It's been two years since ESPN intentionally jettisoned a major portion of its conservative audience by reducing the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage to a celebration of Caitlyn Jenner and the controversial transgender movement at its 2015 ESPY awards program. That transgression from sports to progressive social engineering infuriated conservatives. Ahead of Wednesday's first ESPY Award program of the Trump era, heightened scrutiny again put the worldwide leader in progressive sports advocacy under the microscope.
The Awful Announcing blog devoted 3,500 words to the self-inflicted damage done by ESPN with its hard Left course. Showing quickly where he stands on the radical issues now openly advocated by ESPN, left-streamer Alex Putterman wrote:
Today—one presidential election, several bills restricting transgender rights and dozens of ESPN layoffs later—Jenner’s moment at the ESPYS casts an odd shadow. Many Americans remember it as a bright moment in the movement for transgender acceptance, particularly within the sports world. But a vocal segment of the American population views it as something else: a rebuke of conservative values and a sign that ESPN had chosen a side in a deepening political divide.
Putterman says the first time he heard ESPN accused of liberal bias was 2014. It came from Jim Miller, who three years earlier, had written a book about ESPN. Whether or not the charge is accurate, Putterman writes the perception is now cemented:
Based on evidence both empirical and anecdotal, including a poll tracing Republican attitudes toward ESPN, it’s clear that Jenner’s award was a key moment in ESPN’s history. From that night on, a large swath of Americans viewed the country’s biggest sports network as propagating a nefarious liberal agenda. Spurred on by Donald Trump’s anti-media message, social conservatives declared war on ESPN, until the claim that ESPN was “too liberal” burst from conservative websites to mainstream newspapers and jumped from Facebook comments to widely aired sports talk radio.
Whether or not ESPN actually is too liberal has become almost beside the point: Thousands of people perceive that ESPN is too liberal, creating a PR headache—or worse—for the network.
But former NewsBusters writer Dylan Gwinn was way ahead of the curve on the charges of liberalism at ESPN.
Gwinn first pegged ESPN as liberal in 2003, when Rush Limbaugh was forced to resign from his role as an NFL analyst following comments about media coverage of Donovan McNabb and black quarterbacks.
Since then, Gwinn has bashed ESPN repeatedly, on his Houston-based radio show, in his 2015 book about liberal bias in sports media and in his current role as sports editor of Breitbart.
Now, Gwinn’s belief in ESPN’s insidious left-wing ideology has gone mainstream, cosigned in newspapers like the Wall Street Journal, Orlando Sentinel and Chicago Sun-Times. The New York Times has attempted to parse ESPN’s politics, as has the network’s own ombudsman. The narrative has gotten loud enough that ESPN recently commissioned a study to determine whether it was perceived as too political, finding that 64 percent of those surveyed were comfortable with ESPN’s blend of sports and politics. [Fact-check: 63 percent polled labelled ESPN ''liberal.'']
Naturally, Gwinn is pleased to see his viewpoint become part of a national dialogue. And though he points to a number of incidents that, in his view, showed America how liberal ESPN is, Jenner at the ESPYS stands out above the others.
“If there’s a Rosetta Stone moment in the history of ESPN’s blatant liberalism or whatever, I think Caitlyn Jenner probably has to be it,” Gwinn told Awful Announcing.
Since its inception, Putterman wrote, few people gave a hoot about the ESPYs. But that all changed after ESPN went all-in for the LGBT in 2015:
Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty was among the many to suggest the award should have gone to terminally ill basketball player Lauren Hill. Bob Costas—whose politics will never be confused with Sean Hannity’s—called the decision to honor Jenner, “a crass exploitation play.” The late Frank Deford suggested Jenner hadn’t “overcome” all that much since she had lots of money and a reality TV show. Anonymous “insiders” wondered whether the award was a quid pro quo for Jenner agreeing to be interviewed on ABC. (ESPN flatly denies this.)
Matt Philbin, the culture editor at NewsBusters, was quoted:
“We’re celebrating somebody who’s coming out as transgender. That’s all it was. This guy had not run a race in 35 years. He had not been an athlete for 35 years or whatever it was. There was absolutely no reason beyond scoring political points and, basically, virtue-signalling.
“It’s ideological, it’s political. It’s something a sports network shouldn’t be doing. I think you celebrate sports, you don’t celebrate identity politics. But they celebrate identity politics, and it creeps into everything they do.”
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Putterman argued that "what Philbin sees as 'identity politics,' another person might view as simply recognizing and celebrating the humanity of someone different. When conservatives decry that ESPN is too liberal, they don’t mean that the network advocates for a universal basic income or forces employees to read Das Kapital. They mean that people like Caitlyn Jenner and Michael Sam sometimes get a microphone, while people like Curt Schilling, who disrespect them (and others), increasingly don’t. That’s what Philbin, Gwinn and others with similar ideologies won’t stand for."
It's one thing to go political, but when ESPN does that there is no balance. It consistently bats left-handed.
For more than two decades, the ESPYs were largely relegated to nosebleed seats of obscurity. But, Putterman continues, people who couldn't name previous Ashe recipients now had very strong opinions on who should win the award.
“They chose to seize on what has been one of the real champion causes of the Left and the social justice movement, which is this transgenderism,” Gwinn says. “And they chose that moment—that huge moment—to bestow an award on it and to really put their stamp on it. And for a lot of people, I really think that was a turning point.”
Newsweek's John Walters agreed: “This was a tipping point. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back, when you’re asking America to cheer the courage of someone making a private decision—and that’s fine—but he hasn’t been in the news as an athlete for 40 years. He’s been in the news as a Kardashian for the past five to 10 years.”
Putterman propped up two transgender employees of ESPN to justify support for the network's liberal obsession. To Courtney Pollack, "Jenner’s courage was obvious. She, like almost everyone who comes out as transgender, had come to terms with a complicated identity, risked losing friends and family and subjected herself to derision from those who didn’t understand her. Now she was doing what she could to help a community for which acceptance can be a matter of life and death. And she was doing it on ESPN’s platform:
“It gave me a sense of pride in the company in terms of how they embraced it,” Pollack, an infrastructure support specialist, said. “She’s taking everything and saying, ‘This is who I am.’ And I think that was a pivotal moment, especially for the trans youth.”
Kahrl, an MLB editor and gate-keeper at ESPN, said “Bruce Jenner the athlete was somebody that a lot of people—particularly a lot of cisgender, straight, white men—grew up with, grew up admiring, grew up respecting. The idea that Bruce Jenner was becoming Caitlyn Jenner became an important touchpoint for a lot of fans, athletes and journalists to bring this issue home to them.”
Furthermore, the bleeding heart lib Putterman claimed that ESPN’s choice to honor Jenner was "inspiring. The network was, symbolically at least, opening its arms to one of the most marginalized communities in America. ESPN, an important cultural institution, was not only showing acceptance toward a transgender woman but also welcoming her into its biggest night, handing her a microphone and letting her speak directly to young people in search of a role model. For most supporters of transgender rights, this wasn’t about politics—after all, Jenner was a loyal Republican and a vocal Ted Cruz supporter—it was about basic decency and understanding."
Another watershed moment for ESPN was the firing of baseball analyst Curt Schilling, nine months later, for disagreeing with the mania surrounding transgenderism. To conservatives, it was "further evidence of a political agenda," Putterman said. And the state of North Carolina courageously passed its bathroom bill to protect women and children from predators. ESPN and the major sports associations were aghast at that:
“The whole issue—transgender, gay, lesbian—that seemed to be in the minds of many, or at least some, who were making these allegations about ESPN,” Miller says. “[People thought] if they were supporting equal rights for transgender people or gay or lesbian couples, then that meant that they were a liberal broadcasting company.”
The ascendance of Donald Trump to the presidency further widened the rift between the ESPN Left and conservatives. Trump "crafted his anti-media message just as right-wing resentment toward ESPN was growing. He emboldened conservatives to speak out against mainstream outlets they viewed as biased—The Worldwide Leader in Sports included," Putterman recalls.
Walters accused ESPN of "working so hard to tell you, the American viewer, what your position should be on something.” And conservatives resent that.
ESPN paid for its stubborness in the pocket book. Republican viewers dropped in droves since 2015.To them, the Jenner fiasco was much more than a mere blip on the radar.
Further fueling the right-wing backlash against ESPN were its treatment of Tim Tebow, the maniacal rants of Keith Olbermann, sucking up to Barack Obama, support for Colin Kaepernick, the Michael Sam/boyfriend kiss and obsessions with race and feminism.
Putterman theorizes, "Maybe the tinderbox was in place before Jenner, but it took a transgender woman accepting an award for courage to light the flame."
When ESPN laid off 100 employees in April, the dominant narrative among conservatives was the network's radical politics.
Though ESPN lacks a serious competitor, Putterman says the network can either choose to "make people like Caitlyn Jenner feel welcome in the sports world, or it can keep its right-wing audience. Doing both just might be impossible."
It's a divide that sharply follows political lines. And it's not likely to get any better for a network that sold out to the far Left.