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ESPN Can’t Win in Trump’s Rowdy America – The New Yorker

I ’ll admit to a fondness for the old song for “Monday Night
Football
,”
by Hank Williams, Jr., which opened broadcasts between 1989 and 2011.
When Hank would howl, “Are you ready for some football?,” the answer was
always an enthusiastic yes. This was back when the prospect of watching
a bunch of big and fast guys crack heads seemed like an innocent
pleasure, and not the obvious moral morass that it is today. But times
changed—and, specifically, they changed for Williams, who, in 2011, was
dumped from the “Monday Night Football” broadcast after he went on Fox
News and called Democrats “the enemy,” and illustrated his point by
comparing the sight of President Obama playing golf with John Boehner to
seeing “Hitler playing golf with Netanyahu.”

And then, as they do, the times changed back. On Monday night, Williams
returned to “M.N.F.,” performing his signature song, alongside the crossover-country group
Florida Georgia Line and the pop star Jason Derulo. The song has been
tweaked several times through the years to suit various musical moments,
but this version was a special kind of Frankenstein’s monster:
Williams’s original blues-rock combined with modern country, E.D.M., and
a lot of Auto-Tune. The song was greeted with
jeers
,
not simply because it sounded ridiculous but because, for many viewers,
that sound was inseparable from what they saw as a series of bad
decisions by ESPN, which recently has become, largely against its will,
a central player in the pervasive culture war of Trump’s America.

People on the left hated the song because it had too much Hank,
Jr.—bringing him back seemed like a form of appeasement by ESPN to the
nostalgia of conservative viewers, who have accused the network of
perpetuating a liberal bias. People on the right, meanwhile, hated the
song because it didn’t have enough Hank, Jr.—his roughneck,
Southern-pride, blue-collar voice had been marginalized in the new song,
giving way to slick modern beats. Everyone else hated the song, because,
well, it’s a mess. But it’s a particular kind of mess, and one that
tracks with some of the issues plaguing ESPN. The network has lost more
than twelve million cable subscribers since 2011; in April, it laid off
roughly a hundred employees, two years after it laid off more than three
hundred. There are two basic explanations for this retrenchment. One,
based in fact, points to a decline in the number of cable subscribers in
the United States, and thus a decline in the number of people who
pay
,
through their cable packages, for ESPN. The other, based on alt-right
fairy dust and angry tweets, suggests that ESPN is losing viewers
because of the network’s sinister, coördinated shift to the
left
,
which has been driving away conservative and moderate viewers.

Critics on the right don’t have the numbers to prove this, but they had
plenty of prominent examples of ESPN’s so-called liberal bias: the
celebration of Caitlyn Jenner; the firing of the former ace turned
conservative firebrand Curt Schilling; the positive coverage of the
national-anthem protests by Colin Kaepernick and other N.F.L. players;
the prominence of younger, progressive on-air talent, including Bomani
Jones, Dan Le Batard, Jemele Hill, and Michael Smith. In these
criticisms, there is often an unfortunate and reflexive conflation of
“liberal” with simple diversity—a seeming discomfort with the new
reality that the people talking about sports on TV look, finally, like
the athletes who play those sports.

Talking about the waning of ESPN as a story of eroding subscription
rates and ad buys is boring. But the idea that a major television
network shot itself in the foot by alienating a large portion of its
viewership, a demographic that also happened to be the same “forgotten
Americans” who helped put Donald Trump in the White House—well, that’s
exciting. And so, regardless of the plain truth, sites like Outkick the
Coverage
and
Breitbart,
through sheer persistence, have managed to reframe ESPN’s business
problem as a culture problem.

Even ESPN seems confused about what is really happening, and, perhaps
unaccustomed to losing revenue, the network has been acting strangely.
The story of the football announcer Robert Lee was the most recent
bizarre swerve. Lee, who is Asian-American, was scheduled to call the
University of Virginia’s opening game against William & Mary, on
September 2nd. But, in the days after the terrorist attack at a
white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, ESPN said it was pulling Lee
from the broadcast, because he shared the same name as General Robert E.
Lee. ESPN’s decision became a highly publicized fiasco, a jumbled mess
of obtuse and misapplied identity politics: a young announcer was
replaced on a broadcast because, well, no one was quite sure. Because
his name might remind people of the tragedy? Or else somehow seem like
an endorsement of the Confederate general’s statue? The president of
ESPN, John Skipper, argued that the network was trying to protect Lee
from “social hectoring and trolling.” More likely, some worried
executives imagined seeing the words Robert Lee, Virginia, and ESPN
together in a headline and decided that stories pointing out what was
clearly a coincidence might somehow be worse than the ones revealing
that ESPN had become scared of its own shadow.

It wasn’t always this hard. ESPN used to be just a sports network, not
an institution of such size and influence that it could serve as the
proxy battleground for America’s great reckoning with itself. James
Andrew Miller, who co-wrote the definitive oral history of ESPN, told
the
Times
that the network would prefer “to be as far away from geopolitical and
cultural issues as they can be. . . . If they could build a biosphere
where all that stuff is out of the equation, they would.” There was a
time when the likes of Hank Williams, Jr., Florida Georgia Line, and
Jason Derulo on a stage together, making a once-beloved jingle about a
football game just a little worse, would have been nothing more than a
dull and predictable stab at cross-cultural marketing. The audience for
football, until recently, seemed to be general and unified—old and
young, white and black, and everyone very, very ready for some football.
Now these performers look absurd standing next to one another, as
incongruous as the idea that “all my rowdy friends,” as Williams puts it
in his song, might include everyone, wanting the same things in the same
America.

Update: On Wednesday, ESPN finds itself at the center of another
political firestorm, and again has managed to satisfy no one. On Monday,
the “SportsCenter” host Jemele Hill tweeted, in a back-and-forth with
other users, that President Trump was a white supremacist, that his election was the result of white supremacy, and that he was
“ignorant” and “unqualified and unfit to be president.” A day later,
ESPN issued a statement saying that Hill’s opinions do not reflect those
of the network and calling her actions “inappropriate.” Once again,
people on both the left and the right were outraged. ESPN had been judged
too conservative in denouncing Hill’s political expression. Or else it
was too progressive because it did not immediately suspend or fire
her. Deadspin wrote that ESPN, by calling Hill’s Twitter posts inappropriate, “felt that it had to grovel before the racist uncle
demographic so as to not give off the impression that it leans left.”
Clay Travis, of Outkick the Coverage and Fox Sports Radio, after reading
ESPN’s statement, tweeted, “Got it. So you can say whatever you want as
long as you’re liberal @espn. MSESPN gonna MSESPN, y’all.”

ESPN Can’t Win in Trump’s Rowdy America – The New Yorker

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