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The Loop

Does ESPN have a political duty to stay out of politics?

November 21, 2017

Mike Windle

Sports have always had a political dimension, and it can explode, and has, any time and anywhere. Today in the United States that dimension challenges us in an uncommon and particularly volatile way, and the sports media still can't figure out what to do about it. What's ESPN's duty when we wake up and see something like this straight from the President of the United States?

This both is and isn't about Beast Mode. Unlike Colin Kaepernick, whom Trump also targeted, Lynch is an active player who grabs ESPN headers with his elite athleticism. Trump wants to bring the full power of his office to bear by casting Beast Mode's fitness for the league in cultural, not athletic terms. If you think ESPN should stay out of politics, perhaps politics (and Trump) should stay out of sports. But here we hit the problem: Sports and politics are often inseparable.

Athletics are a natural vessel for politics: Teams or people become metonyms for places and cultures big and small, and they compete in a zero-sum game outside of politics. Think of the nationalist fervor drummed up in international competition: The ambassadorship of North Korean or Iraqi soccer teams; Nixon's U.S.-China ping-pong diplomacy; Hitler's exploitation of the 1936 Berlin Olympics (and Jesse Owens's American defiance); the blockbuster post-apartheid South African rugby squad; the (ice) Cold War Miracle on Ice.

Domestically isn't any different. It's not uncommon for former athletes to run for and hold office. (Donald Trump, I'll note here, makes a conscious effort to avoid exercise. In fact, when Trump learned one of his casino execs was training for an Ironman, Trump told him, "You are going to die young because of this." ) Hell, sports can even decide elections.

Today, though, we've engaged in a unique debate, or at least unique to our era. These are active athletes being actively political in an unstable political environment, often at odds with their own government.

So how does ESPN, which has stayed out of the political arena, cover this? Should they? I think the network owes it to the broader and historic spirit of sports as shown above, but it will be hard if not impossible for them to even try to walk a line. Then again, if ESPN stays out of it they might seem like cowards, or even complicit in actively silencing minority voices who choose to use their platform and success to call attention to injustices. After all, the history of sports in America reflects in so many ways, silent and overt, our complicated relationships with class, race, and gender.

As long as major athletes and sports personalities go political it seems ESPN has a duty, professionally and philosophically, to cover those stories. But note also that it's not just about covering or ignoring a few heroes/targets and issues of the day. The sports themselves are also politicized, with the biggest example being the national anthem. (For which, by the way, athletes weren't even required to be on the field for until 2009, and which didn't require "patriotic salutes" until 2012 when the Department of Defense started paying teams to perform them.)

No surprise that the network has had so much trouble striking a balance: Jemele Hill; pulling Robert Lee; off-the-rails roundtable kneeling debates (often with people whose stridency is the inverse of their political depth); and even Samantha Ponder got into it, recently criticizing the CEO of Barstool Sports, an ESPN-affiliated brand, of virulent misogyny, which caused ESPN to cut its relationship with Barstool.

Despite the overblown complaints, though, ESPN isn't actively politicizing sports. That's clearly not in their best interest: We've never been this divided in recent memory, and the network has motives of both profit and principle to avoid alienating viewers. The network hasn't started any of this, but the activities of its personalities and the subjects it covers, amplified by the volume of our politics, make it impossible for ESPN to ignore its journalistic responsibility.

On the other hand, given the ubiquity and volatility, should we sequester politics to the domain of traditional news networks? Should ESPN stay on the field? If so, what about 30 for 30? Those movies acknowledge that sports and politics are at times inseparable -- and not only inseparable, but a crucial element of what makes the human athletic experience meaningful and profound -- but how do you cover it in real time, during such a precarious time, without the safety and accuracy of hindsight? Here at The Loop we face this question a lot, one we don't have much experience handling: When are we justified or compelled to comment on the political stories of the day? And when we are, how do we approach it? What tone do we strike?

Maddie Meyer

Given this, it seems to me that ESPN has a competing political responsibility: to be radically apolitical. It's a duty perhaps unique to our time, and to such a major platform, when sports might be the last major arena where unity (maybe even basic civility) is achievable. It's not trivial: This split and its looming and perhaps inevitable, perhaps irreconcilable rupture will be seen as arguably the most important political event in recent American history. But sports offer a reprieve of neutrality. They give Americans who hate each other's politics, and by now probably each other's guts, a way to have civil discussions about things we actually agree on, even a way to celebrate each other. But more importantly, sports offer a way to have civil debate about things we don't agree on: Is Joe Flacco elite? ESPN offers a refresher course in how politics works that our politics themselves can no longer deliver. We need it. Philadelphia fans especially.

In the long run, then, despite the fact that ESPN in its debatable capacity as a news organization has what I'd call a mighty responsibility to cover the politics of sport, the network might also have a political mission that rivals and possibly eclipses it: To do all it can to bring people together.

This question deserves more than a liberal knee-jerk response -- "Of course not!" -- even if that's your ultimate conclusion. It's also not the same as the common conservative refrain, "Leave politics out of sports! (Because black people shouldn't complain.)."

But that last part is the rub. The question, ultimately, is about the weight of each responsibility: Does unity outweigh divisiveness of the moment, even if that divisiveness is an urgent, totally relevant and culturally significant story? Would it even be possible for us to set aside our cynicism and trust that a radically apolitical ESPN is politically courageous, not complicit in repression, not cowardly or irresponsible or kissing the ring or selling out to corporate interests?

It sure doesn't look good for us, does it?