Perhaps someone didn’t get the memo.
Ever since Jimmy Pitaro took the helm of ESPN in early 2018, employees at the Walt Disney-owned sports-media juggernaut were made aware of at least one thing: The new boss didn’t want sportscasters yakking it up about politics any longer. But Dan Le Batard, the popular radio and TV host, has tested that policy about 18 months into Pitaro’s tenure at the Walt Disney-owned sports-media juggernaut.
Le Batard took to his radio show Thursday (often simulcast on ESPNEWS) and began to comment on a tweet by Fox Sports commentator Nick Wright, who suggested President Donald Trump’s recent comments about Democratic Congresswomen going back to their countries of origin was something that even sports hosts could discuss.
Le Batard called President Trump’s words “so wrong” and then called out his own company for not allowing more conversation about it. ESPN, he said, lacks “the stomach for that fight because Jemele did some things on Twitter, and you saw what happened after that.” He was referring to former ESPN commentator Jemele Hill, who sparked a big controversy for ESPN by calling President Trump a “white supremacist.” Le Batard subsequently said ESPN does not “talk about what is happening unless there’s some sort of weak cowardly sports angle that we can run it through.”
ESPN’s many outspoken personalities have been instructed that sports is fine to discuss – even when controversies erupt around racial or cultural matters. But talking about politics for the sake of it? That has become a company taboo.
“We are not a political organization. We are a sports-media company. And our focus is on serving the sports fans. There will always be intersections between sports and politics. When that news happens, we are going to cover it,” Pitaro told Variety in March of 2018 during his first interview after taking over as president of ESPN. “I will tell you, regarding our employees specifically, we provided them with guidelines. There is general understanding and alignment in terms of what our best path forward is within the company.”
Under the tenure of John Skipper, Pitaro’s predecessor, ESPN personalities felt more empowered to take on topics outside the lines. Hill, a popular reporter who moved steadily up the ranks, struck a noticeable chord when she commented about Trump on Twitter, and then subsequently suggested people boycott sponsors of the Dallas Cowboys in response to comments owner Jerry Jones made about player protests during the national anthem. ESPN suspended her for two weeks, and she eventually took a less prominent role at the organization before parting ways.
ESPN declined to comment on Le Batard’s comments or whether he faced any disciplinary action. A person familiar with the situation said ESPN’s policies regarding discussion of politics have not changed, and suggested the company’s guidelines were being communicated to employees – including Le Batard.
ESPN fans have heard all kind of comments about games, athletes and leagues, but outbursts about more general topics have been kept to a relative minimum since Pitaro took the unit’s reins. Keith Olbermann, Stephen A. Smith and baseball writer Keith Law were among the personalities serving up opinion on everything from evolution to domestic abuse. Now, most hosts stick to talking about action on the field and the forces that affect it. Or at least they did.