Culture wars at ESPN? Maybe there's more to these tensions than mere politics

If you run a search of the GetReligion site for "ESPN" you will, for the most part, find exactly what you would expect: A long list of stories about athletes -- famous and obscure -- that contain little or nothing about the role that faith plays in their lives, even if it's easy to read between the lines and spot the religion ghosts.

You can spend quite a bit of time simply reading about the Bible, the National Basketball Association and superstar Stephen Curry's inspirational sneakers.

But now there is something different to talk about. What we have here is a sort of think piece thing about ESPN and politics that is actually making news in some corners of the World Wide Web.

The big question is whether this story is really about "politics" or, well, you know what.

What we're dealing with here is a remarkable letter to readers and viewers from the pilots who steer the mass-media giant that ESPN insiders have long called "The Mother Ship." In other words, we're talking about a content issue on the prime ESPN channels, in the core shows and public projects that for a few decades now have helped drive the direction of how Americans interact with sports.

The headline on the piece by public editor Jim Brady states: "Inside and out, ESPN dealing with changing political dynamics."

Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start:

The 2016 presidential election season has been one most of us will never forget. The tone has been ugly, the controversies endless, the coverage unrelenting. Our social media feeds are full of politically charged statements, and what dialogue does exist between differing sides more often resembles a WWE match than nuanced debate.
Thankfully, I get to write about ESPN, where the focus on sports means I never have to deal with politics.
Ah, if only that were true.
As it turns out, ESPN is far from immune from the political fever that has afflicted so much of the country over the past year. Internally, there’s a feeling among many staffers -- both liberal and conservative -- that the company’s perceived move leftward has had a stifling effect on discourse inside the company and has affected its public-facing products. Consumers have sensed that same leftward movement, alienating some.

Now, I have zero doubt that there have been political tensions involved during 2016. I can understand that there were probably some in-house arguments about Citizen Donald Trump and then Colin Kaepernick, to name two obvious flash points. #DUH

However, the truly epic arguments about ESPN leaning left have centered, not on voting-booth issues, but on matters of culture, morality and often, yes, religion. Most of them are linked -- surprise -- to LGBTQ issues or, at the very least, the Sexual Revolution.

Try this. Read the whole Brady letter and, everywhere the word "politics" appears in the text, try reading that same passage with "religion" substituted in its place. For example:

I asked ESPN President John Skipper whether the perceived political shift many ESPN employees and consumers have felt is real and, if so, whether it was a conscious decision on the network’s part.
“It is accurate that the Walt Disney Company and ESPN are committed to diversity and inclusion,” Skipper said. “These are long-standing values that drive fundamental fairness while providing us with the widest possible pool of talent to create the smartest and most creative staff. We do not view this as a political stance but as a human stance. We do not think tolerance is the domain of a particular political philosophy.”
Inside ESPN, however, some feel the lack of tolerance of a particular political philosophy is a problem.
"We've done a great job of diversity,” said longtime ESPN anchor Bob Ley. “But the one place we have miles to go is diversity of thought."

So here we are again, with another debate inside an elite newsroom about its lack of intellectual and cultural diversity.

To repeat the question: Is this debate, at its core, about politics or, in many cases, the beliefs of ESPN staff members about issues of morality, culture and religion?

Let's try some additional passages in this long letter, doing that political vs. religion switch:

Many ESPN employees I talked to -- including liberals and conservatives, most of whom preferred to speak on background -- worry that the company’s politics have become a little too obvious, empowering those who feel as if they’re in line with the company’s position and driving underground those who don’t.


One liberal ESPN contributor sees the issue as one not of inclusion but of exclusion, saying, “I'm concerned about the inclination for condemnation rather than conversation when unpopular ideas are spoken. I'm glad to see athletes acting as activists again. But it should be clear that in almost all cases they're not taking risky stances... What about athletes and commentators who don't swim that way, whether the issues are gay rights, transgender rights or opposition to abortion? ESPN has an issue -- not a mess, but an issue -- with saying it wants to stay apolitical but also actively promoting itself as a progressive platform.”

And at the very end:

I don’t believe there’s malice intended. ... But, in talking to people in the course of reporting this piece, it is clear that ESPN has a challenge in front of it. I don’t think the answer is to try to stifle those with strong viewpoints; rather, it’s to make sure a broader range of voices are heard.
Why, some might ask? Because, at heart, ESPN is a business. And based on a Gallup survey on political affiliation from mid-September, 44 percent of the country identifies itself as either “Republican” or “leans Republican.” That’s less than the 49 percent that identifies itself as “Democrat” or “leans Democrat,” but not by much.
If ESPN continues to let its personalities debate the issues of the day but finds a way to better balance those conversations, it will be richer for it. In more ways than one.

Ah, but what if the arguments are not actually about politics or politics alone? What if ESPN people and their viewers/readers are arguing about the Bible or the teachings of their faith traditions? And what if the deeply held religious views of some ESPN staffers actually clash with the stated editorial views of the principalities and powers in the executive suites?

Where to from here?

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