The Washington Post's Ben Strauss has written a perspective story on ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro's attempt to tone down the Worldwide Leader In Sports' politics. There have been turbulent times in his first two years ― most notably Dan Le Batard's recent attack on President Trump. Strauss says Pitaro needs to define what sticking to sports really means at ESPN.
Pitaro is seeking to present sports as an almost child-like escape from the real world, "with his network set apart from the larger culture wars raging in the country," Strauss says. This was evident as Pitaro jumped up and down begging for a baseball from a Yankees' player at a recent major league game. ESPN's role, Pitaro told hundreds of employees, is to unite people around sports.
Somewhat skeptical of Pitaro's chances to clean up the mess left by previous President John Skipper, Strauss says, "Creating such an enterprise today is complicated, as is the question of whether ESPN really has softened its approach under its new leader or merely rebranded itself through a Pitaro-led-nip-and-tuck."
After the Trump rally in which supporters chanted for the president to send Cong. Ilhan Omar back to Somalia, Le Batard lambasted the non-political network Pitaro is seeking. "We here at ESPN don't have the stomach for the fight," he wailed on ESPN Radio. He called his employer cowardly, but evaded punishment afterwards in a meeting with Pitaro. Strauss remarked "Le Batard's monologue, though, both defied Pitaro's narrowed mission and questioned the costs of it."
That mission is to serve all sports fans, Pitaro has said. Last year, Pitaro noted data showing ESPN with a major loss of Republican viewership and people of both parties opposing the politicization of sports. He responded with internal town halls pressing his demand that ESPN should only tolerate politics through the lens of sports (a strategy that's been criticized by Fox Sports Radio host Clay Travis as wishy-washy).
In addition to Le Batard's rebellion, First Take co-host Stephen A. Smith has strayed from sports to take on the issue of white privilege. ESPN also covered U.S. soccer player Megan Rapinoe's radical politics during the women's World Cup soccer tournament and its aftermath.
Pitaro believes he has changed ESPN's perception for the better, and Strauss pointed to data showing the partisan approval of the network has disappeared.
Former ESPN executive and current president of the media conglomerate Endeavor Mark Shapiro says, "What Jimmy has done well is bring a sense of calm and make sure the place isn't a bull's eye for people."
Smith has predicted that as the politics swell around next year's elections, ESPN's so-called "red line" will be tested again.
Max Kellerman's, Smith's colleague on First Take and a frequent on-air critic of President Trump's, is quoted on Pitaro, saying: "I've worked for a lot of media executives, and I don't think any of them have a greater understanding or a vision for what sports fans want and positioning themselves for the future."
Compared to the pot-smoking former ESPN President Skipper, Pitaro pours over data and his motto for decision-making is "Discuss. Debate. Decide. Align."