ESPN’s day of reckoning has arrived. A series of bad business decisions — pursuing massive TV rights deals, overstaffing, ballooning its budget and ignoring shifting television-watching habits — forced the network last week to cut 100 employees, many of them highly visible on-air talent.
While those bad decisions are likely a huge factor in ESPN’s plummeting subscription revenues, many have also pointed to the network’s uncomfortable turn to politics in recent years, and its obvious liberal bias.
But the rising chorus urging ESPN to change its stripes is missing something: The intersection of sports and politics is natural. And the left-wing lean of ESPN is inevitable. Conservatives bothered by the slant should stop handwringing and start their own network.
It’s now an article of faith that the nation’s leading sports network has tainted its product with too much politics. Even “SportsCenter” anchor Linda Cohn says as much: “If anyone wants to ignore that fact, they’re blind.”
To answer concerns, ESPN has made some inconsistent lurches at addressing anger. It hired former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, a right-wing bomb thrower — then subsequently suspended and fired him for a series of controversial comments.
Then it hired conservative commentator Will Cain, who was immediately excoriated by liberal ESPN fans for his views on climate change. It recently demoted Sage Steele for complaining about anti-Trump protesters.
Finally, it issued new political guidelines for employees that suggest they connect any political statements back to sports whenever possible, because ESPN, presumably, is a sports network.
This fumbling is predicated on two schools of thought:
One is sheer tokenism — that the network needs more conservatives, so it’ll add one to represent the heartland in conversations about gun control, Black Lives Matter, the national anthem, Caitlyn Jenner and every other hot-button topic.
The other, as the new guidelines suggest, insists sports fans tune in for scores and sports analysis and only scores and sports analysis, and leave politics on the sidelines.
Neither notion is fully cooked.
In the first scenario, nodding insincerely and insufficiently at those espousing right-wing points of view while maintaining more broadly that those viewpoints are racist and backward won’t make any conservatives want to tune in.
The second scenario is naive. Of course sports and politics intersect, and those conversations belong, more than anywhere else, on a network devoted to sports.
ESPN needn’t devote the lion’s share of its coverage to political issues, obviously, but why should we protect fragile sports fans entirely from uncomfortable conversations about race, sexism, domestic violence or gay rights just because, “Shut up, I’m trying to watch the damn game”?
When Colin Kaepernick refuses to stand for the anthem, that’s both a sports story and a politics story.
Same when Ray Rice beats his fiancée, or the Raiders leave Oakland.
Nor can a sports network pretend that race isn’t a powerful undercurrent in college and pro athletics.
Sanitizing ESPN of politics and opinion would make it a relic; sports fans have dozens of places online to go for scores and highlights. And because ESPN is situated cozily in liberal New York and Connecticut, and is populated largely by media industry liberals, it’s a fool’s errand to try to force itself to become evenhanded. Which is to say, it should be comfortable being the MSNBC of sports.
Which forces the question: Will anyone become the Fox News of sports? Twenty years ago, Rupert Murdoch saw a gap in the liberal media marketplace. And boy did he fill it.
Let another network offer sports without the politics, if they want to try that, or sports with another slant. Some are already angling to fill that void. Barstool Sports, while not a political project, is without question providing compelling sports fare in a far more entertaining, relatable and not at all pretentious way.
Conservatives may be gloating over ESPN’s recent woes. Instead of arguing over how to change it, they should be arguing over how to answer it. After all, this is sports we’re talking about — who’s afraid of a little competition?
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