‘You Should Stick to Sports’: Has ESPN Become Too Political?

ESPN, too political, Jemele Hill, Donald Trump, Twitter
Bob Ley is one of the least controversial hosts on ESPN. He might deal with heavy topics on Outside the Lines, but the acclaimed show isn’t seen as being too political. The same isn’t said about ESPN overall. Ley left for a six-month sabbatical in September 2018, but he has been the host of OTL since May 1990.

Since 2013, ESPN has made a series of layoffs. Many of the layoffs are connected to the loss of viewership and subscriptions, but there are other factors at play. Some people will argue that ESPN has lost viewers because of the political direction the 24-hour sports network has taken this decade, but that’s a reductive statement often made by people with an agenda.

That said, is ESPN (too) political nowadays? From what I’ve seen, I don’t think so. However, I feel that there are times when it is nearly impossible for sports networks like ESPN to ignore politics, especially when it is intertwined with sports.

In order for me to explain this, I will need to go back to a series of incidents that happened well over a year ago. When I first started this series, it had been two weeks after Jemele kicked off a controversy that put her employer in a precarious position. Yet I feel that the topic is still relevant because the complaints about sports mixing with politics have not abated. Ultimately, this topic ties into the issue of protest in sports, among other things.

Jemele Hill vs. Donald Trump

On September 11, 2017, then-ESPN host and personality Jemele Hill1 called Donald Trump a white supremacist in a response to another user on Twitter. In subsequent tweets, Hill dug in and said that Trump was unqualified to be president and that a man of his demeanor would never be elected if he wasn’t white.

A day after Jemele Hill posted a Twitter thread to strongly criticized Donald Trump, the network was forced to respond. In a message posted to Twitter, an ESPN spokesperson said that the network chose not to suspend Hill after she talked with executives about what she said.

ESPN President John Skipper later called Hill’s tweets a violation of company standards in a memo.

Ultimately, Hill did not apologize for her comments, but on September 13, 2017, she did acknowledge that the controversy could paint ESPN in a bad light.

That same day, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called Hill’s comments “a fireable offense.” Huckabee Sanders threw more gasoline on the fire when she called ESPN “hypocritical” on the issue of admonishing their anchors for making political statements. Sanders claimed that another female ESPN anchor, Linda Cohn, was suspended for making political statements.2

Predictably, Donald Trump took to Twitter to shoot back at Hill for her Twitter thread, but indirectly. In one tweet, Trump expressly took a shot at Hill’s employer by saying that it was “paying a really big price for its politics (and bad programming).” Trump also claimed that viewers were unsubscribing from ESPN “in record numbers.” In the same tweet, he demanded an apology.

Jemele Hill vs. ESPN

On September 14, 2017, Think Progress published a report saying that ESPN was thinking about taking Hill off the air and replacing her with a black host on the 6:00 pm ET SportsCenter on September 13, 2017. According to the report, Michael Smith, Hill’s co-host, refused to go on the air without Hill, so ESPN approached to other black ESPN hosts: Michael Eaves and Elle Duncan. Eaves and Duncan declined. The network ultimately abandoned that plan when faced with the prospect of replacing Hill and Smith with white co-hosts.

ESPN was quick to dispute that story. Rob King, the senior vice president of news and information at SportsCenter, said that people didn’t have a full picture of what happened and what ultimately happened on Wednesday, Sept. 13 (Smith and Hill appearing on-air) was the most desirable outcome.

Business Insider picked up the story from ThinkProgress. A spokesperson with ESPN told Business Insider, “We never asked any other anchors to do last night’s show. Period,” but it wasn’t clear who the “We” (ESPN or the producers of SportsCenter) was. Also, a tweet by Eaves an hour before SC6 went on the air seemed to suggest that the rumors were true.

Some Questions We Need to Answer

The Jemele Hill situation raises a few questions, but these are the questions we must ask ourselves:

1. Did ESPN Handle the Situation with Jemele Hill Correctly?

Yes and no.

On the One Hand …

Hill didn’t make her statements unprovoked and she was tweeting on her own time. It would be one thing if she went on air and ranted about Donald Trump, but that’s not what happened.

Also, Hill was telling the truth. Donald Trump is a racist and ever since he announced his presidential run in 2016, much of what he has done is try to appeal to his base, which, well, consists of white supremacists.

  • During his announcement speech, Trump made incendiary comments about Mexicans.
  • While running for president in 2016, Trump refused to disavow the endorsement of David Duke and tried to act like he didn’t know who Duke was.
  • Trump insists that Congress give him money to pay for his stupid wall.
  • After the events in Charlottesville, Trump would not call out white supremacists who came to the city to protest the removal of Confederate statues. Instead, he said that there were bad people on both sides.
  • Trump called countries like Haiti “shithole countries.”

Even before his presidential run, Trump insisted that the Central Park Five (five black and Latino men) were guilty of rape and he took out a billboard to call for the death penalty. He still believes they were guilty despite them being exonerated. Trump even packed his cabinet with a bunch of white supremacists, including Steve Bannon, Steve Gorka, and Stephen Miller (the first two of whom are no longer in the cabinet, but still …).

The bottom line is that Hill should not have been punished for telling the truth. That ESPN could entertain the notion of replacing Hill for one night because of those statements makes the company execs look cowardly.3

On the Other Hand …

When a person in Hill’s position makes political statements, it does paint her company in a specific light. It’s hard for someone to listen to someone who has different political views than they do. This is especially true for arch-conservatives and Trump cultists. However, that’s not ESPN’s problem.

2. Is ESPN Too Political?

In the grand scheme of things, I don’t believe so, but there were numerous times when the network welcomed a discussion of politics over the years. And was at least one time when the network chose one of the worst ways to take a stand on a social issue.

Good Examples

In the past few years, one of the most contentious topics has involved the national anthem protests in the National Football League, but I don’t believe ESPN to cover that. The network was in its rights to cover the anthem protests since they involved the athletes and they highlighted how patriotism had been an accepted part of the game. The fact that some people might be uncomfortable with the protests and especially the message athletes like Colin Kaepernick were trying to convey highlighted the hypocrisy of those who wanted to force patriotism onto the game.

ESPN has also shown scenes where athletes protested police brutality and injustice before Kap’s anthem protests. To ignore those protests would have been unseemly.

Additionally, ESPN had dealt with social issues throughout much of its run.

  • The network had to address the September 11, 2001 attacks because those brought sports and many businesses in the area to a screeching halt.
  • It has addressed the actions of trailblazers like Jackie Robinson. ESPN’s channels also feature specials discussing how athletes like Muhammad Ali have occasionally stood up, protested, and spoke out against the discrimination they faced.
  • Every now and then, there will be a discussion of present-day discrimination in sports.
  • It has addressed O.J. Simpson in numerous specials although his story involves the U.S. justice system.
  • ESPN has addressed the topic of gay athletes, including in Playmakers, an original drama that the NFL forced ESPN to shut down.
  • ESPN and ABC simulcast a town hall held by Barack Obama that dealt with race relations and equality in July 2016.

Furthermore, ESPN still airs Outside the Lines since May 1990. The show, by its very title, examines social issues tied to sports. Bob Ley, the longtime host of the program, is best known for that episode in which he called out one of his company’s sponsors, Nike, for using sweatshops.

The Worst Example

Now, if there was one story where ESPN pushed the envelope unnecessarily, it was when someone made the decision to give Caitlyn Jenner an Arthur Ashe Courage Award in 2015 during the ESPYs. That was clearly political and inexcusable.

Yes, Jenner had just come out as a trans woman, but she hadn’t been in sports for years and there were other candidates who were deserving that year. Also, Jenner killed someone with her car. We forget that.

That said, ESPN sticks to what’s in its name for the most part: Entertainment and Sports.

3. Did ESPN Lose Viewership Because of Its Political Stances?

ESPN had to lose viewers who didn’t like its coverage of the anthem protests, but it would be ridiculous to blame the network’s loss of viewership and subscriptions solely on politics. There is evidence that the network lost subscribers due to behavioral economics, but the layoffs may also have a negative effect.

In 2011, ESPN had 100 million viewers. Since then, it has lost over 14 million subscribers, with 2 million of those losses suffered in 2018.

Most of these losses can be attributed to cord-cutting. People, especially younger consumers, have been moving away from cable and toward streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, where ESPN specials can be found. So, viewers don’t need to have monthly access to the network when they can view the specials if that’s all they want to see. However, ESPN+, Disney’s own streaming service, gained 1 million subs in only five months.

Now, many customers might be cutting the cord due to the cost of cable ­— and the lack of programming for that cost. ESPN is one of the most expensive cable channels and it has consistently raised its prices due to the costs it has incurred. One of the biggest drains on the network is NFL games. The league squeezes networks that carry its games every year and ESPN isn’t immune.

I think more losses ESPN suffers might be due to the layoffs. Longtime viewers of the sports network tuned in to see certain personalities and programs and as those personalities are moved off the air, there is less incentive for viewers to watch.

4. Should Sports Networks Avoid Politics?

This seems like an easy question to answer, but it’s more complicated than many of us will admit. ESPN has grappled with this question internally, especially after the 2016 presidential election in the United States kicked into high gear.

Many ESPN employees have said that the company had moved in a progressive direction and as a result, conservatives in the company have felt that they would be punished or excoriated for expressing their views. While it would do no good for left-leaning employees to mock them for expressing this type of sentiment, they need to be part of a good-faith discussion about what is and what is not acceptable to discuss at work and among their peers. They also need to be honest with themselves because I doubt they’d be complaining if most employees were conservative and the network took a decidedly conservative turn.

Right now, I would say that ESPN’s decision to remain as neutral as possible is the correct one, but it shouldn’t steer itself away from humanity and morality. Outside the Lines serves as a good example, but it doesn’t receive criticism mainly because there is an increased focus on the journalism. However, many of ESPN’s programs involve panels and other opinion shows because there is still a market for those programs. So, naturally, any sports discussion that overlaps with human interests and politics would bring out political opinions.

Sometimes, I don’t like the sports opinions espoused by analysts, but I’m not calling for certain analysts to be fired because of them. The same was try for Chris Broussard when he made comments about not accepting gay lifestyles in 2012. He wasn’t even fired over those decidedly conservative viewpoints, but I lost respect for him.

5. How Can Sports Networks Avoid Politics in the Age of Trump?

At times, this is impossible, especially when Trump tries to grab more attention for himself by insulting athletes, much like he did in 2017. The athletes have every right to defend themselves and as ambassadors of the games they analyze, it makes sense for sports journalists to cover the story. Yet would the smarter decision be to give Trump less attention when he throws a tantrum like this?

Personally, I would like to see the mainstream press cover Trump’s tweets less, but if an athlete’s response to Trump is part of an important discussion, it would be very strange for the sports press to ignore it. At the very least, they should put more focus on the athletes to show Trump (again) that his stupid outbursts will backfire on him.

Beyond Trump, I think that anything surrounding sports is fair game.

And sports leagues could help out the sports media by the way they handle certain situations. As I said in a previous post, NFL owners could have controlled the discussion regarding anthem protests earlier if they instructed networks not to show the protests — or talked to the athletes about their concerns. But no, since owners like Jerry Jones are so bullheaded, they turned it into a greater discussion and thus contributed to ESPN’s coverage of it.


Basically, I don’t think that ESPN is too political, but I think it should wade carefully when addressing tough topics that overlap with sports. The human element is important, but there needs to be a great focus on journalism. Beyond that, there is no placating people who just don’t want to handle differing opinions. Hence my need to write this series.

Next up, I will address Colin Kaepernick’s activism. This is often overlooked.


1. In January 2018, Jemele Hill announced that she was leaving SportsCenter to go work on Undefeated, another ESPN program. Hill ultimately left the network in August 2018. She is now a staff writer for The Atlantic.

2. In September 2017, some right-wingers that Jemele Hill received special treatment by ESPN after she made her comments about Trump on Twitter. In order to support their point, these right-wing pundits brought up the situations involving Linda Cohn and Curt Schilling. Of course, these pundits were fudging the details, if not just removing all context.

While appearing on a radio show in April 2017, Cohn said that ESPN had become too political. Because of her choice of words, Cohn was told take the next day off. She was technically not suspended but reprimanded because she criticized her employer. That was a no-no.

Schilling was let go by ESPN in 2016 because of he repeatedly made political comments and shared particularly awful conservative memes. The last straw came when the former MLB pitcher made anti-trans comments. Sure, Schilling is a conservative, but he kept making his political and exclusionary comments after knowing where the line was.

Thus, when people are pointing out Jemele Hill’s lack of punishment, these people are being intellectually dishonest.

3. Oddly enough, Hill was suspended in October 2017 after saying that anyone who disliked Jerry Jones’ decision regarding anthem protests should boycott the Dallas Cowboys’ advertisers. I guess money talks …

Have any thoughts on the subject? Time’s yours.

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