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How athletes have forced ESPN and other networks to change their game plan on mixing politics and sports
AP

How athletes have forced ESPN and other networks to change their game plan on mixing politics and sports

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The Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James during media day in El Segundo, California, in 2016. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

In early 2018, Fox News host Laura Ingraham delivered a diatribe against NBA star LeBron James over remarks to a TV interviewer that were critical of President Trump. She told viewers big-money athletes should steer clear of speaking out on politics and advised James to "shut up and dribble."

The widely condemned comments may have inspired a surfeit of programming that has given sports stars a bigger platform to discuss their views, even on networks that viewers look to as an escape.

As racism and social justice became central issues in the 2020 presidential election, professional athletes are speaking out more often and forcefully on sports TV, their biggest platform.

Their response to the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by law enforcement and the police shooting of Jacob Blake have pushed ESPN and other networks to carry programs where on-air commentators, hosts and players are discussing the topics as thoroughly as any news program.

"I think you had to acknowledge it and embrace it, and that's what we tried to do," said Jeff Zucker, chairman of news and sports for WarnerMedia. "Sure, people want to see the game and they want to root for their team. But at the same time, the players and our announcers live in America and you can't just completely separate yourselves from those things."

Throughout the NBA playoffs carried by WarnerMedia's TNT, the network aired a series of specials called "The Arena" in which its basketball commentator Charles Barkley, NBA stars Dwyane Wade and Draymond Green and former ESPN host Cari Champion led discussions and presented segments on the coronavirus pandemic, the Black Lives Matters movement and racial injustice.

In fall 2018, Showtime unveiled a three-part documentary series called "Shut Up and Dribble" that chronicled the history of social activism and race in the NBA. The series originally was conceived as a look at the NBA's influence on popular culture. But Ingraham's rant gave the project, produced by James and directed by Gotham Chopra, a new focus and its provocative title.

"It really was the perfect documentary at the perfect time," said Stephen Espinoza, president of Showtime Sports. "None of us knew that anything that we've seen in 2020 would happen, but certainly it felt like we were on the edge of perhaps a new era of athletes' self-determination."

In response to the growing intensity of the Black Lives Matters movement over the summer, the ViacomCBS-owned premium cable network has taken unused footage shot for the series to make new short-form vignettes under the "Shut Up and Dribble" banner.

ESPN was targeted by right-wing commentators when political discussions seeped into programming three years ago and took a stronger hand in enforcing limits on what its on-air talent could express on social media. Bob Iger, then Disney CEO, said in 2017 that he preferred that the network's anchors avoid politics, as did ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro, who took over the reins of the network the following year.

But as both players in the NBA and Major League Baseball protested against police shootings — in the case of the Blake shooting in August, a boycott that postponed games in both leagues — the network has also gone in-depth on the issues that dominated the headlines throughout the summer.

Along with ongoing breaking coverage, ESPN unveiled "The Stop: Living, Driving and Dying While Black," a special produced by the Undefeated, ESPN's unit devoted to the intersection of sports, race and culture. The program was a raw hour-long look at the relationship between the Black community and law enforcement that included first-person accounts from athletes.

ESPN has also begun work on a documentary on former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who sacrificed his career and pulled sports into the dialogue on racial injustice and police brutality when he took a knee during the playing of the national anthem in 2016. The project is part of an overall production deal Kaepernick has with Disney. There are also more projects about racial progress being planned by ESPN Films.

Jemele Hill, the former ESPN host who negotiated an exit from the network in 2018 after she ran afoul of its policy against political messages on social media, has noticed how sports media has increasingly embraced topical discussions. She believes athletes such as James are driving it.

"I'm pleased with the progress that has been made, but we have to be careful with how much credit we're giving out," Hill said. "A lot of it has to do with the fact the athletes were no longer giving media companies room to wiggle out of it and forced the conversation. Either you were going to follow what they were saying and what was important to them, or you were going to ignore what some of the most prominent athletes in the country have to say."

The video of Floyd's death and other incidents such as the vigilante shooting of Ahmaud Arbery in February — penetrated the psyches of the nation and the sports world in a way that went well beyond Kaepernick's protest.

"We have known that police brutality and the brutalization of Black bodies is as much of American history as celebrating the Fourth of July," Hill said. "I mean there were certainly individual journalists who have always been willing to talk about this. But they have just never had the full support of the outlets where they work."

Hill took to Twitter in 2017 to call President Trump a white supremacist and was later suspended when she suggested a boycott of the Dallas Cowboys over team owner Jerry Jones' stance on players kneeling during the national anthem.

She narrated "Shut Up and Dribble" and now has a talk show on Vice TV with Champion called "Cari & Jemele: Stick to Sports." They hold court weekly on a wide range of issues, including politics.

The title of Hill's new show is a jab at ESPN, where last year Pitaro said data showed that fans "do not want us to cover politics," a stance that made some of its hosts unhappy.

But Rob King, senior vice president and editor at large at ESPN, said the network's current wave of programming and coverage related to racial injustice is less about politics and more about a societal movement now sweeping the country, and recent research shows the sports audience is more willing to listen.

"I think we all understand we're having a national conversation," King said. "It has an urgency to it that it hasn't for decades, and so (fans) do recognize why it matters."

King said ESPN has always covered the intersection of sports and social issues. The difference now is that "we seem to be crossing that intersection every block and a half."

The leagues' professed support for the Black Lives Matter movement — in contrast to the NFL's resistance to Kaepernick's actions in 2016 — is also a factor.

"The reality is we would be covering any sea change in the way in which the leagues decide they're going to address this," King said. "It is no small thing when NFL players come out and do a very thoughtful video demanding racial justice and the next day the commissioner follows suit with a video of his own responding directly to the things the players said. That's a big news story, and that clearly is a sea change from how the league has presented in the conversation."

ESPN's policy prohibiting on-air talent from making purely political statements has not changed. Veteran host Keith Olbermann recently asked to be released from his ESPN contract early because he wanted to resume doing political commentaries on YouTube. There have been no other recent public flare-ups with talent over politics.

There are more programs in the pipeline that look at the extraordinary period sports are experiencing. HBO Sports recently ordered a documentary that will explore how the sports world was put on hold this year during the pandemic and the role that athletes played in raising awareness of racial injustice when play resumed. Oklahoma City Thunder star Chris Paul will be the executive producer and narrator.

ESPN is also planning in-depth looks at life in the isolation zone known as "the bubble" at Walt Disney World, where the NBA players completed their seasons.

Showtime has recently started airing a weekly compilation of segments from its video podcast series "All the Smoke" with highly opinionated former NBA stars Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson.

"They wanted to do a brutally candid examination of all kinds of issues within sports on the floor, in the locker room, in the front offices, and then carrying over into racism and politics," Espinoza said. "It's come up big for us."

Espinoza believes the willingness of Black athletes to tell their stories about their encounters with racism, social injustice and the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on their communities is making sports and news inextricable. He does not see that circumstance changing soon.

"Today's athlete is much more willing to engage in political activism, in social justice and political advocacy than at any point in modern history," Espinoza said. "That's not to say the athletes didn't do it previously, as we've documented in 'Shut Up and Dribble.' There's a long history of athletes using their platform to advance social justice. I think those who are attempting to completely ignore these issues, if it's even possible, are simply delaying the inevitable.

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