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New ESPN guidelines appear to give talent more freedom to express political views

04.05.17 at 1:01 pm ET
Jemele Hill and Michael Smith, who host "SC: 6," often talk about social issues in relation to sports. (Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports)

Jemele Hill and Michael Smith, who host “SC: 6,” often talk about social issues in relation to sports. (Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports)

ESPN isn’t acquiescing to critics who think the network has become too political. In fact, the WorldWide Leader appears to be giving its on-air talent more freedom to express views on current events.

Public editor Jim Brady published new political guidelines Tuesday from the Disney-owned company. Previously, ESPN has only released these kinds of edicts before a presidential election. But due to today’s politically charged climate, the network is changing its approach.

“Given the intense interest in the most recent presidential election and the fact subsequent political and social discussions often intersected with the sports world, we found it to be an appropriate time to review our guidelines,” said Patrick Stiegman, ESPN’s vice president of global digital content.

The policies make it clear that news reporters are barred from opining on political topics in any “public-facing forum,” such as Twitter and other social media networks.

“Writers, reporters, producers and editors directly involved in ‘hard’ news reporting, investigative or enterprise assignments and related coverage should refrain in any public-facing forum from taking positions on political or social issues, candidates or office holders,” the memo reads.

Commentators are granted more leeway to talk about polarizing social issues. During the election last year, ESPN’s guidelines said all employees should “refrain from political editorializing, personal attacks or ‘drive-by’ comments regarding the candidates and their campaigns.” But now, the instructions seem less stringent.

“Outside of ‘hard’ news reporting, commentary related to political or social issues, candidates or office holders is appropriate on ESPN platforms consistent with these guidelines,” the policy says. “The topic should be related to a current issue impacting sports. This condition may vary for content appearing on platforms with broader editorial missions — such as The Undefeated, FiveThirtyEight and espnW. Other exceptions must be approved in advance by senior editorial management.”

ESPN’s request to use sports as an entryway into discussing political issues is nothing new. Earlier this year, ESPN Radio host Dan Le Batard ripped the network for a memo that instructed on-air talent to only talk about President Donald Trump’s now-overturned travel ban in a sports context.

Given the newfound propensity of sports figures to speak out about current events, especially NBA players and coaches, ESPN commentators will likely be able to find some wiggle room if they want to address a contentious social issue. In recent months, several pundits, including Bomani Jones, Israel Gutierrez and Le Batard, have strongly implied they think Boston is a racist city.

Interestingly enough, ESPN recently reassigned one of its most politically outspoken anchors. Sage Steele, who came under fire in January for saying those protesting Trump’s travel ban were “disruptive,” is being removed from “NBA Countdown” to focus on other assignments, such as “SportsCenter on the Road.” Steele also sparked controversy in November, when she criticized Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans for kneeling during the national anthem.

Michelle Beadle, who’s replacing Steele as the full-time “Countdown” host, is no stranger to political commentary herself. During President’s Trump’s joint congressional address, she tweeted she was drinking after “each of his nasally inhales.”

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