ESPN doctrine: Politics and 'social issues' are part of sports, but what about religion?

I'm sure there are lots of GetReligion readers who are familiar with the old etiquette rule stating that there are two things people are not supposed to talk about in polite company -- religion and politics.

However, we now know that the same rule -- or half of it -- does not apply to sports talk at ESPN.

This is complicated. The other day, our own Bobby Ross Jr., followed up on a great tip from a reader about some North Caroline State football players who volunteered some of their time to do mission work in Kenya. The headline on that piece stated: "Shhhhh! Don't mention Christian faith because ESPN wants to pretend it doesn't matter."

You see, despite all kinds of social media references to the fact that this was a Christian missions trip (Do secular groups use the word "missions" in this context?), the ESPN team went way out of its way to avoid any references to religious faith. At the end, Bobby said:

Please don't misunderstand me: I think it's great that ESPN decided to report on a "life-changing experience" that made a "profound impact" and "inspired (one of [punter A.J.] Cole's teammates) so much."I just wish ESPN would go ahead and tell the rest of the story -- the one that involves those unmentioned words above.
Seriously, why is ESPN -- seemingly -- so afraid of religion?

As the video at the top of this post notes, Cole has been doing this generic missions work for quite some time now.

Anyway, we have received emails from readers claiming that ESPN has an actual policy forbidding discussions of religion on the air -- but have never been given direct evidence of this. There has also been talk (think Christmas wars) about ESPN banning adds that mention Jesus, etc.

Meanwhile, ESPN ratings have been in a dangerous spiral that some, in addition to the obvious ties to young viewers cutting cables to their screens, have linked to the sports giant airing more and more commentaries backing progressive cultural and political causes, some of which have implications for traditional religious believers.

Now, ESPN Public Editor Jim Brady has written a very interesting essay about new ESPN policies affecting political speech during news reports. The headline: "New ESPN guidelines recognize connection between sports, politics." Let's walk through this a bit:

ESPN has issued new political and election guidelines for its employees that, while allowing for political discussion on the network’s platforms, recommend connecting those comments to sports whenever possible. The new policies also provide separate guidelines for ESPN staffers working on news and those engaging in commentary.
The timing of the release of the election guidelines is a bit unusual -- such guidelines are rarely released right after a presidential election; they’re usually updated near the beginning of a presidential campaign. But we are living in unique political times, which ESPN apparently recognized, which explains the revised guidelines for discussion of political and social issues.
“Given the intense interest in the most recent presidential election and the fact subsequent political and social discussions often intersected with the sports world, we found it to be an appropriate time to review our guidelines,” said Patrick Stiegman, ESPN’s vice president of global digital content and the chairman of the company’s internal Editorial Board, which drafted the new guidelines.

For those interested in religion, it's clear that the key words in all of that are these -- "social issues." What kinds of social issues are we talking about? I would assume that we are primarily talking about issues of race and gender.

Gender would link directly to social issues linked to the Sexual Revolution and that leads you straight to stories that might require dealing with the beliefs of traditional Jews, Christians, Muslims and others. Maybe it is safer to say that religion -- as opposed to politics and social issues -- is too hot to touch? Let's read on.

So what’s different in the new policies? Let’s start with the Political and Social Issues guidelines. Its first line lays out ESPN’s challenge quite accurately:
“At ESPN, our reputation and credibility with viewers, readers and listeners are paramount. Related to political and social issues, our audiences should be confident our original reporting of news is not influenced by political pressures or personal agendas.”
As I wrote in November, not all ESPN consumers -- or employees, for that matter -- feel the company has lived up to this ideal. Stiegman said that the buzz around the topic of ESPN and politics -- also written about by The New York Times, Awful Announcing, the Orlando Sentinel and many conservative sites criticizing ESPN’s perceived leftward tilt -- didn’t play a significant role in the revision of the guidelines.
The two most notable changes from the Political Advocacy policy are the delineation of guidelines between news and commentary, and allowing for increased political discussion on ESPN platforms, as warranted and connected to sports.

There is much more. The key is that politics is clearly seen as a force in life that, when linked to sports people and events, must be discussed. However, ESPN folks are urged to avoid inflammatory language and direct attacks on individuals. Oh, and it's best to keep blatant statements of political opinion out of hard news reporting. #DUH

It's also clear that ESPN managers have noticed that, well, ESPN people have been known to speak their minds in social media. Thus:.

“Writers, reporters, producers and editors directly involved in ‘hard’ news reporting, investigative or enterprise assignments and related coverage should refrain in any public-facing forum from taking positions on political or social issues, candidates or office holders.”
The three key words here are “public-facing forum.” That expands this policy beyond ESPN’s borders and brings the Wild West of social media into play. In fact, later in the memo, it is said directly that the policy applies to “ESPN, Twitter, Facebook and other media.”
This is where the potential for problems exists. ESPN news reporters tweeting political opinions from their own social accounts would technically violate this policy. Again, hard news reporters are less likely to use social media for this purpose than commentators, but how effective this policy is will depend on how hard executives choose to look at social media. Let’s be honest: It’s not too hard to find ESPN employees tweeting political opinions.

There's much more to read here.

However, one thing is clear -- politics is real. Sports is real. Thus, ESPN people have to be able to talk about links between politics and sports. This includes "politics" about social issues.

But note: If ESPN leaders really have banned, or even strongly discouraged, references to religious beliefs and practices, this would make it very hard to cover stories involving the actions of religious individuals and institutions. There might even be cases -- think battles over gender and locker room showers -- in which ignoring religious beliefs would totally skew coverage of "political" issues linked to religious liberty and sports. Right?

Politics are controversial, but real.

Religion is certainly controversial, but it would appear that it is not real. Faith is just feelings and emotions and personal stuff? I'm connecting dots here, because I have never seen a direct URL to an ESPN policy on this. We need to see a real ESPN policy on this issue.

Perhaps Brady could clear this up. Is there an ESPN policy affecting news and commentary linked to religion, as well as the obvious religious content in many stories about politics, religious liberty and social issues? How about stories in which religious beliefs have affected the lives of athletes?

Just asking.

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