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Being pro-LGBT is not responsible for ESPN’s layoffs

It’s economics, not politics, that is hurting the network.

St. Louis Rams 2014 Draft Class News Conference
Michael Sam was drafted in the NFL in 2014 as an openly gay player.
Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

ESPN last week announced 100 job cuts, including some well-known on-air personalities. The story got a lot of attention, including some gloating from conservatives that liberal attitudes at the network — including positive treatment of LGBT athletes — have played a downfall.

Clay Travis, a radio host for Fox Sports and a writer, lays out the argument:

The people being fired at ESPN today aren't being fired because they are bad at their jobs, they're being fired because ESPN's business is collapsing. That collapse has been aided by ESPN's absurd decision to turn into MSESPN, a left wing sports network, but that's more a symptom of the collapse than it is a cause of the collapse. …

Middle America wants to pop a beer and listen to sports talk, they don't want to be lectured about why Caitlyn Jenner is a hero, Michael Sam is the new Jackie Robinson of sports, and Colin Kaepernick is the Rosa Parks of football. ESPN made the mistake of trying to make liberal social media losers happy and as a result lost millions of viewers.

Nowhere does Travis cite a single statistic to show that ESPN’s political leanings have caused people to drop their cable package that carries the channel. In fact, he effectively lays out the legitimate economic argument for the cost-cutting at ESPN — huge rights fees for sports events coupled with the loss of 10 million subscribers the past several years as people cut the cord on cable and satellite TV packages to save money.

In addition, smartphones have made it easy to get scores, stats and highlights on demand, negating the need to watch “SportsCenter” to get your fix. Add in the fact that ESPN charges the highest subscriber fees to cable carriers, which inflates monthly bills, and it’s easy to see why people are cutting the cord.

It’s the economics that is driving ESPN to cut costs and lay off people, but Travis makes the leap that liberal politics are a factor. He may believe that, but lacking in any hard evidence, it’s just his opinion. For purposes of this article, I am singling out his and others’ criticisms of ESPN’s LGBT coverage, now how it covers other social issues like race or sexual assault.

Statistics show that it’s younger people who are the least likely to have a cable or satellite package. On social issues such as LGBT rights, younger people are more accepting than other age groups. If Travis’ theory was correct, it would be older Americans who would be cutting the cord to protest ESPN’s leanings.

A poll out this week shows that Republican views of ESPN nosedived starting in April 2016, precisely when the network fired baseball analyst Curt Schilling for an anti-transgender Facebook posting. Kevin Drum of (liberal) Mother Jones remarked:

This was after Schilling "shared a meme that compared extremism in today’s Muslim world to Nazi Germany in 1940 [and] told a radio station that Hillary Clinton 'should be buried under a jail somewhere,' in apparent violation of an ESPN policy on commentary relating to the presidential election."

So politics is part of the answer after all. But not a slide into liberal politics. Conservatives were mad because Schilling engaged in venomous conservative politics, and eventually ESPN fired him before he did something that could get them sued. Conservatives are always the victims, aren't they?

Just because Republicans have a dimmer view of ESPN does not mean they are dropping the channel because of it. Cord cutting has been going on several years, even at a time when Democrats and Republicans held similar positive views of the network.

It’s also odd to think that a college football fan would drop the network with the most football coverage (and almost all the bowl games) because of its political views. I think the political angle is one justification for some to make themselves feel good once they drop a package that includes ESPN, as if they were making a moral rather than an economic decision.

It’s true that ESPN is very pro-LGBT athlete, but this reflects a wider societal acceptance of gay rights that does not have an automatic liberal-conservative bent. One poll, consistent with others, found wide acceptance of openly gay athletes, including a majority of evangelical Christians.

Travis singles out Michael Sam as an example of ESPN bias, but I am confused as to what the counter-argument would be to Sam being drafted as an openly gay NFL player — that gay players were not acceptable? Travis mentioning Sam as a symptom of ESPN bias flies in the face of his own comments when Sam came out in 2014. "I think Michael Sam is a big deal. Do the math, it's going to happen regularly that there are gay guys in the NFL."

Sam was a big story because he was the first openly gay draftee. Had he been one of dozens, he would have gotten almost no attention. It was news value, not advocacy, that pushed the Sam story for ESPN and every sports media outlet in the country.

The iconic same-sex kiss between Sam and his boyfriend after the NFL Draft in 2014 was carried not just by ESPN, but by the NFL Network for its historic value; it was the very definition of news, not a sign of liberal bias.

As for Caitlyn Jenner, one can certainly quibble over whether Jenner deserved an ESPY courage award in 2015 for being transgender, but one can argue over the merits of almost any nominee for an award as subjective as courage. Complicating the Travis narrative is that Jenner is a Republican.

"I feel like our best hope to get back to constitutional government with 18 enumerated powers is in the Republican Party," Jenner told an audience at a brunch just blocks away from the Republican National Convention arena in downtown Cleveland. "And I have to admit I’ve been very disappointed over the last five or ten years and so I won’t give up hope on it."

So, conservatives outraged over ESPN’s liberal leanings are also incensed that the network gave a major courage award to an open Republican? Seems like an incoherent argument. By the way, let’s not forget that ESPN became the Tim Tebow Network when he was playing and hired him later as a (very good) college football analyst. Tebow is a very public evangelical Christian.

Travis is not alone is linking ESPN’s supposed liberal leanings with subscribers fleeing the network. Ben Strauss at Politico and Jacob Weindling at Paste both do deep dives on the subject. Both spoke to aggrieved conservatives seeing schadenfreude in ESPN’s struggles, while offering no evidence that politics are what’s causing subscribers to leave. (I came up with the idea for this story prior to reading either of their reports, so it’s either great minds thinking alike or liberal bias in action.)

ESPN has been a model for covering LGBT people in sports and was doing stories as far back as the 1990s. They should be proud of this and not second-guess themselves over their coverage of the issue. They have shown millions of Americans that “gay athlete” is not an oxymoron, given hope to young athletes struggling with their sexuality and made allies out of straight coaches and teammates. That’s something to be applauded, not to apologize for.