort of weak, cowardly sports angle that we can run it through.”
Le Batard, whose comments created an onslaught of headlines and social media reactions, was back on the air Friday morning, even as ESPN higher-ups made clear to employees — including Le Batard — that the network’s policy on avoiding pure political commentary hasn’t changed, according to a person familiar with the matter who was not authorized to publicly discuss internal communications. Pure political commentary, for the network, refers to political coverage that has no intersection with sports.
ESPN declined to comment, and it was not clear whether Le Batard will be disciplined.
For ESPN, the pitfalls of the moment are probably familiar to any corporation that has had to navigate the Trump era. Reprimand Le Batard, who talks often of his Cuban parents who emigrated to the United States, for an impassioned monologue that resonated with many of the president’s critics and risk criticism from the left. Or do nothing and potentially revive charges of liberal bias from Trump and his supporters.
“A corporate response to Trump is almost impossible,” said Kelly McBride, a vice president at the Poynter Institute and a former ESPN ombudsman. “I would think they will do something in terms of discipline. It’s a little weird they didn’t react immediately, but maybe what they’ve learned is that if they do, they elevate Dan and they feed the controversy as part of the Trump news cycle. Strategic silence is what it’s called. So maybe they say nothing and in a couple of weeks Dan will take a vacation."
Le Batard’s comments called to mind one of the network’s previous political furors, when then-ESPN writer and TV host Jemele Hill tweeted in 2017 that Trump was a white supremacist, a comment the White House called “a fireable offense.” The episode fueled conservative critics of the network; last year, Hill and ESPN reached a buyout, which helped quiet some of criticism.
Hill said she viewed Le Batard’s commentary with pride and hoped ESPN would give him a pass.
“ESPN’s in a tough spot,” she said. “People look at them to be sports news and information and events, and that’s what their entire business is built around. At the same time we need to be realistic in 2019, especially if you’re a person of color. In this current political climate, some things are so outrageous and unacceptable that it requires people in positions like Dan to give the proper context that it needs.”
McBride suggested that clashes between ESPN’s most visible personalities and the network’s management are inevitable, whether prompted by political comments or other issues, given the contours of their relationship.
“You have a network that is built on personalities, and then you create policies that restrain where those personalities can go and what they can say,” she said. “The ideal is, Dan has a relationship with his boss where he says, ‘I need to say something about a certain topic,’ and then you figure out the outlet. Maybe it’s on the air, or maybe he writes an essay in the Atlantic."
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