News broke Wednesday morning that ESPN, after bleeding ratings and subscribers for some time now, would lay off one hundred employees. The cuts are sure to be noticed as numerous on-air talent and regular beat reporters would be among those put out of work. Names such as Trent Dilfer, Jayson Stark, Danny Kanell, Ed Werder, and longtime NASCAR analyst Dr. Jerry Punch were among the fallen, as was much of the network’s NHL staff while the Stanley Cup playoffs enter the second round.
Across the sports journalism landscape the news was met with sorrow, but soon that empathy gave way to a more cathartic response. Soon the tone for some turned to a lecturing condemnation towards the rabble, on social media — that is, the fans. Numerous people expressed less than sympathetic sentiments about the network they have looked at as being increasingly political, appearing more slanted towards leftist social issues.
This reaction chafed some journalists, seemingly unaware outlets such as Twitter and FaceBook are largely a pit of sociopathic distemper. What was revealing, however, was the level of obliviousness these journos had on display. The people who frequently campaign openly for the firing of coaches and General Managers, or for particular players to be released, were suddenly sensitive when a similar mindset was turned on their own. Numerous examples appeared of those delicate urgings of decorum.
ESPN’s Michelle Beadle lectured thusly:
Careful about how elated you get watching people lose their jobs. I hear karma is a real b.
— Michelle Beadle (@MichelleDBeadle) April 26, 2017
Slightly more abrasive was Mike Freeman of Bleacher Report:
If you are one of the dirtbags reveling in ESPN's layoffs, go to hell in a hand basket you pathetic piece of garbage.
— mike freeman (@mikefreemanNFL) April 26, 2017
There is a certain blind spot at play here, possibly a case of being too close to the story, but more likely due to a lack of serious introspection. Beadle, for instance, cautions others about karma while seemingly unbothered by it as she cheers others losing work:
A TROLL LOST HIS JOB!!! The sun shines a little brighter today. (Now if only they were all employed.) #PoorTrolls
— Michelle Beadle (@MichelleDBeadle) March 3, 2015
And imagine how Mike Freeman would react to a dirtbag reveling in residents of a state losing out on tens of millions in denied revenue from a supercilious boycott:
Hope it costs them a lot more. RT @HuffingtonPost: Study: Boycott cost Arizona $140 million http://huff.to/aIJqpW
— mike freeman (@mikefreemanNFL) November 18, 2010
Freeman refers to the NFL yanking the Super Bowl from Arizona over a law springing from the controversy of a gay wedding having a cake order declined by a Christian bakery. In the past few years we have seen other sports boycotts concerning social activism. Indiana was targeted for a similar law; North Carolina endures threats and boycotts currently over its bathroom legislation; Texas has been warned it too can become a boycott target over impending legislation.
Along the way, ESPN in general, and its on-air talent, in particular, have been vocal in these causes. Yet note the level of delusion at play. While they can openly campaign for these economic reprisals to be levied against communities they express outrage at the temerity of fans who may respond in kind.
It is a problem ESPN is experiencing, but it is refusing to waver. The ratings at the network have been steadily slipping and this past year it became worse. At the start of the NFL season, a controversy flared when Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers began kneeling during the national anthem, a statement over his views regarding the Black Lives Matter movement. As fans recoiled the network instead seemed to take the side of a backup QB.
As the season progressed ESPN highlighted the issue, as a growing amount of players joined in the protest. Yet as these displays were given more exposure they became less popular. The NFL began to see a decline in the ratings for broadcasts, which was a gut punch for the network. This was as direct a cause-and-effect as you can get, given the league had consistent annual growth for decades.
The impression that the network has a left-drifting philosophy is not without merit. The network has shown a stern hand towards talent that may have conservative opinions. Curt Schilling was dismissed over posting a meme on his FaceBook page about the North Carolina bathroom law that the company deemed unacceptable. Meanwhile, Obama golfing partner Tony Kornheiser on his radio program once asked if the Tea Party was like ISIS. Tellingly no reprimand came down, and he is still employed.
Yet ESPN stubbornly refuses to learn a lesson. Despite this narrative tilt and viewer flight the network has elected to allow some of its personalities to open up their socio-political views. A recent corporate memo established new guidelines that underscore the connection between politics and sports. So more of the commentary is on the way — and more viewers may be on the way out.
We may very well be approaching the era where the common refrain, “Remember when MTV played music videos?” evolves to “Remember when ESPN played sports?”