ESPN can’t have it both ways

How can it be that a tweet from a cable sports anchor became one of the biggest national stories of the week, drawing fevered attention from the White House and setting tongues wagging among sports fans and political pundits across the nation?

The simple answer is that, in the age of Trump, everything is political. There’s no getting away from it.

Viewed from this angle, the controversy over Jemele Hill’s tweet labeling President Donald Trump a white supremacist not only should have been expected but was unavoidable. And, as such, ESPN has only itself to blame for the current kerfuffle casting a negative light over a network that prides itself on merely broadcasting fun and games. If that ever was the case, it most certainly isn’t any longer.

As a highly visible part of the nation’s cultural landscape, the world of sports entertainment has blurred indistinguishably with pop culture and politics, making it impossible to separate one from another. ESPN struggles have a foot in both worlds.

Hill’s comments, posted Monday on her personal Twitter account, irritated the White House to the point of the president’s spokeswoman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, calling for Hill to be fired during a press briefing. That, as my colleague Lindsay Gibbs reported, led to the network’s aborted attempt to replace Hill with another black host for the 6:00 p.m. Wednesday broadcast.

And then, on Friday morning, a still angry Trump took to Twitter to demand ESPN apologize to him personally for Hill’s comments.

To be perfectly honest, blurring the lines that portioned off sports from pop culture and politics was baked into ESPN’s attention-grabbing formula for success. The network’s anchors, notably the late Stuart Scott, expanded the audience for sports reporting and coverage by infusing a street-smart, hip-hop sensibility into a predominantly white-bread, suburban landscape.

In a 2015 Elite Daily article, social critic Danielle Moodie-Mills observed that hip-hop culture was once counterculture, but now is a part of the soundtrack to marketing and advertising to attract diverse audiences — and their money. “ESPN is keying in on a trend by becoming a major sports brand to bring this to the forefront, prospering off the relationship these two worlds have shared for decades now,” she wrote.

Predictably, this strategy doesn’t set well with sports purists and others who are offended by the imposition of pop culture and politics in places they seek refuge from real-world issues. FoxSports 1 announcer Jason Whitlock, a former ESPN writer and broadcaster, argued recently that ESPN is caught in the throes of political correctness, which undermines it’s sports coverage.

“I  think that ESPN has chosen a lane politically,” said Whitlock, who has a history of making controversial and bombastic comments of his own. “[ESPN President] John Skipper has certainly made diversity in his view a business innovation for ESPN and has moved the company to the left. So I think no action here against Jemele Hill is a clear sign that they’re in agreement.”

Often, such opinions are barely disguised political views themselves, such as those expressed by conservative sportswriter Clay Travis. “And now that Jemele Hill has escaped punishment, it’s readily apparent that what I have been telling you for the past two years is true — ESPN supports left wing political speech and condemns right wing political speech,” Travis wrote this week in his blog.

I find it difficult to comprehend how anyone at ESPN could have produced a prime-time show with two socially aware hosts and expected they would steer completely away from hot-button topics of the day. That’s not going to happen and ESPN’s brass should have known and been better prepared for the inevitable backlash from out-of-touch sports purists.

The controversy swirling around Hill exposes ESPN’s laudable efforts to broaden its high-visibility broadcasting ranks with women and people of color, a move that conservative critics reflexively brand as interjecting a liberal bias into sports reporting. What’s more, by not strongly supporting Hill, ESPN tried to satisfy its critics by pretending its hosts aren’t or can’t share personal views on their private social media accounts. Clearly, that didn’t work.

This wasn’t the first time ESPN has been tone deaf to the intersection of sports and politics. Most recently, following violent white nationalist and neo-Nazi protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, the network pulled announcer Robert Lee from its broadcast of the University of Virginia’s first football game because he shares a name with the Confederate general whose statue was at the heart of the protests.

“We collectively made the decision with Robert to switch games as the tragic events in Charlottesville were unfolding, simply because of the coincidence of his name,” ESPN said in a statement. “In that moment it felt right to all parties. It’s a shame that this is even a topic of conversation and we regret that who calls play-by-play for a football game has become an issue.”

The network was roundly criticized for its decision in that situation, prompting its president, John Skipper, to send out clarification via Twitter, saying the concern was not whether Lee would offend anyone but whether it “might create a distraction, or even worse, expose him to social hectoring and trolling.”

Hill, along with her co-host Michael Smith, anchors the 6:00 p.m. ET edition of ESPN’s SportsCenter, a flagship show on the network. Both are longtime fixtures at the ESPN campus, having previously hosted His and Hers on ESPN2 before taking the featured time slot the main network in February.

The network knew what it was getting as the duo were highly promoted on air and in commercials for rebranding the time slot with their own pop culture sensibilities. Along the way, right-leaning critics have targeted ESPN for tilting too far to the left — allowing announcers like Hill and Smith to express liberal views while distancing itself from other personalities, like former baseball player and ESPN analyst Curt Schilling, for expressing right-wing opinions.

Schilling was fired from the network last year following his Facebook posts that criticized efforts in North Carolina to pass a law allowing transgender people to use bathrooms and locker rooms that don’t correspond to their birth genders.

No doubt the Schilling firing helped prompt Sanders on Friday to accuse ESPN of being hypocritical about which of its announcers can make political statements. “I think the point is that ESPN has been hypocritical,” she told reporters during a White House briefing. “They should hold anchors to a fair and consistent standard.”

How it handled Hill’s tweets makes one thing crystal clear: ESPN hasn’t found the friction point to satisfy its critics on the right that accuse the network of being too liberal, while promoting a business model that recognizes a diverse and socially aware audience. Regardless, it’s too late in the game to pretend that sports and politics exists in parallel, non-intersecting universes. According to Windy Dees, a sports-administration professor at the University of Miami, ESPN helped create the synergy and is now being criticized for not handling it more effectively.

“ESPN has been criticized since long before [the Hill incident] for being too political as a sports network,” Dees said in recent interview with Variety. “Sports and politics are always going to intertwine. You’re not going to dissect politics from sports. Sports have been a part of politics since the creation of the Olympics.”