What’s the fastest way to ruin anything? Inject politics into it. This well-known, but unwritten rule of the Universe seems to have escaped ESPN, who’s now doubling down on their political banter.

The once great sports broadcasting network recently revised their discussion rules so as to accommodate for increased political commentary germane to the sporting event being covered.

I’m so old, I remember when sports were a fabulous escape from the evils of the world, of which politics is a part.

Jim Brady, Public Editor for ESPN explains:

The timing of the release of the election guidelines is a bit unusual — such guidelines are rarely released right after a presidential election; they’re usually updated near the beginning of a presidential campaign. But we are living in unique political times, which ESPN apparently recognized, which explains the revised guidelines for discussion of political and social issues.

“Given the intense interest in the most recent presidential election and the fact subsequent political and social discussions often intersected with the sports world, we found it to be an appropriate time to review our guidelines,” said Patrick Stiegman, ESPN’s vice president of global digital content and the chairman of the company’s internal Editorial Board, which drafted the new guidelines.

Stiegman said no single issue or incident led to the change, but Craig Bengtson, ESPN’s vice president and managing editor of newsgathering and reporting, said the nation’s tense political climate did play a role.

“We have the convergence of a politically charged environment and all these new technologies coming together at once,” he said. “Based on that, we wanted the policy to reflect the reality of the world today. There are people talking about politics in ways we have not seen before, and we’re not immune from that.”

This is a programming decision, not a mandate. They could just as easily eliminate political discourse from their sports coverage but have chosen not to. Instead, they’d rather dabble in political commentary, sullying everything from America’s most-loved pastime to badminton.

So what’s changing?

The two most notable changes from the Political Advocacy policy are the delineation of guidelines between news and commentary, and allowing for increased political discussion on ESPN platforms, as warranted and connected to sports. This isn’t a surprising development, it’s just new.

“We wanted to err on the side of transparency and trust with our reporting,” Stiegman said, “but also give our columnists and commentators the freedom to discuss topics relevant to those sports fans who visit our platforms, even if the issues are political or social in nature.”

Here are other notable points in the Political and Social Issues policy, with my thoughts:

“Original news reports should not include statements of support, opposition or partisanship related to any social issue, political position, candidate or office holder.”

This one seems straightforward and achievable, at least within ESPN’s platforms. The one place on ESPN in which you don’t see straight opinion is on the hard news side of the operation.

“Writers, reporters, producers and editors directly involved in ‘hard’ news reporting, investigative or enterprise assignments and related coverage should refrain in any public-facing forum from taking positions on political or social issues, candidates or office holders.”

The three key words here are “public-facing forum.” That expands this policy beyond ESPN’s borders and brings the Wild West of social media into play. In fact, later in the memo, it is said directly that the policy applies to “ESPN, Twitter, Facebook and other media.”

ESPN’s ratings are in the crapper with subscribers bolting in droves. By some estimates, an average of 300,000 subscribers are leaving the iconic sports network each month. Just last year, ESPN had their worst month, losing a whopping 621,000 cable subscribers in October. The economics of sports rights are fascinating and also part of the reason ESPN is about three times as pricey as other cable channels.

In February, ESPN was reportedly losing 10,000 customers every single day. Some of the losses are likely due to the increase in cable cutters but that’s not the full story. As it turns out, no one wants baseball with a side of social justice.

From one of my fave sports blogs, Outkick the Coverage:

The result of this coming financial calamity has been panic, which has primarily manifested itself in a desperate ploy for relevance. ESPN decided to become a social justice warrior network, treating all liberal opinion makers as those worthy of promotion and casting aside all those who had the gall to challenge the new Disney world order.


You would be astounded by how many people inside ESPN I hear from who have the absolute gall to vote Republican. Yes, they exist. And yes they are terrified of you knowing who they are. In fact, many of them are reading this right now and nodding their heads at the absurdity of this corporate decision.

Not surprisingly, that hasn’t deterred the network’s “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” attitude. In their desperation for relevancy, ESPN is heading in what appears the exact opposite direction of what made them great.

I give them five years max.

Follow Kemberlee on Twitter @kemberleekaye


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