In the three years since ESPN denounced then-staffer Jemele Hill’s tweets, in which she called President Trump a white supremacist, the network has all but ditched its “stick to sports” mandate and made an about face in how it treats activism and political commentary on its programs.
The network has gone all in on its coverage of athletes who have joined protests and spoken out about the death of Black Americans such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police. And in July, ESPN’s owner The Walt Disney (DIS) Company announced a first-look deal with Colin Kaepernick that includes an exclusive docu-series with Hill, who left ESPN in 2018, serving as producer.
“There’s no bigger indication that the times have changed,” Jim Miller, journalist and co-author of the 2011 book “Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN,” told CNN Business.
Last week’s NBA players’ strike following the shooting of Jacob Blake prompted other sports leagues to take a stand for Black Lives Matters and postpone their games as well. Without a playoff game to dissect, ESPN’s analysts filled the airtime with discussions about racial injustice. On TNT’s “Inside the NBA,” host Kenny Smith walked off set in solidarity with the athletes.
“Sometimes, as African Americans, we know being on the side of right there has to be some uncomfortability for people to actually pay attention to it,” Smith told CNN Business when he reflected on his walkout. “I wish there was a society where you don’t have to do things to get attention, but that hasn’t been the case in any form for our communities.”
The media has long struggled with how to cover the intersection of sports and politics, with management at ESPN and Deadspin opting to concentrate on the former and shy away from the latter. But amid a pandemic that forced sports to go dark and a national reckoning over race, sports journalists are learning that the firewall between sports and politics has vanished, if it ever existed.
“Stick to sports”
In some cases, the “stick to sports” refrain comes from readers rather than management.
During her more than two decades covering sports, USA Today sports columnist Nancy Armour said she has received feedback from readers asking her to keep politics out of sports whenever her columns touch on social issues.
Armour said she has been writing about sports and activism with increasing frequency lately, but the intersection of sports and politics is nothing new.
“Jackie Robinson was the face of desegregation. That was political. Billie Jean King fought for equal pay and equal rights for women. That’s political. The NFL got money from the service branches to have their representatives at games. That’s political,” Armour said.
There are countless examples of athletes as activists, many of whom were featured in the 2018 documentary, “Shut Up and Dribble,” produced by NBA star LeBron James. Decades before Kaepernick took a knee, Muhammad Ali was banned temporarily from boxing and sentenced to five years in prison for draft evasion in protest of the Vietnam War.
Even so, “stick to sports” has pervaded sports media. ESPN released a poll last year that found the majority of viewers do not want to hear about politics on the network. Miller, the ESPN expert, said the network used it as a reason to keep politics out of its coverage.
“They had all this quote unquote research that suggested the viewers didn’t want to hear any of it,” Miller said. “They put that all on the audience, but it was clear that they were more comfortable.”
ESPN spokesperson Mike Soltys insists that the company’s stance on political coverage is “often mischaracterized.”
“We have said we aren’t covering pure politics, but clearly we cover it when it intersects with sports, including in the last 24 hours as the sports world became a focal point of social unrest,” Soltys told CNN Business last Thursday during the NBA strike.
G/O Media management also called on Deadspin bloggers and reporters to “stick to sports” last year, prompting staffers to resign en masse. But G/O Media says it has since clarified its stance.
“Deadspin’s mandate is to do sports stories we think matter, whether it be on racial injustice, gender disparities, LGBTQ rights, the environment, or who won the game last night,” a G/O Media spokesperson told CNN Business. “Where sports meets life, essentially, is what we want to explore, examine and question.”
Diana Moskovitz, investigations editor and cofounder of Defector Media, a new media company operated by former Deadspin staffers like herself, told CNN Business that “stick to sports” comes up not only from management but also from peers. (Moskovitz had given her two weeks notice to Deadspin just prior to the mass exodus.)
She said former colleagues in previous newsrooms where she worked have dismissed sports reporters by saying they should stick to game recaps and player performance.
“There’s this version of stay in your lane,” Moskovitz added. “If some real news happens, don’t worry we’ll call one of the White House correspondents because they’re the real reporters.”
ESPN alumn Cari Champion echoed this when she elaborated on why she and Hill launched “Cari & Jemele: Stick To Sports” on Vice TV. Champion said the name was inspired by “what many people asked us to do while we were” at ESPN and “that was just stay in that one lane.”
“Those who tell you to stick to sports are uncomfortable with our take on what we’re seeing in the world and how it relates to sports,” Champion said on “Morning Joe” last week. “As Black journalists, I feel that it is so important for us to speak up about what we see because what’s happening in the country right now requires someone who’s lived that life… All we’re asking right now, especially with our show, is for you just to see us, the humanness in us, the humanity in us.”
“They’re tired of asking nicely”
It’s been nearly impossible for sports journalists to stick solely to game results and player statistics this year. Safety measures stemming from the pandemic forced sports to shut down in March. And when sports returned, protests over George Floyd’s death had roiled the country for months. For the NBA, activism has been at the forefront from its bubble in Orlando, Florida.
“They have worn uniforms with racial-justice slogans and T-shirts that say black lives matter played on courts bearing the same message, and often steered interviews away from basketball to talk about issues such as voter suppression and police violence,” Hill wrote in The Atlantic where she now a contributing writer.
Armour said the NBA players’ strike was sparked by a “tipping point” that the country has reached. She cited LeBron James’ repeated calls for addressing systemic racism, which go as far back to 2012 with the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin.
“They’re tired of asking nicely,” Armour said. “What more can they do? This is it. They said we’re going to take our ball and we’re going to sit this one out until we get at least an effort to get the kind of action we want.”
Black Lives Matter taking center stage in sports should come as no surprise since sports are played by “human beings, American citizens,” Moskovitz said, noting that the athletes in some leagues, such as the NBA and the NFL, “the vast majority are Black.”
“Police brutality affects their everyday lives,” Moskovitz told CNN Business. “Even if they are millionaires, they are still Black. Of course, they’re going to talk about that because how could they not?”
Hill wasn’t available to comment for this story, but she made similar remarks to CNN’s Jim Sciutto last week.
“They want America to listen to what it’s like to really be Black in America in this country, and to understand the racism that they still even face despite being pro-athletes, despite having these platforms and making millions of dollars and often, in many moments, they’re reminded that they’re Black,” Hill said.
And it’s not just the Black Lives Matter movement. Athletes have spoken out against “inequality, sexism and misogyny, especially in women’s athletics,” Moskovitz said. “To tell them to not talk about that with the platform they have is just denying them their humanity.”
It’s also clear that some reporters will not stay silent about politics and social issues, either.
In a Thursday piece titled, “NBA Players and Their Causes Will Benefit From Decision to Keep Playing,” Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix wrote, “I shudder at the behavior of President Donald Trump, and often struggle to understand the people who support him. I share a popular opinion that the country will be better off when he’s gone.”
The Athletic’s Tony Jones said on Friday’s episode of Sam Vecenie’s “Game Theory” podcast, “Enough is enough, man.”
“You have so many instances where you’re gunned down just because of the color of your skin,” he added. “As a Black man, I’m tired of this. I’m tired of waking up and seeing stuff like this.”