“There’s a racial division in this country that’s being instigated by the president, and we here at ESPN haven’t had the stomach for that fight.”
With those words, Dan Le Batard launched into an impassioned monologue Thursday. The host of popular ESPN TV and radio shows ripped into both President Trump in the wake of “Send her back!” chants at a rally the night before, and his own network, which has been advising its on-air personalities to refrain from political commentary.
Le Batard, 50, was speaking on his radio show when he noted that he was the son of Cuban immigrants and said, “What happened last night, this felt un-American.”
At the rally Wednesday in Greenville, N.C., Trump was criticizing Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), a Somali refugee who became a naturalized American citizen, when the “Send her back!” chants rang out. Trump, who tweeted on Sunday that “ ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen” such as Omar should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” said Thursday that he “felt a little bit badly” about the chanting and tried to quickly end it, but he let it go on for 13 seconds at the rally before resuming his remarks.
On his show, Le Batard read a tweet posted Wednesday evening by Fox Sports 1′s Nick Wright, who wrote, “I don’t talk politics on here but this isn’t political, this is obvious: This is abhorrent, obviously racist, dangerous rhetoric and not calling it out makes you complicit. The ‘send her back’ chant + the ‘go back to where you came from’ are so antithetical to what we should be.”
“It is so right, what he is saying there,” Le Batard said of Wright. “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.”
“This isn’t about politics; it’s about race,” said Le Batard, who noted that ESPN personalities “only talk about it” when outspoken sports figures such NBA coaches Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich offer opinions on the subject.
“We don’t talk about what is happening,” he told listeners, “unless there is some sort of weak, cowardly sports angle that we can run it through.”
ESPN on Friday made clear to employees that the policy on avoiding political commentary hasn’t changed, according to a person familiar with the matter who was not authorized to publicly discuss internal communications. It was not clear if Le Batard, who appeared on his regularly scheduled radio show Friday morning, will be disciplined.
In discussing ESPN’s no-politics policy, emphasized when Jimmy Pitaro took over last year as the company’s president, Le Batard mentioned Jemele Hill. The former “SportsCenter” anchor became embroiled in September 2017 in a much-noted conflict with Trump that began after she tweeted that he was “a white supremacist.” She eventually moved to a writer position at the Undefeated, an ESPN vertical, before leaving the network in September 2018.
When Pitaro became ESPN’s president in May of that year, he said, “Without question our data tells us our fans do not want us to cover politics. My job is to provide clarity. I really believe that some of our talent was confused on what was expected of them. If you fast-forward to today, I don’t believe they are confused.”
“You saw what happened” after Hill made national headlines for her back-and-forth with Trump, Le Batard said Thursday. “All of a sudden, nobody talks politics, on anything, unless we can use one these sports figures as a meat shield, in the most cowardly possible way to discuss these subjects.”
Le Batard, a former Miami Herald sports columnist who co-hosts the daily ESPN program “Highly Questionable” with his Cuban-born father, has gained success by mostly maintaining a lighthearted, irreverent tone on his TV and radio shows. He has also become known for speaking his mind, such as in January 2017, when he criticized the Trump administration’s travel ban and ESPN colleague Sage Steele’s complaint about being inconvenienced by protests at Los Angeles International Airport
On Thursday, Le Batard claimed that ESPN’s no-politics policy was all the more misguided because “sports has always been a place where this stuff changes.” He brought up the civil rights era efforts of star athletes such as Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Bill Russell, saying that “what has happened to minorities in this country” is “our greatest sin” and something “we’re still paying for now.”
Those “old and dying” athlete-activists are “going to go to the grave without having seen change,” Le Batard said, his voice rising. He claimed that a successor to them, Colin Kaepernick, had been “blackballed” by NFL team owners “because we’re taking this stuff and making it about the flag, when it’s not about the flag, it’s about race.”
Returning to Trump’s criticism of Omar and the ensuing chants at the rally, Le Batard said, “This is deeply offensive to me, as somebody whose parents made all the sacrifices to get to this country. ‘Send her back’ — how are you any more American than her? You’re more privileged, you’re whiter, you’re richer. … You’ve had every privilege afforded to you by America. Every privilege. And now what you do with that power is you go after brown people and black people and minorities? And around here we won’t talk about it?
“We won’t talk about it, unless [Seahawks quarterback] Russell Wilson is saying something about it on his Instagram page. Then we have the power to run with it,” Le Batard continued. “Weak-ass shield.
“It is antithetical to what we should be. And if you’re not calling it abhorrent, obviously racist, dangerous rhetoric — you’re complicit.”