ESPN’s decision to fire Curt Schilling Wednesday after his anti-transgender comments and his doubling down on those with a challenge to the network’s policies was a somewhat surprising one, based both on the rarity of Bristol firings and on the political attacks ESPN would face from letting him go. Here’s what our Joe Lucia wrote Tuesday about the potential consequences for ESPN from firing Schilling:
First, consider what happens if ESPN fires Schilling. He won’t be described as “ESPN analyst Curt Schilling” anymore when outlets (like this one) cover his exploits. That’s great for them when he does something controversial, which in Schilling’s case, seems to come every few weeks. On the other side of the coin, there’s a strong chance ESPN would be painted as anti-conservative, anti-God, anti-free speech, and anti-Republican – true, factual, realistic, or not, those are accusations that do a lot of damage to the brand, especially in the midst of election season.
This portrayal of ESPN as “anti-conservative, anti-God, anti-free speech, and anti-Republican” is now coming true, and from Schilling himself. Check out the last part of this interview he did on conservative Sirius XM show Breitbart News Daily:
Much of this interview is Schilling tooting his own horn as an analyst (“I don’t think anyone in the world knew the craft as well as I did.”) and talking about how his wealth means he doesn’t need the ESPN job (despite the 2012 bankruptcy of his 38 Studios video game company and the cost to the taxpayers of Rhode Island). It’s what he says to wrap this up that’s really notable, though, starting at 1:56:
“I’ll always love talking about pitching. I think I know it, I thought I was good at it, but at a company where the rules are different based completely and solely on your perspective and your belief, it didn’t work. They didn’t like that.”
The idea that Schilling is a martyr persecuted for his religious beliefs is quite something, as is the idea that ESPN targeted him specifically for his beliefs. If anything, there’s a case to make the other way, considering that Keith Law was suspended after pointing out facts about the evolutionary fossil record in a Twitter argument with Schilling, while Schilling was not suspended for his comments in that argument, was not suspended for his inflammatory opinions on riots in Ferguson, and was not suspended for saying Hilary Clinton “should be buried under a jail” after ESPN’s “no politics” memo (perhaps they bought his defense that it went to his spam folder and that he doesn’t read any of the countless sites that posted it). ESPN has long been inconsistent with suspensions, and has actually taken pride in statements like “We don’t treat everyone the same, but we treat everyone fairly,” so this isn’t necessarily evidence that the network has a right-wing agenda (although those looking to make that point could definitely cite the network’s 2013 decision to give NBA “reporter” Chris Broussard airtime to call homosexuality a sin and “a rebellion against God”), but it’s pretty darn good evidence they’re not exactly a bunch of radical leftists.
The truest statement yet of ESPN’s feelings on anyone’s particular beliefs comes from former ombudsman Robert Lipsyte‘s exit interview with Ryan Glasspiegel of the Big Lead: “There is no ideology at ESPN beyond the bottom line.” That’s why they’re so keen on no-politics memos and insisting on “celebrity stuff, not politics,” and also why they put off dealing with Schilling for so long even when he consistently violated those memos. They want to generally avoid politics, and they don’t want the right wing or the left wing mad at them; to paraphrase Michael Jordan, “Republicans buy commercial time too.” If anything, ESPN and parent corporation Disney, like most massive companies, would probably slant somewhat to the right just from the self-interested concern of lower corporate taxes, but it’s likely even more profitable for them to be as absolutely neutral as possible politically and attract viewers and advertisers from across the spectrum.
Curt Schilling was not fired for his faith or for his right-wing beliefs; he was fired in the wake of a specific, public attack on trans people (which happens to include some of his coworkers), and perhaps even more importantly, he was fired for repeatedly challenging ESPN’s rules and hierarchy, and for doing things that hurt their reputation (and thus, their bottom line). Moreover, firing Schilling is not violating ESPN’s political neutrality; keeping him and letting him continually make political rants and repost offensive memes (and be referred to as “ESPN analyst Curt Schilling” each time) would be much more of a violation. It’s not surprising at all that Schilling is going to go around playing the “I was fired for my faith” and “ESPN is unfair to those with my beliefs” cards (when he’s not calling congressmen cowards), but it’s a thoroughly inaccurate statement. ESPN is not a left-wing company out to fire people who have right-wing beliefs; they’re a profit-focused company that determined further employment of Schilling was hazardous to that profit, and that’s the only belief that matters to them.