SBD/September 18, 2017/Media

John Skipper Says ESPN "Not A Political Organization" In Memo After Hill Controversy

Skipper said that at a minimum, comments should not be inflammatory or personal
ESPN President John Skipper "issued a memo Friday telling employees to avoid 'inflammatory' comments on social media following the firestorm over 'SportsCenter' host Jemele Hill’s Monday tweet calling President Trump a white supremacist," according to Stephen Battaglio of the L.A. TIMES. Skipper: "ESPN is not a political organization. Where sports and politics intersect, no one is told what view they must express. At the same time, ESPN has values. We are committed to inclusion and an environment of tolerance where everyone in a diverse work force has the equal opportunity to succeed. We consider this human, not political. Consequently, we insist that no one be denigrated for who they are including their gender, ethnicity, religious beliefs or sexual identity. We have issues of significant debate in our country at this time. Our employees are citizens and appropriately want to participate in the public discussion. ... At a minimum, comments should not be inflammatory or personal" (L.A. TIMES, 9/16). The statement came after White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders addressed President Trump’s tweet about ESPN, saying the net is being “hypocritical” in how it handled the situation. Hill was not suspended after tweeting Trump is a “white supremacist,” and Sanders said ESPN “should hold anchors to a fair and consistent standard.” Sanders said of Hill’s tweet, “This is clearly a political statement. They should be consistent in whatever guidelines they have set themselves in that front" (MSNBC, 9/15).

MAKING THE CALL: In N.Y., Kevin Draper reported any disciplining of Hill "might be out of legal bounds for ESPN." The network is based in Bristol, Conn., and labor lawyers said that a Connecticut statute "provides free-speech protections beyond the First Amendment, making it illegal for ESPN to punish Hill." Meanwhile, Draper noted former ESPN baseball analyst Curt Schilling was fired last year after "sharing a Facebook post responding to the so-called bathroom bill in North Carolina." Many found the post to be "hostile to transgender people." ESPN VP/Communications Josh Krulewitz said, "Schilling was fired for his repeated instances of insubordination, some public and some not. He was not fired for his politics" (N.Y. TIMES, 9/16). ESPN Public Editor Jim Brady noted with the "salary and prominence ESPN provides Hill comes some responsibility to play by the network’s rules, and, in this case, she crossed the line set by management just five months ago, when ESPN released revised guidelines about political discussions." Brady: "If you consume as much of ESPN’s content as I have for the past 22 months, it seems clear the company leans left. I don’t think anyone ever made an executive decision to go that route as much as the personalities the network has promoted into high-profile positions tend to be more liberal, and as their voices are amplified, the overall voice has shifted with it. But I still think it’s a problem that needs to be addressed if ESPN plans to better navigate the intersection of sports, politics and culture" (ESPN.com, 9/16).

A WEEK TO FORGET
: In this week's SPORTSBUSINESS JOURNAL, John Ourand reports the mood in Bristol last week was a "strange mixture of embarrassment and frustration following a series of public missteps." From the Robert Lee-Charlottesville decisions to the Sergio Dipp-“MNF” situation, to Hill’s anti-Trump tweets, several current and former ESPNers said that the crises have kept the network "on the defensive and detracted from noteworthy stories that would have painted ESPN in a brighter light." Outside of "recognizing that these situations could have been avoided, there is also a growing belief among ESPN stalwarts that some of the problems are not all self-inflicted." Some believe that 21st Century Fox is "orchestrating attacks against ESPN to bolster the fortunes of rival sports channel FS1" (SPORTSBUSINESS JOURNAL, 9/18 issue). Author James Andrew Miller wrote apart from the deaths of ESPN's Stuart Scott in '15 and John Saunders in '16, and layoffs in '15 and '17, last week was perhaps the "most difficult week" for ESPN employees in the past five years (TWITTER.com, 9/15).

BIGGER PICTURE: The WALL STREET JOURNAL's Austen Hufford wrote the "latest storm hits" ESPN at a "particularly difficult time as the sports network struggles with years of declining subscribers and viewers" (WSJ.com, 9/15). The WALL STREET JOURNAL's Jason Gay: "I don’t doubt there are people who are watching less ESPN because of commentary or personalities they don’t like." But to "pin the subscriber drop trend on bias willfully ignores a much broader revolution in viewing habits currently underway." ESPN’s declines have been "mirrored by similar declines by other sports outlets and cable channels" (WALL STREET JOURNAL, 9/18).
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