The ESPN coverage of the NBA-China dispute over Rockets’ GM Daryl Morey’s tweet expressing support for protesters in Hong Kong largely hasn’t touched on the details of the protests, which have gone on for almost four months and seen over 2,000 arrests. Those protests started against a bill that would allow those arrested in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China, but they’ve expanded beyond that into larger protests about democracy, political reform, police oversight and more. But ESPN hasn’t really covered what’s behind the protests much, and as per Laura Wagner of Deadspin, that’s by design:
Chuck Salituro, the senior news director of ESPN, sent a memo to shows mandating that any discussion of the Daryl Morey story avoid any political discussions about China and Hong Kong, and instead focus on the related basketball issues. The memo, obtained by Deadspin, explicitly discouraged any political discussion about China and Hong Kong. Multiple ESPN sources confirmed to Deadspin that network higher-ups were keeping a close eye on how the topic was discussed on ESPN’s airwaves.
And ESPN has largely lived up to that in Monday and Tuesday’s coverage, including Stephen A. Smith calling Morey childish for his tweet because it might cost the NBA some money and a SportsCenter update describing the protesters as “anti-government” (which, yes, technically true, but that framing carries a lot of anti-protester political connotations). Wagner details the highs and lows of ESPN’s coverage, and notes that Kevin Blackistone on Monday’s Around The Horn was the only one to address what’s being protested and to address the details of the protests. Tuesday’s coverage from China, including Rachel Nichols on SportsCenter and then again on The Jump, also covered the current state of the dispute between the NBA and China without addressing what’s at issue in the Hong Kong protests.
This is far from the first time a network’s tried to steer away from political issues around a sports event, and U.S. networks broadcasting on foreign soil on particular has often led to some questionable pieces. Some past cases include Fox Sports giving World Cup viewers a tour of Stalin’s dacha and talking about him as a “formidable figure,” NBC downplaying Zika and sewage concerns in Rio, and NBC citing Japan as “an example” to Korea. ESPN’s coverage here hasn’t necessarily hit those levels yet, but it is interesting that management is forcing such a “stick to sports” approach, especially considering that ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro said last October that they should cover politics when it intersects with sports:
There is the intersection between sports and politics. When Tiger is talking about the president, when the anthem story, every time that there is an intersection, ESPN is the place of record. Of course, when you tune into ESPN, we should be, we need to be covering those stories, if there is a connection to sports.
Here’s further on that front at an employee summit last March:
“I do not believe that we are a political organization. I know that a lot of conversation has happened within this company in the past year and I believe that we netted out in the right place, which is we are a sports media company. Of course, there is going to continue to be an intersection of between sports and politics and we’re going to continue to cover that. We’re going to cover it fairly and honestly. But we are focused on serving the sports fan.”
There’s obviously a much more direct politics and sports connection here than there have been in previous “no politics” demands from ESPN, including Dan Le Batard’s commentary on chants about Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. And it certainly can be questioned if ESPN is actually covering this “fairly and honestly”; they’re covering the specific sports dispute at play, but not really addressing the root political causes that led to it, and ignoring those causes and describing the protesters as “anti-government” certainly can be seen as more “fair” to the Chinese government than to the protesters.
It is notable that ESPN parent Disney relies on China in a huge way, from their films (Avengers: Endgame made $629 million of its $2.795 billion global box office there, while Spiderman: Far From Home made $203 million in China) to their theme park in Shanghai (they also have one in Hong Kong, so these protests and whatever their eventual outcome is will likely have a notable impact on Disney). And ESPN itself has a partnership with Chinese internet company Tencent, one company involved in the cancellation of the NBA preseason broadcasts. And given that NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s comments on this front were seen as far too weak by many American politicians and NBA fans, but were still enough to escalate this dispute to actual TV blackouts, Disney and ESPN certainly aren’t operating on groundless fears that comments here could lead to backlash from the Chinese government.
Overall, it seems like Disney and ESPN are approaching this issue in a way that somewhat contradicts Pitaro’s “we should be, we need to be covering those stories, if there is a connection to sports” line. There’s an obvious connection or “intersection” between sports and politics here, and yet, ESPN is focusing their coverage very clearly and very specifically on the sports impacts. And the news of this memo of management specifically directing their shows to do just that explains a lot.
ESPN can cover stories however they want, and there’s perhaps a case that rigidly avoiding anything that could be seen as at all critical of the Chinese government is best for their corporate bottom line. But this approach does raise questions about them being “the place of record” “every time that there is an intersection.” In this case, the more accurate claim might be “the place of record for stick-to-sports coverage.”