In a surprise move, the nation’s leading sports network ESPN booted a legendary NFL player and coach from his role on Sunday NFL Countdown. Questions surround what led to the move, but additional questions now have been raised regarding the timing. Just days before, Mike Ditka had given an interview that involved some political statements. Among these statements was his support for businessman Donald Trump and his belief that President Barack Obama was the worst President America has ever had.
Why would ESPN boot Mike Ditka over that?
Back in January, Deadspin reported that ESPN had warned its employees against making political statements and public endorsements. The memo stated, as quoted by Deadspin:
2016 is an election year. There was a time when sports coverage and political coverage rarely intersected. There was also a time when pop culture and entertainment coverage rarely intersected with sports coverage. Clearly times are changing. Recently the Editorial Board reevaluated our Presidential election coverage. We have made a few adjustments to the coverage guidelines. Please take a moment to review the changes. It is important that we are all on the same page so we can continue to smartly serve sports fans. Thank you in advance.
When sports and politics rarely intersect?
Former Cincinnati Reds and New York Yankees outfielder Paul O’Neill has public endorsed Donald Trump for President. O’Neill played on five World Series championship teams and is a five-time Allstar who batted a career average of .288, while hitting for .359 in 1994 when he took the American League batting title. He is also the only player to play in three perfect games, which included a spectacular diving play during David Cone’s 1999 perfect game and catching the final out in David Wells’ 1998 perfect game.
Former outfielder Johnny Damon also endorsed Donald Trump. Damon played for several teams in his career, including being a beloved personality with the Red Sox and winning a World Series with the New York Yankees in 2009. When the Red Sox famously broke their World Series drought, Damon’s 123 runs scored was second in the league as he batted .304 on the year.
Ohio State University coach Urban Meyer endorsed Ohio Governor John Kasich for President. As of 2015, Meyer has a 153-27 head coaching record. During these fourteen years as a head coach, he has won numerous Coach of the Year awards and led his team to national championships three times.
The list could go on, but these are three recent examples. Clearly politics can interest sporting figures and they can commit to their sports careers without allow politics to affect it. What’s wrong with having opinions in life?
At ESPN, our reputation and credibility with viewers, readers and listeners are of paramount concern. Our audiences should be confident that our news decisions are not influenced by political pressures, or by any personal interests.
Ironically, it would seem that the fervent and often vitriolic anti-Trump movement did pressure ESPN.
We should refrain from political editorializing, personal attacks or “drive-by” comments regarding the candidates and their campaigns (including but not limited to on platforms such as Twitter or other social media). Approved commentaries on sports-specific issues, or seeking responses from candidates on relevant news issues, are appropriate. However perceived endorsements should be avoided. (In others cases, guidelines, acceptable commentary and political advocacy should prevail)
Now to be clear, all companies have an interest in protecting their image. If a rogue employee goes crazy representing the brand publicly, it can have a negative effect that would spread like a wildfire in the age of social media. This is why many companies have internal rules against publicly attacking the brand on social media, because it can create image problems.
But how does voicing personal opinions regarding political candidates affect the public image? The media will certainly attempt to portray the individual in a negative light for his endorsement and drop his employer’s name in the process. That can create an uncomfortable connection.
But in regards to Ditka’s interview which included some conservative views, probably the most controversial thing he said was his declaration that President Barack Obama was the worst President. People may take issue with his support of Donald Trump, but is it really a cause for removal?
For his part, Ditka claimed in a statement released through the network that it was a voluntary switch that he wanted. Is this a legitimate claim or did he try to defuse the situation instead of making everything more awkward?
The timing is interesting. From the outside looking in, it appears that ESPN is attempting to minimize the potential damage of having a prominent broadcaster associated with a controversial politician who is relentlessly rocking the boat. Did ESPN force out Mike Ditka because he supports Donald Trump?
It appears very likely.