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ESPN doesn’t want its people mixing sports and politics

President Donald Trump gestures during a rally in Greenville, N.C. on July 17.
President Donald Trump gestures during a rally in Greenville, N.C. on July 17.
(Gerry Broome / Associated Press)

One of the signature moments of Dan Le Batard’s popular ESPN Radio show is when he reads a tweet or text from someone who doesn’t understand why he’s spending so much time talking about a random topic with no connection to sports.

The complaint is followed by a loud gong and a clip of Le Batard’s father, “Papi,” shouting, “You don’t get the show!”

When Le Batard discusses his relationship with the network in a meeting with ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro this week, he will have to figure out whether his boss gets the show — and whether their views for it now and in the future are in line.

Le Batard criticized President Trump’s racist rhetoric at rallies — and ESPN’s policy of avoiding politics — on his radio show last week.

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“We here at ESPN haven’t had the stomach for that fight because Jemele [Hill] did some things on Twitter, and you saw what happened after that,” Le Batard said. “Then, here, all of the sudden, nobody talks politics on anything unless we can use one of these sports figures as a meat shield in the most cowardly possible way to discuss the subject. … We don’t talk about what is happening unless there’s some sort of weak, cowardly sports angle that we can run it through.”

Le Batard took Monday off after speaking with Pitaro by phone over the weekend, but he wasn’t disciplined for going after Trump and being critical of his employer. It’s not a surprise. ESPN has generally shown leniency with its high-profile personalities after their first transgression. Hill, for example, wasn’t suspended for calling Trump a “white supremacist,” but was later suspended two weeks for calling for an advertiser boycott of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones after he said his players would stand for the national anthem or not play.

I have firsthand experience with ESPN. I was with the company for more than nine years.

ESPN doesn’t have a political problem as much as it has a Trump problem. In other words, if Le Batard wanted to talk about Bernie Sanders, health care or who Ted Cruz looks like, chances are no one would care. But ESPN wants to stay as far away from Trump as possible, even when the president shoehorns himself into sports stories in a way that can’t be ignored.

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ESPN declined comment for this story but did send over research that supports their view on politics. According to their research, 74% of sports fans across party lines prefer not to hear about politics on ESPN. That’s a view shared by avid fans (85%) as well as Democrats (69%) and Republicans (84%).

This makes sense, generally, but Trump is a polarizing figure whose actions transcend simple politics. It’s hard for someone like Le Batard, the son of Cuban refugees, or me, the son of Iranian immigrants persecuted during the hostage crisis, to be told to keep quiet and “stick to sports.”

I found myself in the middle of this dilemma two years ago when I was in China with the UCLA men’s basketball team and LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill were arrested for shoplifting in Hangzhou.

As if being in China and chasing around the Ball family following an arrest wasn’t crazy enough, Trump, who arrived in China four days later, inserted himself into the situation. He claimed to have helped get the players out of jail, back to their hotel and home after speaking with the president of China, Xi Jinping.

After Dan Le Batard used his radio show to call out racist chants at a Trump rally, it’s apparent sports can no longer be where we go to avoid reality.

As the only U.S.-based reporter on the trip, staying at the same hotel as the players, it was surreal to hear Trump give an alternate view of what I was witnessing in person. These were the facts: Ball, Riley and Hill were arrested for shoplifting on Tuesday and released early Wednesday morning and sent back to their hotel before news of the incident began to spread. They got their passports back Friday and were told they were free to return home Tuesday and subsequently booked their return tickets. Trump and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly didn’t get involved until Sunday, after Trump was asked — belatedly — if he would assist.

“The situation was already resolved by the time we heard about Trump’s involvement,” one UCLA official in China told me. “That’s not to take away from the fact that he got involved, but the players already had their passports back and their flights booked to go home Tuesday night when Gen. Kelly called the players.”

Yet, as I sought over social media to correct Trump’s timeline of events or his assertion that the players might be headed to jail for 10 years, I was told by my ESPN bosses on numerous occasions not to tweet or tag Trump. I was also told not to opine on Trump’s imagined role in the players’ release and his subsequent tweets wondering whether he would be thanked.

They clearly wanted to stay as far away from Trump as possible.

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Le Batard said, “There’s a racial division in this country that’s being instigated by the president.” The problem is, Le Batard works for a company that doesn’t want that division to extend to an audience it is trying toturn into ESPN+ subscribers.

It’s a difficult tightrope to navigate, and one that Le Batard, like Hill, might have to get off if he truly wants to speak his mind.


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