Inside and out, ESPN dealing with changing political dynamics

The 2016 presidential election season has been one most of us will never forget. The tone has been ugly, the controversies endless, the coverage unrelenting. Our social media feeds are full of politically charged statements, and what dialogue does exist between differing sides more often resembles a WWE match than nuanced debate.

Thankfully, I get to write about ESPN, where the focus on sports means I never have to deal with politics.

Ah, if only that were true.

As it turns out, ESPN is far from immune from the political fever that has afflicted so much of the country over the past year. Internally, there’s a feeling among many staffers -- both liberal and conservative -- that the company’s perceived move leftward has had a stifling effect on discourse inside the company and has affected its public-facing products. Consumers have sensed that same leftward movement, alienating some.

Before digging in, one quick clarification: I’m not here to advocate that ESPN take any particular political position or lean a certain way. It’s not my place to make that recommendation, and no one would listen anyway. This is more about the impact that taking a more identifiable political stance -- which I do believe ESPN has done -- is having on the company.

For most of its history, ESPN was viewed relatively apolitically. Its core focus was -- and remains today, of course -- sports. Although the nature of sports meant an occasional detour into politics and culture was inevitable, there wasn’t much chatter about an overall perceived political bias. If there was any tension internally, it didn’t manifest itself publicly.

That has changed in the past few years, and ESPN staffers cite several factors. One is the rise of social media, which has led to more direct political commentary by ESPN employees, even if not delivered via the network’s broadcast or digital pipes. Another is ESPN's increase in debate-themed shows, which encourage strong opinions that are increasingly focusing on the overlap between sports and politics.

There have also been concrete actions that have created a perception that ESPN has chosen a political side, such as awarding Caitlyn Jenner the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2015 ESPYS despite her not having competed athletically for decades, the company’s decision to move a golf tournament away from a club owned by presidential candidate Donald Trump and a perceived inequity in how punishments for controversial statements were meted out.

I asked ESPN President John Skipper whether the perceived political shift many ESPN employees and consumers have felt is real and, if so, whether it was a conscious decision on the network’s part.

“It is accurate that the Walt Disney Company and ESPN are committed to diversity and inclusion,” Skipper said. “These are long-standing values that drive fundamental fairness while providing us with the widest possible pool of talent to create the smartest and most creative staff. We do not view this as a political stance but as a human stance. We do not think tolerance is the domain of a particular political philosophy.”

Inside ESPN, however, some feel the lack of tolerance of a particular political philosophy is a problem.

"We've done a great job of diversity,” said longtime ESPN anchor Bob Ley. “But the one place we have miles to go is diversity of thought."

Many ESPN employees I talked to -- including liberals and conservatives, most of whom preferred to speak on background -- worry that the company’s politics have become a little too obvious, empowering those who feel as if they’re in line with the company’s position and driving underground those who don’t.

“If you’re a Republican or conservative, you feel the need to talk in whispers,” one conservative ESPN employee said. “There’s even a fear of putting Fox News on a TV [in the office].”

But Jemele Hill, co-host of ESPN2’s His & Hers, isn’t buying that. “I would challenge those people who say they feel suppressed,” she said. “Do you fear backlash, or do you fear right and wrong?”

One liberal ESPN contributor sees the issue as one not of inclusion but of exclusion, saying, “I'm concerned about the inclination for condemnation rather than conversation when unpopular ideas are spoken. I'm glad to see athletes acting as activists again. But it should be clear that in almost all cases they're not taking risky stances... What about athletes and commentators who don't swim that way, whether the issues are gay rights, transgender rights or opposition to abortion? ESPN has an issue -- not a mess, but an issue -- with saying it wants to stay apolitical but also actively promoting itself as a progressive platform.”

When I asked Skipper whether he worries about conservatives at ESPN feeling left out, he said, “I do not. Vigorous debate and opinion are important to us, and no one should be concerned about expressing an opinion as long as it is not personal nor intolerant. [Recently,] Randy Moss and Trent Dilfer offered very different points of view relative to Colin Kaepernick’s actions [protesting during the national anthem], and I believe both were comfortable doing so.”

Ley probably has more experience dealing with political issues than anyone else at the network. Since May 1990, he’s hosted Outside the Lines, which, per its title, addresses issues through the prism of sports but with a broader social context. Yet because Outside the Lines has performed that task with such journalistic rigor, it is rarely the target of consumer anger. To this day, OTL still reflects how journalists have traditionally communicated their political leanings: They didn’t.

But the world -- and journalism -- continues to evolve rapidly. The classic media model of objectivity has taken significant body blows in the digital age, accelerated in recent years by social media. And with an increasing number of athletes taking political stances, journalists are increasingly finding themselves wading into political waters.

Hill, for one, is fine with that, saying “I can try and say I’m apolitical, but it’s a lie. I don’t think it’s because we’re dying to get into political hot takes. Sports has dragged us into this conversation.”

Ley doesn’t believe there is anything nefarious going on, just that the bias is somewhat ingrained. “It’s in the water supply,” he said. “There’s no cabal gathering in a dark chamber.”

As with any news organization, it’s hard to know the political makeup of the staff. According to Federal Election Commission data, between 2012 and today, there were 104 individual political contributions from ESPN employees to identifiable partisan entities. Of those, 80 percent went to Democratic candidates, committees or PACs. Only 20 percent went to Republican candidates, committees or PACs.

Now, that’s a small sample size, and political contributions are not always made for purely partisan reasons. And not all of the donations were made by journalists, though many were made by senior executives who shape the company’s strategy.

Politics is also the frequent subject of emails from ESPN consumers. Just in the past week, I’ve gotten an email complaining about ESPN choosing to interview a Cleveland Indians fan in face paint and headdress, another asking me to get the network to stop using the term “Redskins” and two complaining about on-air criticism of presidential candidate Trump.

But while liberals tend to be critical of ESPN’s positions on specific issues, when the subject comes to broader political bias, the complaints come from conservatives.

“Why do you think there are almost no conservative political voices at ESPN, or its related properties?” asks reader Eric Danis. “ESPN seems to almost exclusively feature liberal writers and on-air personalities who are quick to share their political opinions in print, on television and via their social media accounts… I would like to see ESPN either severely reduce the injection of politics into its coverage and programming, or create a more politically diverse staff so that issues can be discussed from multiple sides.”

Reader Jim Harding agrees: “I remember when ESPN was the epitome of sports reporting. I grew up watching Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann host SportsCenter and absolutely loved them. Back then, Olbermann kept his radical left-wing opinions off the air. If he could do it for so long, the rest of the sports journalists can do the same. Or they can find jobs for political organizations, shows or publications. They have no business at ESPN.”

Another reader referenced Curt Schilling, the baseball analyst ESPN fired earlier this year after he posted an message on social media regarding transgender bathroom laws. ESPN issued a statement at the time that read: "ESPN is an inclusive company. Curt Schilling has been advised that his conduct was unacceptable and his employment with ESPN has been terminated."

After the Schilling firing, reader Rob Defenderfer wrote: “What disturbs me and many others is the unabashed left leaning of ESPN… Schilling can’t state an opinion or comment outside of his work duties of ESPN without recourse but the network can attempt to push its agenda… What this situation really proves is that liberals and liberal-leaning organizations like ESPN are open and tolerant of other people’s lifestyles and opinions as long as they align with their own beliefs. In the long run this only hurts your brand and viewership as middle of the road (politically).”

I could add many more, but you get the point. So why is politics such a hot-button issue for ESPN? Some of it might be a reflection of this particular moment in political history, and thus potentially ephemeral. But the most common explanation is simpler: Sports is escapism, and when politics intrude, the outcome is frustration among consumers.

But the separation of sports and politics has always been a fantasy. Sports has frequently served as a vehicle for positive social change. Whether it’s Jackie Robinson, Billie Jean King, Jesse Owens, Muhammad Ali, the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, John Carlos, Tommie Smith, Pat Tillman or Colin Kaepernick, history is full of athletes who made an impact that extended beyond their athletic accomplishments.

The idea of sports as escapism, while understandable, increasingly feels like a relic of the past. Athletes are taking more frequent and stronger stands on political and social topics. Health issues relating to on-field play are increasingly important to many fans -- not to mention to the leagues themselves. Off-the-field criminal behavior or drug use isn’t just news because it happens; it’s also news because it frequently affects a player’s ability to compete.

“Sports occupies a central place in our society, and, as such, it is unavoidably cultural in nature and often engaged in societal issues,” Skipper said. “While we celebrate and embrace the pure pleasure and passion of sports, we cannot ignore the social context. The coverage has been part of the fabric of ESPN for many years. For example, Outside the Lines -- which thoroughly chronicles these kinds of stories on TV, print and digital -- was created more than 25 years ago and will continue to engage on them. And it must also be emphasized that the vast majority of content we present on our platforms is about the games and athletes the fans love.”

Said Patrick Stiegman, ESPN’s vice president of global digital content: “There’s a higher volume of individuals stating their political point of view on social media, which is a challenge to manage. But they are citizens first and we try to provide guidelines about that commentary… We note in our social media guidelines, for example, that common sense should rule. The first thing is to think before you tweet. The second is to think before you retweet. We remind reporters and analysts that they representing ESPN at all times, though we understand there’s going to be a level of political discussion.”

ESPN issued its first set of internal guidelines for political discussion before the presidential election in 2008. The company tweaked those guidelines for 2012, and again in January of this year, when it sent the guidelines to all staffers.

Here are the key points:

  • All interviews, features, enterprise efforts or produced pieces with a sports angle, including attempts at humor, involving candidates must first be approved by senior management team. This is to ensure a coordinated and fair effort, and includes location, interviewer, timing and format. Criteria should include: Is this appropriate for our audience, are we in position to report with authority, and what impact will the coverage have? Approved content should be communicated in advance across all editorial platforms, ensuring consistency, eliminating redundancy and promoting fairness.

  • Should a candidate appear at or attend a live event on our air (e.g. MLB game, college football game, etc.), announcers should avoid any political commentary or prolonged references. A brief mention accompanying video of the candidate is appropriate. If approved by senior news managers, interviews may be conducted live or taped, depending on circumstance.

  • As it relates to news assignments, feature stories and profiles on candidates or their campaigns, we should seek interesting and compelling stories that represent the points of view and experiences of a broad range of candidates on sports-related issues (exceptions will be made for entities such as FiveThirtyEight.com, which covers politics as a regular beat).

  • We should refrain from political editorializing, personal attacks or “drive-by” comments regarding the candidates and their campaigns. Approved commentaries on sports-specific issues, or seeking responses from candidates on relevant news issues, are appropriate. However perceived endorsements should be avoided. (In others cases guidelines on social media, acceptable commentary and political advocacy should prevail).

“What we added specifically into this year’s guidelines was we wanted any coverage about the election filtered through a small set of editorial leaders to assure a coordinated and fair effort,” said Stiegman, who, as chairman of ESPN’s editorial board, led the effort to create and update the guidelines. “It’s gone quite smoothly as it relates to our platforms. I think we’ve done a good job of monitoring volume.”

But, alas, there’s a key qualifier in there: “our platforms.” Many of ESPN’s personalities -- past and present -- have not held back on their own social accounts.

ESPN is learning the same thing most media organizations have: It is exceedingly hard to maintain an objective institutional voice when almost all your employees have a direct line to their own audiences. Which begs the question: Is objectivity in 2016 still an attainable goal? Journalists are now asked to embrace social media and develop a unique voice to build a following. But “voice” often equals “opinion,” which runs counter to the desire for objectivity -- especially on non-sports-specific topics.

Beyond that, many ESPN personalities are not journalists. Is asking former professional athletes or coaches to keep their political opinions to themselves even realistic?

ESPN’s embrace of diversity and inclusion certainly puts it in the American mainstream. According to a 2015 Gallup study, the percentage of Americans who support gay or lesbian relations increased from 40 percent in 2001 to 63 percent in 2015. According to that same poll, “More Americans now rate themselves as socially liberal than at any point in Gallup's 16-year trend, and for the first time, as many say they are liberal on social issues as say they are conservative.”

But another way of saying that 63 percent of the country supports gay and lesbian relations is that 37 percent do not. And 37 percent is still a big number.

Barry Blyn, ESPN’s vice president of consumer insights, says that “perceptions of political bias in ESPN coverage and actions are limited. In fact, negative effects in terms of top-of-mind attitudes are quite minimal.”

But he did note that, when asked about specific topics, fans do tend to feel more strongly. He said consumers reacted more negatively to Jenner winning the Arthur Ashe Courage Award and the televising of the ABC Obama town hall.

Overall, though, Blyn said the political makeup of ESPN's audience isn't a major focus. "It's not something we spend much time on," he said. "We spend more time tracking fan reaction to our sports reporting. That reporting only occasionally intersects with political themes."

One notion that virtually everyone I spoke to at ESPN dismisses is what some have perceived as unequal treatment of conservatives who make controversial statements vs. liberals who do the same. Many reader emails have focused on the firing of baseball analyst Schilling, the perceived demotion of NFL analyst Mike Ditka after sharp criticism of President Barack Obama and Colin Cowherd’s departure for Fox Sports not long after being suspended for a controversial comment about Dominican baseball players. Those I talked to felt that each of the situations was unique and not part of any formal attempt to stifle conservative speech.

“I didn’t see that [bias]. In fact, I think there’s a realization that if we come down hard on anyone right-of-center right now, it probably would be an issue,” one ESPN staffer told me.

“ESPN is in an uncomfortable position,” Jemele Hill said. “They don’t want to suppress anyone’s beliefs, but some would say, ‘You can say that, but Curt Schilling got fired.’ But the values Curt Schilling was trying to promote didn’t line up with what ESPN wants to be as a company.”

“Tolerance is not a playing-it-down-the-middle issue or a journalism standard,” Skipper said. “It is a cultural imperative at our company. Regarding our reporting and journalism, again, our intent is not to be political but to be fair and accurate.”

Another part of the public perception of ESPN’s political shift comes from the acquisition of FiveThirtyEight in 2013 and the launch of The Undefeated earlier this year. Neither property is a full-on sports site. FiveThirtyEight is best known for its political coverage, and The Undefeated -- although most of its pieces are indeed about sports -- also consistently writes about politics and culture. And because both own very prominent real estate on ESPN.com’s home page, as well as recent Undefeated TV specials, there’s a perception that those sites reflect the company’s desire to exert more influence in the political realm.

Much of the feedback I receive about FiveThirtyEight tags it with a clear liberal bias. But I don’t see that. Many readers cite stories claiming that Trump’s chances of winning are small as evidence of bias. But FiveThirtyEight uses data to produce those projections, as it does with almost every story it produces. Saying Trump is behind is not a political position; it’s largely a consensus view.

“We want to make sure no one accuses us of being pushed in an ideological direction,” said FiveThirtyEight managing editor David Firestone. “We want to use data to determine if we think Donald Trump’s tax plan makes zero sense. And we’ll be just as critical of Hillary Clinton’s plans as Trump’s and back it up with data you can see.”

Kevin Merida, editor-in-chief of The Undefeated, says the site’s coverage reflects its audience. “We don’t hear a lot of [complaining about politics and culture coverage],” he said. “Our audience is thirsty for that stuff. The other stuff is in the center of the room… The athletes themselves are driving a lot of the conversation around it.”

Most surveys show African-American political affiliation at between 80 and 90 percent Democratic, so it’s hard to argue that The Undefeated’s liberal tilt is bad business. But it certainly has fed the overall perception of ESPN’s political position.

Some conservatives have claimed that The Undefeated’s recent televised town hall with Obama was a sign of ESPN’s bias. I disagree. There are few media organizations that would turn down an opportunity to interview the sitting president of the United States. Similarly, criticism of ESPN’s airing of a 30 for 30 short about President George W. Bush’s first pitch during the 2001 World Series was also silly.

The assertion that giving a president airtime is a tacit endorsement is a symptom of today’s absolutism. The world is still as gray as it’s always been, but tolerance for gray seems to be rapidly fading.

The company’s July 15 decision to pull its ESPY Celebrity Golf Classic from Trump National Golf Club did give me pause, however. In a statement at the time, ESPN said:

“We decided it was appropriate to change the venue, and are grateful for the opportunity to stage the event at Pelican Hill on short notice. This charity outing benefits The V Foundation’s Stuart Scott Memorial Cancer Research Fund, providing resources for important cancer research for minority populations, including Hispanics and African Americans. Our decision reflects our deep feelings for our former colleague and support for inclusion of all sports fans. Diversity and inclusion are core values at ESPN and our decision also supports that commitment.”

It’s a heartfelt and lovely sentiment. And, yes, many of Trump’s statements -- including the ones that led to the relocation of the tournament -- have been outside the pale of traditional political discourse. But when a company as influential as ESPN picks up and moves an event because of statements made by a presidential candidate, it’s hard to see how it can be read by anyone as anything other than a political statement.

Hill thinks part of the issue might be the intensity of this particular election.

“In 2012, there wasn’t quite this level of chatter,” she said. “This time, you’ve got one candidate who is so polarizing, and, because of the racist and xenophobic views associated with him, it’s made it difficult to stay quiet about it.”

Hill’s comment begs the question: Is this phase a temporary one, thanks to the scorched-earth presidential campaign? I doubt it. The ease of finding a safe place where your views aren’t challenged is easier than ever, and, whoever wins the election, we’ll soon have a president disliked by a majority of the country. So I don’t see our hyper-partisanship changing any time soon.

So let’s take the next step and assume that ESPN has moved leftward and that the cat is out of the bag in terms of on-air discussion of politics. Because I believe both of those things to be true. How does one guarantee ideological diversity in that scenario? I think that’s the key question for ESPN going forward in these intense political times.

Reader Ryan McShane sums it up well: “The easy answer is to of course not touch politics at all, but in today’s landscape they have become too intertwined with sports to ignore. I think ESPN as a whole handles it well, however any company based almost solely on both coasts needs to take an additional step of making sure the opinions of middle America are represented as well, even if no malice is intended.”

I don’t believe there’s malice intended, either. But, in talking to people in the course of reporting this piece, it is clear that ESPN has a challenge in front of it. I don’t think the answer is to try to stifle those with strong viewpoints; rather, it’s to make sure a broader range of voices are heard.

Why, some might ask? Because, at heart, ESPN is a business. And based on a Gallup survey on political affiliation from mid-September, 44 percent of the country identifies itself as either “Republican” or “leans Republican.” That’s less than the 49 percent that identifies itself as “Democrat” or “leans Democrat,” but not by much.

If ESPN continues to let its personalities debate the issues of the day but finds a way to better balance those conversations, it will be richer for it. In more ways than one.