Tale Of Two Networks: Why ESPN Can’t Talk Donald Trump – But Fox Talent Can

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Photo Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Why do ESPN personalities like Dan Le Batard and Jemele Hill get in trouble for talking politics – while those at rival Fox Sports’ FS1 cable channel get a free pass?

That question is being asked as ESPN opinionists like Le Batard run afoul of ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro’s ‘No Politics’ policy.

Le Batard was recently summoned to the proverbial principal’s office for saying his “cowardly” employer doesn’t have the “stomach” to confront President Donald Trump, or hot button racial issues, unless some “meat shield” player or coach brings them up first.

Previously, Hill split with ESPN after calling Trump a “white supremacist” on Twitter, then suggesting fans boycott the sponsors of Dallas Cowboys Owner Jerry Jones. Hill’s now free to speak her mind as a writer for The Atlantic and host of her own Unbothered podcast on Spotify.

But don’t forget, it was FS1’s Nick Wright who inspired Le Batard to defy his own network by tweeting the “send her home” chants at a Trump rally about Somali refugee-turned Congresswoman Ilhan Omar were “abhorrent, obviously racist, dangerous rhetoric.”

Wright is far from the only Fox Sports personality who has weighed in on politics.

FS1’s Shannon Sharpe ripped Trump as a “bully” and worse for calling protesting NFL players “sons of bitches.” Both Sharpe and Undisputed debate partner Skip Bayless have strongly defended Colin Kaepernick and other players kneeling for racial justice.

So what it is? Do people love to hate ESPN? Does the outsized influence of conservative commentators like Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham at Fox News give air cover to the conglomerate’s sports colleagues to say what they want? Or is FS1’s cultural influence so much smaller than the Worldwide Leader in Sports that people don’t care all that much what their on-air people have to say?

Fox Sports personalities such as Jason Whitlock and Clay Travis have gleefully poked the ESPN bear for its alleged liberal bias. Fox declined to comment on whether it even has a policy on political talk under Mark Silverman, president of national networks. The issue isn’t going away as we head into a divisive U.S. Presidential election in 2020. 

Front Office Sports asked a number of experts, including Hill and ESPN author James Andrew Miller, for their thoughts thoughts on why Fox Sports personalities can talk politics but ESPN opinionists can’t:

– Jemele Hill, staff writer The Atlantic, host of Unbothered podcast:

ESPN is far more culturally relevant than Fox Sports. ESPN is the dominant brand in sports media. The expectations are just different for ESPN, and the network is held to a higher standard. Disney owns ESPN and Disney doesn’t traffic and revel in controversy and extremes in the same way that Fox seems to. 

When your news arm has personalities such as Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, then how could you possibly say anything problematic as a Fox Sports analyst? 

I always thought ESPN’s biggest mistake was treating the ‘too liberal’ perception like it was credible. There were people at Fox who eagerly latched on to that narrative and pushed it even further because it was good for business and it kept them relevant. 

Meanwhile, they were doing the same thing. The only difference was that they were discussing sports and politics from a different viewpoint, one that supposedly resonated better with what average Joes were thinking. And I think you can guess who the average Joes were. 

– James Andrew Miller, author of Those Guys Have All The Fun: Inside The World of ESPN, host of Origins podcast:

Sometimes it becomes silly to compare non-event sport operations at ESPN and Fox. They’re vastly different ecosystems, with few similarities when it comes to brand agenda, individual freedoms, and relationships with their parent companies. 

It’s clear that Fox doesn’t discourage, but rather encourages its personalities to speak their minds (even when they are out of their minds) and values virtually all attention that develops as a result. 

ESPN is just the opposite. In the aftermath of the beatings they received over their alleged politicization a few years ago, they have developed an ultra-sensitive, thin layer of skin that causes them to worry about many things their personalities say apart from scores. 

READ MORE: ESPN To Avoid Trump And 2020 Election

The two entities are pursuing vastly different strategies — each of which seems to be working for them. 

But it does make Fox Sports a much easier place to work. Their on-air cast must have lower blood pressures than ESPN’s because they don’t have to repress so much of what they believe in, and they don’t have to worry what will happen to them if they cross the corporate guidelines rubicon. 

– Ryan Glasspiegel, The Big Lead

It’s not just Nick and Shannon. Clay Travis had Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard on his Fox Sports Radio show — I know that FSR is licensed to Premiere, but Clay is also a FS1 talent — and it made national news. If anyone was up in arms about that, I missed it.

On one level it is surprising to me that regardless of party affiliation Fox seems impervious to blowback when its talents take strong political stances. I think it comes down to ESPN, in its 40th year, being the North Star of the sports conversation industry, and people’s nostalgic memories for the halcyon days of SportsCenter, before anyone even had an inkling about, for example, Keith Olbermann’s politics. 

This isn’t a shot at FS1 — they are coming up on their sixth anniversary. Whether or not they ever will, they just do not have the same foothold as ESPN in the proverbial conversation yet, and people do not have the same deep-rooted feelings about them as an escape. It could also be that the Fox brand is associated with news, and viewers just don’t expect the same neutrality out of them.

– Brad Adgate, Media Consultant, Forbes contributor: 

I think it’s just the corporate policies of Disney & Fox. Corporately, Disney is more neutral politically than Fox (it also has higher ratings). I think ESPN research shows them that sports is a safe harbor and escape from politics so they prefer to give viewers that escape and frown on politically charged comments. Also, Fox has a top-rated cable news network that maybe FS1, etc. can be used to subtly promote with political comments by on-air talent.

— Brooks Melchior, Sports By Brooks:

‘Politics’ is a catch-all word that ESPN is using to anchor a strategy in which it controls every word that goes out on-the-air at ESPN.

READ MORE: If ESPN Cuts Ties With Dan Le Batard, Is DAZN Waiting In Wings?

– Bobby Burack, The Big Lead

There are two reasons for it. These stories become stories once people outside of sports react to them. There is more spotlight on ESPN’s shows and personalities. The other reason is Jimmy Pitaro. You and I were both in the room last August when Pitaro said ‘no politics’ at ESPN. That was picked up and became a national story. So, anytime someone at ESPN does talk politics, like Le Batard just did, the reaction is they violated a company rule.