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Lessons for Dan Le Batard and ESPN alike in latest foray into politics

Dan Le Batard on the set of ESPN’s Highly Questionable in Miami, Fla., in 2014.
Dan Le Batard
(Associated Press)

In the boiling-hot-to-quickly-evaporating news cycle of stories about sports media members — public figures who border on celebrity — last week was full of suspense over whether Dan Le Batard would be reprimanded, suspended or fired by ESPN because of comments he made on his radio show in response to politically toxic tweets from President Trump.

ESPN chief Jimmy Pitaro had Le Batard meet him Thursday. The air was cleared.

Those familiar with the temperament and leadership style of Pitaro, who started steering the all-sports network’s nuclear submarine in the spring of 2018, figured Le Batard would get the benefit of any doubts. Still, Pitaro has made it clear he’s not keen on his employees talking about anything tinged with politics.

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Hairs could be split arguing that this wasn’t exactly politics Le Batard addressed on his July 18 ESPN radio show. Trump-incited rhetoric lures counterattacks, and Le Batard was drawn to the subject by Fox Sports commentator Nick Wright’s tweet suggesting Trump’s “go back where you came from” tweets about Democratic congresswomen was worthy of a sports-show conversation.

From those who know him as the son of Cuban exiles, Le Batard’s taken-aback response resonated as authentic. But it then leaped into a measured tone of defiance as he continued on about how ESPN lacks “the stomach” to push back against things in the political arena. He also used terms like “cowardly” and “weak-ass” to explain his company’s policy toward politically slanted banter.

When the 2019 NFL draft took over downtown Nashville last month, ESPN became a city within the city, with more than 600 staffers and freelancers on site, and its top executive, Jimmy Pitaro, surveyed the scene like its mayor.

The truth is, it must hurt ESPN to hear this.

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It has dealt with similar insubordination from Stephen A. Smith, Curt Schilling, Jemele Hill and Linda Cohn, not to mention several run-ins with Keith Olbermann. In doing so, ESPN measures the equity that person has built with the company before determining if it’s too problematic.

Yet it’s the diversity of those voices — whether one agrees or not — that becomes a launching point for meaningful discussion. A company with a 40-year track record should embrace and nurture dialogue instead of always worrying about the punitive effects of it.

ESPN also has specifically framed platforms with “Outside the Lines” and “E:60,” plus espnW.com and TheUndefeated.com, for more transcendent analysis and discussion of sports’ diverse avenues. Smart, credible voices like Le Batard‘s would make a far greater impact taking their most weighted opinions to these spaces instead of inserting them into their squawk-box programs that create odd segues after pseudo debates about mundane things like whether Jared Goff is truly a top-five NFL quarterback.

Le Batard, 50, is a valuable asset, evident by ESPN giving him a four-year deal in the summer of 2018 amid rumors he might jump to a Sirius XM satellite radio show — no doubt a place that would encourage conversation like this.

Le Batard’s past indiscretions at the company are rather minor and reflect more on his methods than motives. Five years ago, ESPN gave him a two-day suspension for his part in a billboard/plane banner campaign targeting LeBron James for leaving Miami for Cleveland. A few months earlier, Le Batard made news for giving his Baseball Hall of Fame ballot to the off-kilter website Deadspin.com as an act of defiance because he felt the Baseball Writers’ Association of America was “moralizing” the annual vote.

Today, Le Batard’s voice on any ESPN platform is a win for viewers and listeners. Just recall how impactful it was in 2016 when he spoke on ESPN airwaves about his deeply hurt feelings when President Obama and Major League Baseball visited Cuba for an exhibition game. He was skeptical that the trip would help improve Cuban citizens’ lives and not just support the regime in power.

ESPN still has that link up on its website, to its credit. As it should.

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If John Skipper was running the Cirque du Bristol today, Le Batard’s fate could have been different.

ESPN hired him years ago because of the opinions he generated as a columnist for the Miami Herald. It should know what it’s getting with Le Batard, who is back on his syndicated radio show that airs weekdays from noon to 3 p.m. on KLAA-AM (830) after the taping of his “Highly Questionable” TV half-hour banter with his irrepressible father that ESPN slots at 1:30 p.m.

Tune in to see what happens next, right?

What’s next for ESPN, however, remains what one thinks of this fragmented company that serves conflicting agendas in the name of sports and entertainment. Its magic kingdom has a chance with Pitaro at the controls to be less of a Mickey Mouse mindset.

Now Le Batard must apparently keep calm and mind the gap. Especially the one that exists between those who might commit career suicide by shouting from the top of Principle Mountain, versus the reality of employment in a Disney-affiliated corporation ruled by shareholders’ mountainous piles of financial investment.


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