In early October, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted out support for pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong. He quickly deleted the tweet, but the damage to the NBA's relationship with China had been done. Per CNN:
Daryl Morey set off a firestorm in China over the weekend when he posted an image on Twitter that read, "Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong."
That firestorm includes suspended ties between the Chinese Basketball Association and the Rockets, as well as the NBA at large.
In response, ESPN commentators discussed the controversial tweet and Morey's job, but failed to create context for the tweet itself. The nature of the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong is central to the story unfolding between the NBA and China, but the sports news network intentionally skirted the political components in its coverage, per Deadspin. According to Laura Wagner, senior news director of ESPN Chuck Salituro sent a memo to shows "mandating that any discussion of the Daryl Morey story avoid any political discussions about China and Hong Kong, and instead focus on the related basketball issues."
The memo, obtained by Deadspin, explicitly discouraged any political discussion about China and Hong Kong. Multiple ESPN sources confirmed to Deadspin that network higher-ups were keeping a close eye on how the topic was discussed on ESPN’s airwaves.
By "sticking to sports," ESPN failed to report the full story, acting irresponsibly and leaving many viewers without crucial understanding.
But according to ESPN, the network is fulfilling its duty as America's leading sports network. CNN's Brian Stelter reports:
...a source at ESPN says it is simply following an editorial and programming strategy that focuses on sports, not politics.
Stelter expands, saying:
ESPN declined to comment. But a source at the network pushed back on the contention that it was doing anything surprising or unusual.
This approach has been described as a no-pure-politics policy. It was instituted after a series of controversies involving ESPN and politics and ensuing debates about whether the network was turning off conservative sports fans.
This is hardly the first time sports and politics have met. As one University of Chicago professor puts it in a seminar description:
Sports used to be simple. Go to games. Play games. Have fun. Be entertained. Now it’s so much more. Every level of sports — from your local youth leagues straight up to the pros — has become big business that generates big money and big influence....For good and bad, the sports world is bigger and more powerful than ever, with athletes wielding more and more influence over our culture and our politics.
One could argue sports and politics are not only related, they are inseparable. ESPN's failure to acknowledge such a reality acts a disservice to all its viewers and sets a dangerous precedent for sports journalists.
Nevertheless, ESPN argues this is simply not the case. As ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro told the Washington Post in 2018, it is the network's job to limit political commentary:
“If you ask me is there a false narrative out there, I will tell you ESPN being a political organization is false,” he said. “I will tell you I have been very, very clear with employees here that it is not our jobs to cover politics, purely.”