Dan Le Batard faces an uncertain future with ESPN after getting political on his radio show last week. He’s reportedly meeting with company president Jimmy Pitaro today. The crystal ball is cloudy, even when we look into the past for guidance. This may all blow over or it could blow into a major, network-shifting storm. Time will tell.
What’s clear is that the policy puts everyone involved in a tough situation. Loquacious hosts who rose to their positions by delivering their opinions with skill and tact feel constrained. Their entire identity is now defined by four letters and some yearn for a more complete human experience, believing the times require they speak out.
Brass wants nothing more than to sail on smooth seas. They are a public company with shareholders and financial considerations. There must be teeth behind this policy otherwise it will swiftly be ignored.
Smarter media minds than I have tackled this topic. There are difficult, perhaps unanswerable questions.
What is politics? Who decides? How equitable should these rules really be?
Consider these and other factors through the prism of Stephen A. Smith, arguably the most important person at ESPN. This morning he tweeted this:
What does ESPN do with this? It’s not overtly political but doesn’t take long to take on some of that flavoring. It’s different than Le Batard’s “send her back” comments but rooted in the same ideal: decency. At least in the speaker’s eyes.
One of the more salient points in this discussion has come from the Los Angeles Times’ Arash Markazi, who writes that ESPN doesn’t have a politics problem as much as a Trump problem. It feels fair to say that the company wants to stay as far away from him as possible and never again be a subject of one of his tweets.
So it’s worth noting that Smith will speak about the president tonight on a taped episode of YES Network’s CenterStage. When asked about advice Trump gave Smith, the First Take star took a walk down memory lane.
“We’re in the green room (of the former ESPN2 showQuiteFrankly), we were talking. And he said, ‘Stephen A…you’re doing good, you’re doing good…but there’s more things for you to accomplish.’ And I said, ‘Okay.’ And he said, ‘Take my advice…when you go to a bank and you borrow $3 million and you can’t pay it back, you got a problem…but when you go to a bank and you borrow $300 million and you can’t pay it back, we’ve got a problem…the moral of the story is, the more someone invests in you, the more they must work to ensure your success.’ And when he said that to me, I held onto that for the rest of my career, because so many times, I was big about well you know what, this is what I do. And as long as I’m in the public eye, I’m a bit ubiquitous, I’m gonna be relevant. But guess what? If you come cheap, you’re also expendable. But when you cost more, they have to work more diligently to ensure your success.”
Smith’s comments are obviously different than the ones Le Batard made. He also didn’t criticize the company’s approach to these issues. But tonight’s interview will include him speaking about feeling “betrayed” when ESPN did not renew him in 2008.
So some of the same boxes can be checked. Of course, Smith did his commentary on Twitter and another network.
All of this to illustrate how hard it is to have overarching rules for inherently unique situations. It highlights the tough task Pitaro created for himself and the company with the new direction.
We may finish this week with more clarity from the outside looking in. We may not. ESPN may make it easier for talent to know what’s in play and what’s not. If not, these ad hoc instances will be compared and contrasted in the court of public opinion.