With Roseanne Barr having tweeted her way out of an ABC sitcom by comparing former Barack Obama aide Valerie Jarrett to an ape, ESPN seems to be taking precautions to make sure its personalities don’t go down a similar road.
According to Andrew Marchand of the New York Post, ESPN has reached out to specific outspoken broadcasters warning them to be careful on social media.
A source said that the Disney-owned ESPN was specifically reaching out to the most politically outspoken of its broadcasters. Jemele Hill, Keith Olbermann and Kenny Mayne are the ones most frequently associated with venturing outside of sports.
While ESPN’s upper management on Thursday was mainly focused on getting the message to its most outspoken personalities, some managers also sent the word to broadcasters and writers who have never been embroiled in any social-media controversies pertaining to politics or race.
ESPN has become collateral damage in the Roseanne saga, as some observers (including U.S. senator Lindsey Graham) have wondered how Disney (which owns both ABC and ESPN) could fire Roseanne but, say, hire Keith Olbermann. (The answer is probably that Olbermann has not publicly compared a black person to a primate, but that’s a conversation for another day.)
ESPN has been increasingly attuned to its employees’ social media behavior since tweets from then-SportsCenter anchor Jemele Hill last fall launched a controversy that rose all the way to the White House. In November, ESPN issued a new social-media policy, requesting that hard news reporters refrain from taking stances on political issues entirely and that others run any social or political commentary by editors or producers. Six weeks later, the network held a mandatory meeting for all on-air employees in which executives reinforced the importance of focusing on sports.
Of course, sticking to sports is often more complicated than it sounds. Hill, for example, now writes columns for The Undefeated, a role that requires her to share he thoughts on issues relating to race — thoughts that some might view as “political.” Other prominent ESPNers have built followings on air and on social media by sharing opinions beyond sports. Are they supposed to change their entire personas to avoid risk of a Roseanne situation? There’s no easy answer.
As the Roseanne controversy stirred this week, Hill tweeted “Please God let me mind my business today,” obviously alluding to the potential for trouble if she shared her thoughts on the saga.
Please God let me mind my business today.
— Jemele Hill (@jemelehill) May 29, 2018
Of course, the comparison between Roseanne and ESPN employees isn’t exactly apples-to-apples. Barr, after all, wasn’t fired for tweeting about politics. She was fired for tweeting about politics in a racist way. Still, it makes sense that ESPN executives, and their bosses at Disney, would be nervous about political firestorms. At a time when the president of the United States is liable to call out anyone and everyone he considers to have wronged him, any remotely controversial tweet can blow up into a national scandal with a few keystrokes.
So at least while the Roseanne controversy remains fresh in the public mind, it would probably be wise for ESPNers to lay low.