But ESPN’s handling of the story of Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey’s tweet supporting Hong Kong demonstrators and the controversy that followed has been more confusing than authoritative. The company’s website relied on news services instead of well-known ESPN writers. Several producers of ESPN opinion shows were warned to avoid the topic of Chinese politics, as Deadspin first reported. And a well-known ESPN NBA reporter was told to scuttle a planned podcast interview with an expert on China.
Since ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro took over the network’s top job a year and a half ago, he has stressed ESPN’s apolitical nature while at the same time insisting that it would remain a news powerhouse. “What we’ve said from Day 1 is that we’re the place of record. We are covering the intersection of sports and politics,” he said over the summer.
But while ESPN employs many of the country’s best-known NBA reporters, as well as a staff that helped ESPN the Magazine win a recent national award, those resources appear not to have been marshaled in the wake of the Morey tweet, even to cover the NBA side of the story. There were no detailed reports about how front offices were dealing with the fallout or extended analyses of how the NBA’s business might be affected, no primers on how the league arrived at this crucial point. Neither were there think pieces on the league’s handling of China through the lens of its past progressive social justice stances. There was no examination of whether Morey can continue to do his job effectively or of what might happen to NBA franchise valuations.
The Wall Street Journal wrote about the role of Yao Ming, the former Rockets star and now head of Chinese basketball, in the controversy; Yahoo reported that teams around the league were worried about a shrinking salary cap in the wake of the Chinese reaction to Morey’s tweet; the Houston Chronicle estimated the Rockets could lose as much as $25 million this year. The Athletic’s Shams Charania wrote an in-depth account of a tense meeting in China between players and Commissioner Adam Silver.
While ESPN analysts and guests talked about some of these issues on the network’s airwaves, its reporting did little to move the rapidly changing story forward, a departure from its usual NBA coverage.
(On Tuesday evening, after this story was published online, NBA reporter Dave McMenamin published a lengthy story from China, including details about a confrontation between LeBron James and Adam Silver.)
Meanwhile, the Twitter feed of the NBA’s most famous and best-connected reporter, Adrian Wojnarowski — usually ground zero for NBA news — was almost completely devoid of China information, although he did appear on ESPN’s television network to discuss the story and did so again on his podcast.
In at least one case, a reporter was explicitly told to stand down on covering the story the way he wanted. Prominent NBA reporter Zach Lowe attempted to host an expert from the Council on Foreign Relations on his podcast, only to be told he couldn’t.
“We are always engaged in constructive and healthy debate on the best way to serve our audience,” an ESPN spokesman wrote in a statement. “Ultimately, our decisions are driven by the approach we have been communicating publicly for the past 18 months — to ensure that we stay away from pure politics, since that is not why fans come to us. We covered the intersection of sports and politics very thoroughly throughout the week.”
To be sure, ESPN didn’t ignore the story. On debate program “First Take,” Max Kellerman invoked Tiananmen Square when he said Morey’s point was that repressive communist governments are bad. “That’s not controversial,” Kellerman said, adding that China and the United States “do not share mutual values — democracy, freedom, especially of expression, freedom of speech.”
On “High Noon,” an afternoon show that advertises a more high-minded discourse, Pablo Torre explained that the way the league has handled the situation risks importing authoritarianism instead of exporting democracy to China via basketball.
And on his radio show, Will Cain lambasted the NBA for its stance on social issues in the United States, while not challenging China.
Less prominent was analysis of the context of the Hong Kong-China dispute.
“Daryl Morey didn’t politicize the issue,” said Michael Butterworth, the director for sports communication and media at the University of Texas. “He just expressed a dimension of what was already political, and ESPN should help audiences understand that. Why did Morey tweet in the first place? What motivated the entire news cycle?”
Several ESPN staffers suggested in interviews that the network’s instructions to stay out of Chinese politics was the prudent thing to do. Some noted a “First Take” segment that began with the China story before talking head Stephen A. Smith broached another subject of international politics, saying: “One of the things that exists is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I don’t see folks outside the Jewish community talking about that too often.” (The network quickly cut to commercial.)
One place to address the larger issues of Hong Kong could have been “Outside the Lines,” the network’s flagship news show. Jeremy Schaap, one of the show’s hosts, said in an interview that he attempted to have a China expert on the show last week. Schapp said he reached out to four people, including the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos, and that the efforts were supported by ESPN, though none of the guests were able to appear because of logistics.
Instead, the leading voice on OTL on the China story last week wasn’t anyone from ESPN but rather Sports Illustrated writer Chris Mannix, who appeared twice on the afternoon show after writing columns on the topic.
Current and former ESPN staffers in conversations offered a mix of opinions on the network’s coverage — from compliments for some of the discussions to confusion over the lack of reporting to an acknowledgment of the layers of conflict involved. ESPN has a business relationship with the NBA and another with Chinese company Tencent to distribute its content in China. Disney, ESPN’s parent company, also has its own business in China.
As the China story raged on, ESPN prompted more headlines by showing an image of a controversial map of China during “SportsCenter.” The map included a dotted line around the South China Sea that suggested China has dominion over the entire area.
Several people at ESPN believed the mistake was a production error — incompetence, not conspiracy. A person at ESPN familiar with the situation suggested it was evidence that the network needs to stay out of politics completely.Another interpretation: Covering the news sometimes demands covering politics. As Andy Mertha, a professor and director of the China program at SAIS at Johns Hopkins, said of the nine-dash map, “It’s really hard not to see it as a political statement by itself.”