One of his assignments was to introduce a segment that examined athletes’ responses to Floyd’s death. Eaves wanted to make it deeply personal. His producers gave him the green light.
“I almost didn’t come to work tonight,” Eaves said on live television that night, standing before the camera, “because some of the reaction to recent events reminded me that there are several people watching me right now who feel the color of my skin makes me less worthy of basic human rights and dignity. And the thought of providing those people with news and entertainment literally made me sick to my stomach.”
At ESPN, politics by any definition has been a touchy subject during the Trump presidency; the network became a regular target of the “stick to sports” crowd whenever it was thought to have veered too far into off-the-field coverage of social justice issues — including coverage of protests by Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players against police brutality and racial injustice.
ESPN heard those critics, and under Jimmy Pitaro, who was appointed president in March 2018, the company has sought to project an apolitical image, saying that one of the company’s main roles is to unite sports fans of different political opinions. Last year, after radio host Dan Le Batard made waves by talking about a threatening chant at a Trump rally, the company released internal polling data that it said found its viewers don’t want to see politics on the network.
But the Floyd story and the protests that have followed, centered around the same issues of police brutality and racial injustice that were the inspiration for Kaepernick, have been all-consuming, taking place during a global pandemic and tense political landscape. And ESPN’s journalists have used their platform to speak in ways they’re not usually heard.
“ESPN has allowed us to express ourselves in this moment,” Eaves said.
Last weekend, athletes such as the Boston Celtics’ Jaylen Brown joined protests, and normally politics-averse athletes such as Tom Brady put out statements in support of Floyd. Not only was it an important sports story, said Rob King, ESPN’s editor at large of content, but also a personal one because of how many ESPN employees are feeling right now.
“If it feels and looks different and looks personal, it’s because it is,” King said. “At ESPN, we deeply care about the issue of fairness and equality, and the people we cover clearly share that point of view. That’s why this feels unique. This is a time when everything is heightened with so much uncertainty and feeling fear, but what you hear and see is about simple humanity.”
He added, “What’s happening now, I can see it and hear it — this need to explain this sense of isolation within the African American community that is the source of so much pain.”
ESPN has thrown its full capacity into covering the protests, through a sports lens and beyond. King held a video conference call with his digital team and instructed the social media staffers not to post anything trivial to their feeds with the country on edge; the network wanted its focus on the conversation around racial injustice. On Monday, debate show “First Take” interviewed Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison. The network even published a PR blast, highlighting its coverage of the George Floyd story. The Undefeated — an ESPN-owned site that covers the intersection of race, sports and culture — also has covered Floyd’s death and the protest movement, including a piece from Soraya Nadia McDonald headlined, “Why we can’t stop thinking about George Floyd’s neck.”
Stephen A. Smith, who normally does not appear live on the radio, requested a two-hour time slot Monday that was granted by ESPN executives. Smith dived headfirst into an analysis of the presidential election — famously a third-rail topic at ESPN — by ripping Joe Biden for his support of a 1994 crime bill that many criminal justice reform advocates believe led to increased incarceration for African Americans. He was then incredulous over Trump threatening to send “vicious dogs” to attack protesters outside the White House.
There has been a similar response across sports media during a week in which no one has stuck to sports. On Fox Sports 1, activist and rapper Killer Mike talked with Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe about the famous blue and brown eye experiment, an effort by an Iowa elementary school to teach students about racial prejudice in the 1960s. TNT hosted a special show Thursday with its NBA commentators, including Charles Barkley, and Commissioner Adam Silver to talk about racial injustice.
Perhaps what has stood out most was the personal pain that black sports reporters, such as Eaves, have been sharing. Yahoo national NBA writer Vincent Goodwill wrote a story detailing troubling experiences he has had with the police, including getting pulled over one night and finding himself surrounded by multiple police cars and 10 officers.
A group of reporters at the Athletic contributed to a piece detailing their experiences with racism. It included Stephen Holder, who covers the Indianapolis Colts, writing about a conversation with a stranger at a bar that devolved into racist comments about kneeling black football players. It was cathartic for Holder as a black reporter covering the NFL, he said, because the current moment has a direct connection to Kaepernick’s protest. Holder was on the Colts beat in 2017 when Vice President Pence left the stadium after players on the San Francisco 49ers knelt during the national anthem.
“I had a visceral reaction to that,” he said. “I do think there’s an opportunity to tell your story right now [that didn’t exist before] that we as reporters bring our personal experiences to the table, and I think people have said, ‘Let’s take a step back and listen.’ I wish there had been more listening in 2016 with Colin [Kaepernick].”
Goodwill said writing his essay was like therapy, giving him a chance to sift through emotions he had never considered before.
“You can’t say, ‘Stick to sports’ right now because there are no sports,” he said, adding that he thought ESPN’s embrace of the story opened up a space both for him and other reporters. “It seems like ESPN has given license to people.”
Indeed, no sports outlet has had a more fraught history with covering societal issues that intersect with sports than ESPN. The efforts to reposition ESPN under Pitaro as a network for all sports fans came after it honored Caitlyn Jenner in 2015 with its Arthur Ashe Courage Award after she came out as a trans woman — a decision that, the network later said, upset some of its viewers. In 2017, “SportsCenter” host Jemele Hill received backlash from the White House for referring to Trump as a white supremacist on Twitter. Hill later reached a buyout agreement with ESPN, and the network’s daily lineup has moved to focus more on highlights and traditional sports fare.
How long this moment lasts — for reporters and the outlets they work for — remains to be seen. The next few months should be telling. On Friday, Trump took to Twitter, calling again for NFL players to stand during the national anthem, a favorite wedge issue of his in the past. And games will return this summer, led by the NBA, just as the presidential campaign heats up.
“We’ll find out if anything’s changed,” Goodwill said.