Why ESPN Is More Political Than Before

The sports network’s controversial transformation is driven more by the audience and less by elites than many observers realize.

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Mike Segar / Reuters

Bryan Curtis reports a striking scene in “Jemele Hill and the Fight for the Future of ESPN,” his essay on America’s premier sports network and its relationship with politics. The staff of SportsCenter, a group under fire for producing shows that are “too political,” are gathered together to decide the contents of the 6 p.m. broadcast.

“ESPN’s transformation is usually described as swapping a highlight for a debate segment,” Curtis writes. “But the changes are even more elemental. At the SC6 staff meeting, everyone had their heads buried in their social media feeds, looking for content … Twitter is now the de facto coordinating producer of ESPN’s daytime lineup. The network’s old currency was a highlight of Klay Thompson shooting a three. The new currency — and, indeed, that day’s top offering — was a video of Thompson dancing like a dork in a Chinese nightclub. Programming ESPN is like curating your Twitter feed: Find the content that everyone’s talking about and craft the right joke.”

Upon reflection, the change makes a lot of sense. ESPN no longer enjoys a huge advantage in access to the old currency, athletic highlights; a sports junky who puts even minimal effort into curating his or her social media feeds will thereafter receive an endless stream of content that surfaces the most striking plays of the day. SportsCenter needs to offer something more to add value for those sports junkies.

That puts a different gloss on debates over whether the show should “stick to sports,” which started long before anchor Jemele Hill called Donald Trump a white supremacist.

On one side of that debate are people like Ben Domenech, who argues that “celebrities, comedians, and sportscasters” diminish an important good that entertainment provides when they express strong opinions. “When you ‘stick to sports,’ you are doing more than confining yourself to the field,” the conservative pundit reasoned. “You are providing a way for people who may have diametrically opposed politics to share a beer at a bar discussing quarterbacks instead of executive orders. This is valuable, particularly given that one of the factors that led to Mr. Trump’s rise is a market for outrage, on the right and the left … There is always another inch to be won, another point to be defended, and this hyper-politicization limits the space free from the culture wars Mr. Trump exploited to great effect.”

One counter-argument is that celebrities sometimes have a duty, or at least a compelling interest, to call attention to an injustice or an alarming political trajectory; that there is a reason we look back on athletes who spoke up on behalf of causes like civil rights as heroes; that staying mum in the face of evil is itself a political act; and that like it or not, millions of people look to athletes as role models. And many black athletes and much of the black talent at ESPN who cover them believe the Trump Administration poses a threat to their community, particularly in the way that it is weakening federal protections against civil-rights abuses.

The clash between those perspectives shapes the current moment, as do the decisions of individuals like Colin Kaepernick, who feels that the benefits of taking a political stand outweigh the costs. Insofar as figures within the NFL, MLB, and NBA inject themselves into politics, ESPN will get political even when “sticking to sports”––sports, it should be added, that incorporate the national anthem, flyovers by military jets, presidents throwing out first pitches, and all manner of other symbols and rituals that mark them as civic territory, not a separate realm of escapism.

But Curtis’s piece clarifies the degree to which an uptick in political content on ESPN isn’t a function of cultural elites deciding to politicize sports or to fight injustice, depending on your perspective;  it is a matter of SportsCenter trying to remain what it has always been, a nightly sports show with hosts who are so up on what sports fans are talking about that they can distill the zeitgeist multiple times every evening; what’s changed is that many of those sports obsessives have spent all day in the milieu of social media, where sports is mashed up with politics and culture as never before.

To “just do sports,” even setting aside Tim Tebow praying or Lebron James wearing an “I can’t breathe” t-shirt, is to ignore what sports fans are talking about on their own initiative, and to seem out of touch on a program that has always thrived on knowing in-jokes.

But to allude to the latest way sports and politics intersected online is to lose touch with another set of sports fans, who do not deeply inhabit the peculiar information ecosystem of social media. They catch 15 minutes of local sports talk on the way to work and never signed up for Twitter––and so, if they tune into SportsCenter and hear a quip about Dunham/Dykstra, they are baffled, and mistakenly believe ESPN staffers are the instigators of the sports-culture-politics mashup when really they are reacting to it.

In this telling, the trend of not “sticking to sports” was fueled by everyone whose personal stream of posts, shares, and likes on social media evinces an interest in sports and politics; everyone who follows politicians, celebrities, and athletes online; and everyone who subjects their brain to the streams of the social web, reorienting their notion of what an ESPN host must know and say to seem conversant.

To a much greater extent than many appreciate, the uptick in political content on ESPN is not political in motivation; it is a response to the world that the audience outside the network, including large swaths of its core audience, has created together.