Hello, and welcome to Round 100 of ESPN vs. Trump vs. the NFL, an obnoxious, nonsensical, mind-numbing round-robin fight where nobody wins and the entire audience loses. Naturally, the proceedings were breathlessly covered on multiple cable news stations, even as two of Donald Trump’s (formerly) closest aides were each convicted of eight federal crimes and Trump himself was implicated in another.
The latest episode of the stupidest serialized saga in sports began late last week, when new ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro gathered with a select group of journalists at the company’s Bristol, Connecticut headquarters to talk about his vision for the company going forward. The main takeaway? ESPN does not have a liberal agenda, and it will be sure to stick to sports going forward.
“I will tell you I have been very, very clear with employees here that it is not our jobs to cover politics, purely,” Pitaro said, as reported by the Washington Post.
Pitaro then told reporters that he had proactively told the NFL that the network will not air the national anthem before games this NFL season. Presumably it’s a decision meant to appease skittish advertisers and the NFL, who remain fearful of diverting too much attention away from competitive traumatic brain injuries on the field in favor of coverage of players protesting police brutality and systemic racism — a common criticism from conservative media over the past couple of years.
But yesterday, during a rally at West Virginia — barely an hour after two of his closest campaign aids and confidants were charged with eight counts of federal crimes apiece — Trump expressed his displeasure with ESPN’s decision.
“You’re proud of our country, you’re proud of our history, and unlike the NFL, you always honor and cherish our great American flag,” he said at the rally. “It was just announced by ESPN that rather than defending our anthem, our beautiful, beautiful national anthem and defending our flag, they’ve decided that they just won’t broadcast when they play the national anthem. We don’t like that.” Hours later, with renewed calls for his impeachment growing louder, the Trump campaign emailed what few supporters they have left urging them to sign a petition demanding ESPN air the national anthem, which Trump himself definitely does not know the words to.
Now, look. I know facts don’t matter in this very, very dumb debate, but I’m going to throw a couple out, just for kicks: ESPN has never regularly aired the national anthem during football games. No NFL broadcasters regularly do, unless it’s, like, the Super Bowl, or it’s Fox during the 2000s and a former American Idol contestant is singing it. Broadcasters only started showing the anthem when players started protesting during it, because that’s when it became incredibly newsworthy. It’s not their job to “defend our anthem” or “defend our flag.” It’s their job to cover the game and any news that comes from it; the protests fall under that category.
Meanwhile, ESPN is never going to be able to do its job without occasionally touching on politics, because sports and politics are inextricably intertwined. Unless they rebrand the network as the “Sports Statistics Network,” only providing an endless, looping scroll of fantasy football stats, they’re going to run into politics. (And I’m sure there’s an intersection between politics and statistics, too.)
Trump has deliberately cast ESPN, the NFL, and — primarily — black NFL players, as well as anyone who offers those players even a modicum of respect, as the enemy. His racist base laps it up, and he’s never, ever going to stop. This is not an argument that is happening in good faith. The NFL says players have to stay in the locker room if they want to protest, and Trump says players who stay in the locker room should be deported. ESPN says it won’t air the anthem to give the protesters attention, and Trump calls them unpatriotic.
ESPN can either move on and embrace the many complexities that come with covering sports, politics and all, without shame or fear; or it can turn completely into Fox News. And, honestly, if if did turn into Fox News, Trump would probably be mad that it wasn’t Breitbart.
This fight is never going to end, because Trump doesn’t want it to. And every time ESPN and the NFL keep making headlines with their fool-hearted, gutless attempts to appease him by throwing players under the bus, Trump will seize the opportunity to throw countless punches. He’s setting the rules, they’re bending over backwards to try and follow them, and they’re still losing because Donald Trump is a master grifter.
It’s a maddening cycle, with no end in sight.