This week, roughly 100 much-publicized job cuts were announced at Disney-owned ESPN, the self-described “Worldwide Leader in Sports.” Since its founding in 1979, ESPN has defined the sports-on-cable television experience with its flagship highlight program SportsCenter, opinion shows like Pardon the Interruption, and endless live and recorded professional, college and high school sporting events on multiple channels, including ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNEWS, ESPNU, and ESPN Classic, to name a few. As the names of those whose contracts were not being renewed became known, a telling tide of opinion began to appear regarding who was fired and who was not.
Numerous victims of this downsizing were veteran reporters and analysts who had long careers at ESPN and will surely work in the field again. The focus of indignation about those being retained quickly centered on several people—Bomani Jones, Dan Le Batard, Gonzalo “Papi” Le Batard, Jemele Hill, Michael Smith, and most of all, the notoriously animated Stephen A. Smith, controversial host of ESPN morning centerpiece opinion show First Take.
The wave of disagreement on Twitter, which advocated a “stick to sports” approach (no social discourse, i.e. Colin Kaepernick) took delight in connecting ESPN’s recent decline in subscription numbers with the rise to prominence of these young people of color on its airwaves who have brought ‘non-sports’ into sports coverage.
On his radio/television show, Dan Le Batard highlighted the distinction between reporter and columnist while theorizing that the hate coming towards him and his colleagues was based around the audience’s ignorance of how each had paid their dues as sports reporters and beat writers and worked their way to the point of becoming essentially ‘television columnists,’ able to give the opinions that seem so upsetting.
Truthfully, I don’t think anyone cares how many dues have been paid. For the many people who feel any mention of social issues, especially race, only adds to the problem, it appears impossible for them to reconcile when these ESPN opinion makers of color employ the lens of race in their sports analyses. The main argument of the “stick to sports” crowd is that people turn to sports as an ‘escape’ from all of society’s issues. While this may sound nice, I’ll say two things in response: 1) it’s not easy to escape institutional oppression, and 2) how many “stick to sports” folks are actually having the kinds of critical discussions that come up around the intersection of race, culture and sports in other aspects of their lives? Whether they actually want to engage in such dialogue, even outside of sports, is the question.