Dan Le Batard’s future at ESPN came into question this week when he tore into President Donald Trump on his popular show, directly challenging ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro’s no politics ban.
As of Friday afternoon, Le Batard was still on the air. But he missed the first hour of his TV/radio simulcast in Miami, while ESPN sternly reminded all of its on-air talent – including Le Batard – to steer clear of the third rail of politics. During June, Le Batard’s radio show averaged 2.3 million listeners across 240 U.S. stations.
ESPN previously cut ties with Jemele Hill in 2018 after she called Trump a “white supremacist.” If ESPN eventually splits with Le Batard, and he becomes a free agent, rival DAZN could be waiting in the wings, sources tell Front Office Sports.
The deep-pocketed DAZN is looking to hire more multimedia stars who can be the face of the streaming network in the U.S., said sources. The irreverent but controversial Le Batard would be a “natural match” said sources.
Le Batard has emerged as one of ESPN’s most popular TV/Radio stars. At a time when the Hispanic population of the U.S. is rising, the son of Cuban exiles is the network’s most prominent Latino personality.
But the host of the weekday Highly Questionable on ESPN and Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz on ESPN Radio also has deep connections to two former ESPN executives turned shot callers at DAZN.
Le Batard’s friends with Jamie Horowitz, DAZN’s executive vice president of content for North America. During his time at FS1 and ESPN, Horowitz welcomed talent with strong opinions. Think Le Batard, Hill, Stephen A. Smith, Skip Bayless, Shannon Sharpe, Jason Whitlock, Colin Cowherd and Keith Olbermann. Both Bayless and Cowherd loyally followed Horowitz to FS1 from ESPN. DAZN declined to comment.
Meanwhile, Le Batard has often praised DAZN executive chairman John Skipper for his support of minority hiring. Skipper was his biggest supporter at ESPN. When Skipper resigned in December 2017, Le Batard broke down in tears on the air. He doesn’t have the same personal connection to current management, said sources.
ESPN declined to comment on whether Le Batard would be suspended for calling his own network “cowardly” for banning political discussion. But one ESPN source said: “We are making it very clear to everyone internally, including Dan, that our policy hasn’t changed.”
On his show Friday, Le Batard joked about eating a big breakfast as the reason why he missed the first hour. He never apologized or directly addressed his Trump comments from the previous day.
Since succeeding Skipper, Pitaro has banned ESPN talent from talking politics unless there’s a legit reason, such as a player like Le Bron James, or coach such as Steve Kerr talking, addressing Trump or players protesting racial/social injustice.
Skipper suspended Hill after she ripped Trump, then urged fans to boycott the advertisers of Jerry Jones’ Dallas Cowboys. After Pitaro took over, ESPN bought out Hill’s contract, paying her $5 million with two years still left on her deal. She’s now a podcaster and pundit for The Atlantic. Even the fiery Olbermann has toed Pitaro’s hard line, tweeting about dogs rather than the Culture Wars.
All that may have changed Thursday when Le Batard blasted Trump and his supporters for chanting “send her back” about Somali refugee turned U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar at a rally Wednesday night.
Unlike Hill, Le Batard ripped Trump on ESPN airwaves, not a personal social media account. He didn’t names. But by implication, Le Batard called out the bosses paying him millions, such as ESPN’s Pitaro and Disney’s Bob Iger, for their perceived timidity toward Trump.
“This felt un-American what happened last night. Basically, a chant ‘send her back.` It’s not the America that my parents came to get for us, for exiles, for brown people,” said Le Batard Thursday. “There’s a racial division in this country that’s being instigated by the president and 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 and then here, all of a 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 these subjects. But what happened last night at this rally is deeply offensive, done by the president of our country.”
He went on to praise a tweet by Nick Wright of FS1’s First Things First morning show. Wright declared that not calling out the “abhorrent” racism of the “send her back” chant makes you “complicit.” Le Batard agreed.
”It is so right what (Wright) is saying there. It is so wrong what the President of our country is doing, trying to get reelected by dividing the masses at a time when the old white man, the old rich white man, feels oppressed, being attacked by minorities. Black people, brown people, women. That’s who we’re going after now…Let’s do it as the platform. That’s what we’re seeing,” he said.
Le Batard continued: “This isn’t about politics, it’s about race. What you’re seeing happening around here is about race. It’s been turned into politics. We only talk about it around here when Steve Kerr or (Gregg) Popovich say something. We don’t talk about what is happening unless there’s some sort of weak, cowardly sports angle that we can run it through when sports has always been a place where this stuff changes.
“Man, Muhammad Ali was fighting for this stuff in the sixties. Bill Russell and Jim Brown are really old! Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is old. These people who were fighting, the most powerful among us in sports who were fighting in the Civil Rights era for things — atrocities happening to black people that we’re still paying for now in a country where this is our greatest sin, what has happened to minorities in this country. They’re old and dying. Jim Brown walks with a cane, man. He walks with a cane. He’s going to go to grave without having seen change. He’s gonna go to the grave with Colin Kaepernick still out of the league. Literally blackballed because we’re taking this stuff and we’re making it about the flag when it’s not about the flag. It’s about race, like burning a cross and saying it’s about God. This isn’t about the flag,” he said.
READ MORE: Shot Callers — Mike Greenberg, Host, ESPN
Then Le Batard returned to the “send her back” chant about Congresswoman Omar.
“Send her back? How are you any more American than her? You’re more privileged, you’re whiter, you’re richer, people don’t know whether your money is real or not. You’ve had every privilege afforded to you by America, every privilege. And now, what you do with that power is you go after brown people and black people and minorities? And around here, we won’t talk about it?” he asked.“We won’t talk about it unless Russell Wilson is saying something about it on his Instagram page. Then we have the power to run with it. Weak-ass shield. It is antithetical to what we should be. And If you’re not calling it abhorrent, obviously racist, dangerous rhetoric, you’re complicit.”
ESPN would seem to be between a rock and a hard place when it comes to responding to Le Batard.
If they ignore his comments about Trump, that could give the green light to other talent to express their political views heading into a contentious 2020 U.S. presidential election.
If they give him a slap on the wrist, some ESPNers might ask why they pushed out the African-American Hill while letting Le Batard keep his job?
If they eventually cut ties with Le Batard a few months from now, his buyout might be just as expensive as the previous deal with Hill.
Both Le Batard and on-air partner Jon “Stugotz” Weiner signed multi-year contract extensions last summer. So a buyout could cost millions.
The most likely solution, said one source, is Pitaro puts Le Batard on double-secret probation, like Skipper did with Hill. Then, if Le Batard crosses the line again, Pitaro will be more justified in making a move.
Hill herself praised Le Batard’s “courageous, accurate commentary” on Twitter Friday, posting a video of his comments.
“I’m sure stick-to-sports Guy/girl is having a meltdown somewhere, but one of the many reasons I left is that I was tired of the pretense Dan discusses here,” she tweeted.
The Pitaro reign at ESPN has been almost controversy-free. While Le Batard’s comments could blow over, another source is not so sure this is over yet.
Just when ESPN thought it was done with the allegation they’re a liberal-leaning, politically correct, sports version of MSNBC, here comes Le Batard to start the debate all over again. It’s a headache Pitaro and ESPN don’t want or need.
“This is an issue about their ‘politics’ that they had put behind them. Le Batard just reignited it in the biggest way possible,” said the source. “He’s brought the controversy back bigger than ever. This was a FU to Jimmy Pitaro and Bob Iger.”