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%)
THE RYEN RUSSILLO SHOW Russillo Show, ESPN with Ryen Russillo and Adnan Virk
Political/Social Issues: Russillo and Virk discussed the news that Roger Goodell’s extension would be coming sooner rather than later. The league’s past struggles with negative publicity (concussions, domestic violence and player discipline) and how other sports leagues have built upon the lessons learned from the NFL’s mistakes.
Russillo alluded to Keith Olbermann repeatedly calling for Goodell to “be gone” daily at the time and how he was not alone in predicting the commissioner’s departure. This segment was more politically adjacent than direct.
Stick to Sports? To begin the third hour, Virk made a lighthearted reference to MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell and the viral outtake of his heated outbursts. The duo had some fun with it did not mention MSNBC’s liberal proclivity.
Final Tally: 5 out of 180 minutes (3 percent)
THE COLIN COWHERD SHOW, FS1, with Colin Cowherd and Kristine Leahy, joined by Seth Joyner
Political/Social Issues: Near the end of the first hour of the show, they did a segment on the NFL Activism Month, with Seth Joyner on during the segment. Joyner, former NFL player, was in favor of it: “this is something that’s going to continue to get traction and grow, Kaepernick started it but now we aren’t even talking about it anymore.”
Cowherd, in a preview of what would happen this weekend after Trump’s comments, said he was in favor of businesses that support their employees. He did bring up ratings, then, and mentioned the NBA dress code and how that was something to address things that resonated with fans. Cowherd added that there was no downside to it other than how it would be accepted by fans.
Stick to Sports? Cowherd opened one segment coming out of the break with the following: “One of the things that wears me out … I don’t like hanging around people that are apocolyptic, the Alex Joneses and Glenn Becks, I just can’t listen to those people.”
In the same segment, he briefly referenced some social thoughts. “Poverty, it’s decreasing sharply, it’s a great place to live. We have issues. We have grown, we have flourished. It’s the greatest democracy.”
Being a radio show that is simulcast on television, the Cowherd show also covers topics multiple times. For example, they played a lengthy phone interview with Greg Cosell on NFL quarterbacks a second time, and also hit some of the same topics multiple times. However, the NFL activism only came up once.
Final Tally: 5 out of 180 minutes (3 percent)
AROUND THE HORN, ESPN with Tony Reali, Israel Gutierrez, Woody Paige, Pablo Torre, and Clinton Yates
Political/Social Issues: One of the early debate segments was on NFL activism. As is frequent on Around the Horn, there were a variety of angles taken.
Clinton Yates said he didn’t like it at all. “I don’t love NFL getting involved in anything.”
Woody Paige brought in the older view, said it was too touchy a subject for them. He said he was sick of this story.
Israel Gutierrez said it was dicey getting the NFL involved, and that the NFL and lobbying for causes is dangerous.
Pablo Torre said, “I do long for a perfect world. We support JJ Watt. This is not politics. This is an issue that should be cutting across both sides.”
Stick to Sports? A quick-hit one-minute segment mentioned Jay Z and Kaepernick. Gutierrez mentioned that he was at the Jay Z concert where he mentioned Kaepernick. Yates said, “Being black is a political statement in America.”
There was also a segment of the netting at MLB games, in light of the young child hit by a foul ball at a Yankees game. There was nothing overtly political about this topic, but it seems like one that could engender some separation in the future. For what it’s worth, Yates took the view that extended netting took away from the fan experience, and got push back from others.
Final Tally: 5 of 30 minutes (17 percent)
PARDON THE INTERRUPTION, ESPN with Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon
Political/Social Issues: The NFL activism was one of the quick 2-minute topics.
Here’s what Tony Kornheiser said: “This is an interesting story to me, because this is about nuance and it is about negotiation. If you were to go to NFL and said this was about Unity month, and our main program of Unity month is that we want to make sure that police and the people they are sworn to protect have a better and more open relationship. Then I think everyone signs on. I wrote this down because I want to get this right, but if you tell the NFL that you want the NFL to fund a group of people who are overtly antagonistic to the police, under the banner of social activism, then I think the owners are going to go ‘whoa, whoa.'”
Stick to Sports? The show opened with the news of Aaron Hernandez and CTE. The topic of CTE (and the future of football, and refrains of a war on football) certainly has the potential to be one that falls along political lines (Trump also made comments about penalized hits on Friday night, for example.) But you would have to strain pretty hard to find anything political about this discussion on PTI. Nevertheless, we include it because it might be a topic that turns off a segment of viewers.
Final Tally: 5 of 30 minutes (17%), including the 3 minute discussion of Aaron Hernandez and CTE.
SPEAK FOR YOURSELF, FS1 with Colin Cowherd, Jason Whitlock, Eric Davis, Rob Ryan, Seth Joyner and Jason McIntyre
Political/Social Issues: Whitlock captained a 10-minute segment on a group of NFL players, including Michael Bennett, petitioning the league to establish November as social activism month.
“On the surface I think these guys are well-intentioned,” he said. “They want to do something, they want to be involved. I get it. I just don’t know if this was the right approach. The memo, they’re a group of millionaires. I believe they wrote the memo because it’s poorly written. It’s not grammatically sound, there’s factual errors, they have Trayvon Martin being killed by the police. They’re asking at one point — and this is to the owners — ‘bear all or part of the weight of; hold up; give assistance to, especially financially; enable to function or act.’
Sentence is confusing for one but you can’t go to another group of people and say, ‘we have a problem and we want you to bear all as it relates to fixing the problem. That’s not the way you convince a group of billionaires to support your cause.”
Whitlock posited that all parties were operating outside their sphere of expertise. Cowherd, though okay with the request, added:
“Here’s my problem with what has happened in the American media. If I don’t support every charity, every cause or every -ism, I’m anti -that. Well, no I’m not. If I don’t race to Twitter to condemn Charlottesville, which is egregious and horrific, I’m for it. No, I was with my kids, playing. If you don’t support somebody’s charity … let’s say for instance the NFL didn’t support breast cancer awareness month, would they be pro-cancer?”
Davis and Joyner were more receptive to the players’ petition. To the show’s credit, the give-and-take was thoughtful and brought in a varying degree of views.
Stick to Sports? During a discussion of Kevin Durant’s burner accounts, Joyner attributes some of it to “this era we live in with soft Millennials.”
Final Tally: 11 of 60 minutes (18 percent)
SC6, ESPN with Michael Smith and Jemele Hill
Political/Social Issues: The show most associated with the liberal ESPN narrative devoted one segment to such issues. In discussing Bennett’s memo, the duo weighed into political waters.
“Good ask but I don’t think the NFL is ready to come off the sideline and truly invest itself in this fight because neutrality is safe for the NFL,” Smith said. “That’s why you hear words like “unity” or “mutual respect” or “hey, we respect everyone’s freedom of speech or expression” because you’re not necessarily picking a side. But if you go all-in with your support of criminal justice reform, the need for reform comes from a problem, you’re acknowledging a problem. You’re explicitly picking a side.”
Smith says the NFL owners are not ready to pick a side because the police unions and others are turned off by the protests.
“If they were really invested in picking a side, Colin Kaepernick would have a job,” he continued. Hill largely agreed, stating that there’s no “right way” to protest.
Stick to Sports? The duo led the show reacting to the late-breaking news of Aaron Hernandez’s CTE revelation.
“I know that how the public views concussions is a little hypocritical because on one hand you hear some fans saying, ‘oh it turns me off on the game knowing that this concussions issue is so prevelant in the NFL’ and yet everyone’s still tuning in on Sundays,” Hill said. “This sends such a strong, very negative message about what it can mean for players in terms playing football. There will always be somebody who wants to play but I’m thinking of the parents of kids who want to play football and others who are looking at a story like this and making that 2 plus 2.”
Final Tally: 13 of 60 minutes (22 percent), including 5 minutes on the CTE topic that was immediate breaking news and arguably not political.
FS1- 8% of total airtime
- 37 minutes on NFL Activism topics and/or references to Colin Kaepernick. (6.5%)
- 7 minutes on other miscellaneous topics/references (1.2%)
- 23 minutes on NFL Activism topics and/or references to Colin Kaepernick. (3.4%)
- 8 minutes on news of Aaron Hernandez and CTE (1.2%)
- 6 minutes on other miscellaneous topics/references (0.9%)
This experience brought to bear a few takeaways. First, a vast majority of discussions on these sports network were about, well, sports. Sports are inherently political and the idea that they exist on a separate, non-intersecting planes is wishful thinking. Sports are full of racial, political, and social issues. Never having the conversation bend toward those arenas is possible, but not entirely practical.
These shows exist to draw viewers by capturing the current issues being discussed by sports fans and players. A day after we conducted our study, President Trump castigated kneeling NFL players as “sons of bitches,” sparking off the most social active weekend throughout sports in recent memory.
Programming correctly looked much different on Sunday in advance of the NFL games and on Monday as reaction to the number one story in this country poured in. We are perhaps in a new world and new media landscape for ESPN and FS1. Thursday’s offering already feels like a relic of a different time.
Those seeking to unearth politically-tinged content before this past weekend could find it. It did, however, take a strained neck and careful ear to hear. We strained our necks, opened our ears, and cast a wide net of inclusion in our study. It’s worth considering what percentage of the viewing public approaches television, usually a passive experience, with the same mindset.
Secondly, political or social comments made by pundits are quite easily understood as personal views and not the overarching values of the company that employs them. Discussions are immediately established as subjective takes belonging to the person exposing them. Again, it is worth considering how many viewers take specific comments as company lines and if this is done in good faith.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, raw data may not be useful in litigating the validity of existing narratives. Reactions to ESPN or FS1 programming and its perceived bias starts with emotion and perhaps never moves on from there. It’s unrealistic to expect viewers to run in as a blank slate with no preconceptions. People will see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear. Additionally, everything talent says carries a subtext which everyone reads in their own dynamic way.