ESPN Backs Itself Into a Corner

Sports take place in the real world, not an alternative universe where Trump’s bigotry doesn’t exist.

ESPN headquarters
Mike Blake / Reuters

About the author: Jemele Hill is a contributing writer at The Atlantic.

Updated at 3:48 p.m. ET on July 25, 2019

Late last week, the ESPN host Dan Le Batard veered outside the sports network’s hard-line stance on avoiding politics on the air. He unloaded on President Donald Trump for attacking four congresswomen of color. Just as notably, he criticized his own network’s no-politics policy as “cowardly,” putting ESPN—where I used to work—in the crosshairs of contention once again.

Le Batard abruptly disappeared from his radio slot on Monday, and then reappeared the following day. When I reached out to ESPN to ask about his situation, a network spokesperson declined to comment. Le Batard met with ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro earlier today. A source close to the situation, speaking under the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions, told me Le Batard hasn't been formally suspended for his statements last week, and he won’t be. Whether this ordeal will make Le Batard more cautious in his commentary remains to be seen.

I left ESPN in an awkward way last September, after a nearly identical controversy. Even so, I feel no vindication in seeing the cable sports giant, where I worked for 12 years, react clumsily once again when a high-profile commentator responds viscerally to something ugly that the current president said or did.

I’ll be candid: The policy that Le Batard criticized was instituted in part because of the drama that ensued after I called Trump a white supremacist on Twitter in 2017. But Le Batard’s situation only crystallized how unreasonable—and ultimately untenable—the network’s position is. A personality like Le Batard, who has spent his career assessing the messy intersections among sports, politics, race, and gender, can never just ignore the racism and bigotry flowing out of the White House.

ESPN, like any major network, hires commentators who have big personalities and bold opinions. And yet the executives often seem more concerned with placating some white fans than respecting the fact that so many men and women of color are profoundly appalled by the Trump administration’s policies and the president’s hurtful rhetoric. Besides, while ESPN isn’t a purely journalistic operation—it’s partly in the entertainment business too—it does practice journalism. And that means there are times when the audience has to be challenged to think critically, rather than appeased.

A no-politics-unless-it’s-sports-related policy seems especially naive and tricky to navigate when the president of the United States not only makes overtly racist comments, but also lays into women’s-soccer players, NBA owners, and other sports figures who disagree with him. ESPN’s policy also backs the network itself into a corner, and asks TV and radio commentators to do something impossible: ignore anything and everything happening outside the four corners of the playing field, no matter how much it offends their basic sense of humanity.

Not surprisingly, some commentators just aren’t able to abide by such a mandate.

Consider how challenging it is for someone with Le Batard’s background to separate sports from everything else happening in this country. He is the son of immigrants. Both of his parents fled Cuba when they were teenagers. Le Batard has written passionately many times about the sacrifices his parents made to provide for their children and to be accepted in this country.

Trump is pushing the dangerous narrative that only certain people in this country are fully American. His repeated attacks on Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib are just the latest example. At a North Carolina rally last week, Trump escalated the controversy by singling out Omar, after which the crowd began to chant, “Send her back.” Trump later claimed he disagreed with the chant—even though the video clearly shows Trump standing silently for several seconds and making no attempt to discourage the crowd.

Le Batard was unwilling to let these events slide. On his radio show last Thursday, he took aim at Trump—and his own network’s wariness about confronting him. “If you’re not calling it abhorrent, obviously racist, dangerous rhetoric, then you’re complicit,” Le Batard said on his show. “This is deeply offensive to me as somebody whose parents made all the sacrifices to get to this country. Send her back? How are you any more American than her? You’re more privileged? You’re whiter?”

Anyone who listens to Le Batard’s radio show or watches his daily ESPN television show, Highly Questionable, knows that Le Batard is not a strictly-sports kind of personality. He never has been. The last time I appeared on his radio show, we spent much of the time doing live play-by-play of Aretha Franklin’s funeral. One of his regular radio-show contributors is a wildlife expert who comes on the air to answer his audience’s bizarre questions about animals, and to do play-by-play of weird animal videos. The appeal of Le Batard is that he is the anti-sports sports analyst, and a big reason he’s become one of the most respected voices in sports media is that he is unafraid to tackle race and gender, whether sports are involved or not.

Now ESPN has chosen a side, which is no side at all. Since becoming head of the network 18 months ago, Pitaro has made it clear publicly and internally that it’s bad business for any of its personalities to spew their political views, based on the feedback received from sports fans.

Pitaro no doubt believes that he is just executing sound business strategy, but polls can’t properly contextualize the broad subject of politics. I’m willing to bet that many of those same sports fans who said they don’t want to see politics on ESPN also admire Muhammad Ali, who was revered for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War. I’d also bet these same fans have no problem with ESPN’s heavy involvement in the Warrior Games, where hundreds of injured veterans representing the branches of the armed services compete against one another in Olympic-style events. The Department of Defense runs the games. ESPN airs profiles of the athletes on its many platforms and has broadcast SportsCenter live from the competition.

ESPN cherry-picks its involvement in politics, but wants people like Le Batard to remain silent when they feel ostracized, unwanted, and marginalized by their own government. Le Batard personally has heard too many variations of “send her back.” His heritage is a frequent topic on his radio show, and he has had to confront bigots on the air for ridiculing his father.

“People have to remember that Dan is literally connected to this issue, so this is not an abstract, political statement that he’s making,” Jim Miller, a co-author of the best-selling ESPN oral history These Guys Have All the Fun, told me. “He comes from immigrants. This is a very personal issue for him. This is not him just opining on issues of the day. One of the things that made his comments so palpable, so connected with people, is because they understood it was coming from that place. Therefore, that places the company in somewhat of a delicate situation. I also feel like this is the first major blip on the social-media issue since Jimmy Pitaro took over. If nothing else, he’s realized that it’s a lot trickier when you’re going through it than an abstract thought or an abstract statement.”

I understand why sports fans don’t want their favorite personalities breaking down the pros and cons of universal health care or tackling immigration reform on SportsCenter.

But is condemning racism—even if it means also condemning a political figure—really a political issue? Racism is an issue of morality—and it’s something commentators can be trusted to see with their own eyes. That Le Batard denounced a racist sentiment shouldn’t be upsetting.

ESPN clearly believes in the notion that sports should be a refuge for fans. But unfortunately, sports don’t take place in some alternate universe where real problems can’t interfere. The only people who comfortably pretend sports is just an escape are those who don’t have to worry about being told to go back to where they came from.

This article has been updated to include new information, and to clarify the timing of Dan Le Batard’s meeting with ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro.