ESPN doesn’t often discuss non-sports news or politics, but they wound up with a bit of both Tuesday thanks to interviewing President Obama during the Tampa Bay Rays-Cuban national baseball team exhibition game in Havana. Obama was at the game, as was Cuban president Raul Castro, and while there were some lighter moments such as him joining the crowd in the wave, things got very serious when ESPN interviewed him and split-screened that with the game. Obama talked everything from the Brussels terrorist attacks to human rights in Cuba, and even had some lighter comments on the stress of throwing out the first pitch. Here’s part of what he said about the Brussels attacks:
NEW: Obama tells ESPN that today's attacks in Belgium are another reason why the world needs to unite against terrorhttps://t.co/lhgRHlVVnv
— CNBC Now (@CNBCnow) March 22, 2016
“This is just one more example of why the entire world has to unite against these terrorists,” Obama said. “The notion that any political agenda would justify the killing of innocent people like this is beyond the pale. We are going to continue with the over 60 nations that are pounding ISIL and are going to go after them. In the meantime, our thoughts and prayers are obviously with those who have been lost.”
While it’s unusual to see this kind of extremely serious content on ESPN, they deserve credit for letting Obama address this without interruption (unlike, say, when they cut off Win Butler’s political comments) and not focusing on the non-existent sanctity of an exhibition baseball game. There’s a long history of major events interrupting sports games and coverage, too, from Pearl Harbor to the JFK assassination to the 9/11 attacks, so this is hardly unprecedented. Unsurprisingly, though, some Twitter users were annoyed, either with Obama for attending the game, with ESPN for interviewing him, or both:
— Jarrod (@VOL_n_FL) March 22, 2016
ASSHAT-in-CHIEF: Obama appeared on ESPN this afternoon to talk about Brussels…while at a baseball game in Cuba pic.twitter.com/Sq22SSRdPF
— slone (@slone) March 22, 2016
For his part, Obama addressed some of why he went to the game in a bylined piece on ESPN.com (is that a first for a sitting president?):
Today I’m taking Michelle and our girls out to a ballgame. That’s something Americans do all the time, but this game is something extraordinary.
It’s the first exhibition game between a major league team — the Tampa Bay Rays — and the Cuban national team in 17 years. It’s only the second time an MLB team has visited Cuba since 1959. And most importantly, it’s a symbol of the bonds between Americans and Cubans despite decades of isolation — a small step that shows that our nations can begin to move beyond the divisions of the past and look toward a future of greater connections and cooperation between our countries.
He also discussed criticisms of him for being at the game despite the Brussels attacks during the ESPN interview:
“It’s always a challenge when you have a terrorist attack anywhere in the world, particularly in this age of 24/7 news coverage. You want to be respectful and understand the gravity of the situation, but the whole premise of terrorism is to try to disrupt people’s ordinary lives.”
There were some Twitter users who supported the Obama-ESPN interview, too:
Not a huge Obama fan, but his interview with ESPN at the baseball game in Cuba was spot on. Good job sir
Overall, while this was highly unusual, it’s hard to find much fault with how ESPN handled this particular part of their Cuba coverage. Yes, it seemingly violates their January memo that on-air interviews with politicians shouldn’t address policies or political issues, but the focus there was on presidential candidates, not the sitting president. Moreover, Obama’s comments here aren’t particularly controversial: statements of sympathy for the attacks’ victims and a desire to punish ISIL for them have been made by politicians on both sides of the spectrum. It’s worth noting that ESPN has featured Republicans in sports, too, including doing a whole 30 for 30 short on President George W. Bush’s first pitch in the wake of 9/11.
However, while it’s tough to criticize this particular interview from ESPN unless you hate everything they and/or Obama have done, their Cuba coverage in general has taken plenty of fire from both inside and outside the network. Oddly enough, it’s been blasted for both being too political and not political enough. That may be a reflection of why the network tries so hard to stay away from politics: dipping their toes into those waters will undoubtedly create critics on one side of the spectrum or the other. Despite its surrealist nature, this interview was largely handled well by both ESPN and Obama. Its existence alone is enough to spark criticism, though, and that goes a hundredfold for the other coverage from Cuba ESPN has done. That doesn’t mean their coverage has been all bad or wrong, but it does illustrate why they do try to avoid politics; regardless of how they handle political topics, they’re going to be targeted by those who disagree with their approach.