The myth of ‘liberal’ ESPN

To quote SportsCenter host Michael Smith, “‘Don’t hit women’ isn’t politics.”

Former quarterbacks and ESPN announcers Trent Dilfer, left, and Steve Young work before an NFL football game between the Tennessee Titans and the New York Jets on Monday, Dec. 17, 2012, in Nashville, Tenn. CREDIT: AP Photo/Wade Payne
Former quarterbacks and ESPN announcers Trent Dilfer, left, and Steve Young work before an NFL football game between the Tennessee Titans and the New York Jets on Monday, Dec. 17, 2012, in Nashville, Tenn. CREDIT: AP Photo/Wade Payne

Yesterday was a horrible day at ESPN, and for sports journalism as a whole.

The company reportedly laid off 100 of its reporters and analysts, and while names are still trickling out, the casualties of this cut include ESPN giants like NFL reporter Ed Werder; NFL analyst Trent Difler; espnW and NFL reporter Jane McManus; college basketball expert Andy Katz; and analyst and radio host Danny Kannell. The list goes on and on.

ESPN tried to dress up the cuts with corporate buzzwords, but ultimately, this was about the bottom line. ESPN’s business model is dependent upon people purchasing cable subscriptions, and thanks to Hulu and Netflix and the streaming culture in general, fewer people are doing that in today’s world.

But that didn’t stop extremely vocal factions of the internet for inventing their own reason for the cuts: ESPN has become too political. The liberals are ruining everything. The network is being punished for not sticking to sports.

I truly wish this went without saying, but apparently it doesn’t: Reports of ESPN’s political agenda have been greatly exaggerated, and politics are absolutely not to blame for the cuts this week.

ESPN is not a political network. Its analysts do not spend hours debating the latest poll numbers, reporting on proposed legislation, or counting down to lawmakers’ town halls in their home districts.

ESPN covers sports. It just doesn’t pretend that those sports happen in a vacuum.

That means ESPN will cover stories like Colin Kaepernick’s protest during the national anthem, a team of WNBA players wearing “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts during warm-ups, and the domestic violence allegations against an potential NFL draftee.

Sports are an escape, yes, but they are also enriched and impacted by the real-life events happening around them. Covering these topics accurately and fairly when they directly intersect with the sports world isn’t politics, it’s journalism.

“The word ‘politics’ has become too all-encompassing,” SportsCenter host Jemele Hill said on the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast with Richard Deitsch in February. “Mike and I aren’t … breaking down the Affordable Care Act. That’s politics. Understanding somebody’s right to speak out against injustice, oppression, and police brutality, isn’t a political matter. It’s right or wrong.”

“‘Don’t hit women’ is not politics,” her co-host Michael Smith added.

“Sorry we don’t tolerate bigotry here. Why are you taking offense to us suggesting that African Americans — breaking news — have been treated differently and unfairly for the entirety of this country? That’s not a hot take.”

Of course, what Hill and Smith are touching on here is that when people complain about anything getting “too political,” it’s a safe bet the criticism is actually that it’s too liberal. And that usually implies it’s too diverse or too outspoken about inequality.

The president of the company has pushed back against this idea, too.

“The Walt Disney Company and ESPN are committed to diversity and inclusion,” ESPN President John Skipper said last year in response to similar accusations that the company had gotten too liberal. “We do not view this as a political stance but as a human stance. We do not think tolerance is the domain of a particular political philosophy.”

ESPN has gotten notably more diverse over the past few years. Nothing exemplifies the advancements made in that area more than Hill and Smith, a black woman and black man, who co-host the 6:00 p.m. ET SportsCenter.

“Understanding somebody’s right to speak out against injustice, oppression, and police brutality, isn’t a political matter. It’s right or wrong.”

But it’s still a company run by rich white men — not exactly the most liberal demographic. It still has many commentators on the air with conservative viewpoints, be it Outside the Lines host Bob Ley, host Sage Steele, or Will Cain. And even more importantly, it has thousands of other front-facing employees whose political leanings are unknown to the general public.

A Media Matters study released this week found that coverage of domestic violence and sexual assault took up less than .35 percent of ESPN’s programming during the first quarter of this year, and a third of that coverage came from airing of a documentary about the false allegations against the Duke Lacrosse team. Furthermore, 74 percent of the time, men were the ones on air talking about domestic violence and sexual assault. Those aren’t exactly statistics that scream “liberal agenda.”

That’s not meant to knock ESPN’s treatment of domestic violence and sexual assault cases, which has at times been nuanced and thorough. It’s just an example of how perception and reality don’t always match.

Looking at the list of names of those who were fired, there are no overarching political viewpoint that ties them all together. I don’t know who most of these people voted for in the last presidential election. I don’t know their stance on big government vs. small government, or their position on tax cuts for the rich. I don’t know whether they support the fight for $15 movement to raise the minimum wage, or their thoughts on health care reform.

I do know that they worked hard, respected the subjects they reported on, and added nuance, color, and context to the world of sports, both on the field of play and off of it. Sports fans, whether they lean left or right, are worse off without them.