Mike Ditka supporters, especially the ones who agree with his politics, are mourning the death of the First Amendment and asking when the United States stopped being a free country.
They are missing the point.
ESPN announced Wednesday that Ditka will no longer appear on “Sunday NFL Countdown,’’ days after a radio interview in which he called President Obama “the worst president we’ve ever had.’’ The former Bears coach has signed a two-year contract to be a contributor to “SportsCenter.”
The timing of Ditka’s move to what is being called an emeritus role at the network looks as far from coincidental as can be, although you can expect pushback on that narrative. But ESPN has made it clear in its policies that on-air talent should avoid talking politics publicly.
“We should refrain from political editorializing, personal attacks or ‘drive-by’ comments regarding the candidates and their campaigns,’’ its guidelines state. “Approved commentaries on sports-specific issues, or seeking responses from candidates on relevant news issues, are appropriate. However, perceived endorsements should be avoided.”
It’s not good business when one of your most high-profile employees potentially alienates half of your audience for reasons that have nothing to do with sports. It doesn’t matter that Ditka made his statements away from the mothership. Wherever he is, whatever he utters publicly, he represents ESPN. And, no, I didn’t like it when Ditka supported Donald Trump via his “Four Downs’’ column in the Sun-Times sports section in 2015.
People don’t go to ESPN for politics. They go to ESPN to get away from things like politics. Almost everything else in life intrudes on sports – crime, greed, racism, infidelity, etc. But politics, for the most part, has no place in the public lives of the people who talk and write about sports for a living.
Stick to sports — I hear that a lot when I write about societal issues affecting the games we play and watch. I almost always disagree with the people who tell me to focus on bats and balls. But not this time. If Stephen A. Smith talked about Bernie Sanders’ virtues as a leader, I’d be calling him out for the same broadcasting sin.
You just can’t go there. Once you do, it’s hard to find your way back.