Whether there is truth to the narrative that ESPN has been hemorrhaging popularity by turning viewers off with a liberal political agenda or not, the narrative has gained a foothold in conservative media. In recent days the issue seeped from the sports bubble into mainstream conversation. The White House and President Donald Trump have run with it and a cavalcade of pundits have embraced the talking points, parroting them as they are accepted fact proven by the data.
Reasonable minds can disagree with the assertion. ESPN, like media outlets, tends to attract talent and editorial staff more left-of-center on the political spectrum. This is not a ground-shaking revelation but rather a long-standing demographic reality in journalism.
In our increasingly divided society, the facts of the case may be immaterial. People will see and hear what they want to hear in furtherance of their agenda. But facts still matter.
We set out to discover how much political or politically-adjacent conversation is airing on ESPN on a daily basis and to compare it with similar conversation on FS1.
On Thursday, we carefully watched 20.5 hours of programming on the networks — 11 on ESPN and 9.5 on FS1. Shows similar in tone and content were grouped together: Mike & Mike vs. First Things First, First Take vs. Undisputed, The Ryen Russillo Show vs. The Herd, and Around the Horn/Pardon the Interruption vs. Speak for Yourself. Additionally, we looked at SC6, the program featuring Jemele Hill whose criticism of Trump catapulted this conversation to a whole new level of public awareness.
Our approach was to carefully scrutinize each word with a critical ear, seeking to find any commentary that could be considered political in nature to a person actively seeking evidence of such content. Statements by talent needed not be overtly political or partisan to qualify.
Here’s what we found.
MIKE & MIKE, ESPN with Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic
Political/Social Issues: Virtually none. Of all the shows we watched, this one was the most sparse in regards to anything even flirting with a social issue. There was a barely distinguishable undertone of corporate vs. personal responsibility during discussion of MLB teams expanding protective netting, though there was no debate on the topic.
Stick to Sports? None. Again, this was the most straightforward of all the day’s offerings, on both networks. They did spend a large chunk of the last hour debating the proper pronunciation of “Finebaum” when the SEC commentator came on the show.
Final Tally: 1 of 240 minutes (.004 percent)
FIRST THINGS FIRST (FS1) with Nick Wright, Cris Carter, and Jenna Wolfe
Political/Social Issues: During the “Stories to Start Your Morning” segment one of the topics was, “Are the Jets tanking?” Carter invoked unemployed Colin Kaepernick’s name in a somewhat nonsensical manner.
“When you start the season with, who is their starting quarterback, McCown, and Kaepernick is unemployed, no you’re not tanking,” he said. “No, no, you’re not tanking.” Carter did not expand on the thought so it’s unclear if he was advocating for or against Kaepernick, who has emerged as a politically divisive figure.
On the next go-around, Wright weighed in on the Jets and their possible tanking.
“Just one note on those people out there saying, ‘oh, Kaepernick’s not good enough to play,'” he said. “Kaepernick somehow simultaneously is not good enough to play but too good to play for the Jets who are trying to lose. Like, if Kaepernick is as bad as everyone says he is, he’s the perfect quarterback to take.”
Stick to Sports? Wolfe began the broadcast by wishing Jewish viewers a happy Rosh Hashana. What seems like a largely innocuous greeting could, in some eyes, be an attempt at playing to diversity. The current administration’s relationship with the Jewish community has been well-documented and somewhat connected to the comments Hill made.
Carter, speaking on his disinterest in reading Tom Brady’s new book, offrered, “Ask me when the last book I read was about some human being had nothing to do with sports beside the Bible?”
A bit later Wright said, “Things Cris Carter hasn’t done in the last 30 years: bought a ticket to a sporting event, read a book.”
“Besides the Bible,” Carter clarified.
This, again, is not an obvious political statement but religion and politics are inextricably connected and neither is directly related to sports unless brought in by the show.
Carl Banks later joined the show to talk about Ben McAdoo’s “sloppy quarterback” play comment on Eli Manning after the New York Giants’ ugly loss to Detroit on Monday night. Banks steered the conversation on the appropriateness of McAdoo airing this in public to participation trophy culture.
“I don’t know where we’ve gone in sports to where — well, I know where we’ve gone,” he said. “We’ve gone with every child plays, every child gets a trophy and don’t scream at my kid. That’s not how sports works.
We have the world of Twitter nannies saying, ‘oh, he’s a horrible coach, he should never speak to his quarterback’ … why can’t you? We’ve gotten to a place in sports where we’re that sensitive? And even Eli said as much.”
There was substative conversation for approximately three minutes. Banks took the typical hard-liner, former player stance, suggesting media doesn’t understand the complicated dynamics of a professional locker room. Wright softly pushing back, saying McAdoo is not known for giving honest comments and usually relies on coachspeak. It was a reasoned and nuanced discussion that didn’t end up too far afield from the topic on hand.
Lamentations over the “everyone gets a trophy” generation is somewhat routine on Fox News. It has also been an issue with deeper roots in sports.
Finally, Wright commemorated Cris Carter’s 27th anniversary of sobriety with a heartfelt message of support at the show’s close.
Final Tally: 5 of 180 minutes (3 percent)
UNDISPUTED (FS1) with Skip Bayless, Shannon Sharpe, and Joy Taylor, joined by Rob Parker
Political/Social Issues: Like many shows on both networks, there was a discussion of the request of the NFL for an Activism Month. Shannon Sharpe was all for it, but didn’t want to get patted on the head to get rid of protests.
Skip Bayless briefly brought up some discomfort, only with how it was equated to the NFL being involved in Breast Cancer Awareness month: “Alright, I’m with you. I’m going to say this. I cringe when I heard the analogy to Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I’m the first to step up and say racism is a major problem.”
They then turned to criticism of how players don’t go into communities, with Shannon Sharpe pointing out Colin Kaepernick’s community work.
Joy Taylor then said, “Well, that would take time to research, Shannon, we know people don’t have time for that. He’s obviously put his money where his mouth is, that’s not hard to find.”
The entire conversation lasted 10 minutes.
Stick to Sports? A discussion of Jay-Z reportedly turning down performing at the Super Bowl quickly turned into a Colin Kaepernick/NFL boycott discussion. Sharpe said that he thought Jay-Z’s actions might be related to Kaepernick, pointing out his shout-out at a recent concert.
Rob Parker, who joined the panel for the segment, took it further, saying it was definitely related to Kaepernick. Parker also veered into a comment on New York Knicks owner James Dolan and referred to Larry Johnson and Latrell Sprewell as Uncle Toms for sitting next to him. “Would it be great to have Jay Z on rather than some country act? So I applaud him,” Parker said, “I think it is about Kaepernick. I think Jay made a conscious decision.”
Skip Bayless then brought up Beyoncé and the police, and the group discussed how Jay-Z didn’t need the Super Bowl, but also mentioned the possibility of what a public protest at the biggest stage could have done.
This discussion lasted for another 11 minutes.
Final Tally: 21 of 150 minutes (14%)
FIRST TAKE (ESPN) with Stephen A. Smith, Max Kellerman, and Molly Qerim
Political/Social Issues: At the start of the 2nd hour of programming, First Take took on the discussion of the request by four NFL players for the league to develop a Social Awareness Month.
For someone with a conservative bent, the conversation could have seemed one-sided. While Max Kellerman and Stephen A. Smith may disagree on other sports topics, the differences were more subtle here and there were no yelling exchanges. Kellerman said it was “absolutely” something the NFL should do, asking “who would have an issue with Unity month?”
Stephen A. didn’t agree with it, because it was too limiting. “I don’t think they’ll have a choice but to agree to it. They won’t disagree with it. They may use it as an excuse to shut up the other 11 months of the year.”
That conversation lasted for 7 minutes.
Stick to Sports? None. Most of the show dealt with Kevin Durant, Richard Sherman (and comments on his teammates), an interview with Andre Ward, talk of Charles Barkley, and Paul Finebaum on college football.
It should be noted that they did spend a segment talking about Cincinnati Bengals offensive woes, and though there was a report earlier in the week that some players wanted Kaepernick in Cincinnati, his name was never invoked. Stephen A. stumped for A.J. McCarron to get an opportunity in Cincinnati (McCarron, by the way, was one of the most visible Trump supporters pre-election among NFL players). Max said he thought Andy Dalton was still a franchise quarterback.
Final Tally: 7 of 120 minutes (6%)