Deadspin and the Decline of “MSESPN”

I’ve joked that my superpower is liking sports media figures that many others despise, among them Jason Whitlock of Fox Sports One’s Speak for Yourself with Whitlock and Colin Cowherd — who doesn’t like a bit of sports media drama?

Whitlock seemed to serve up plenty of it in his May 7 article for the Wall Street Journal titled “How a Gawker-Affiliated Website Made ESPN Politically Correct” wherein he argues that constant attacks (fair or otherwise) from Deadspin got the once adventurous ESPN to begin kowtowing to the far-left ideology that Deadspin would presumably prefer to see the rest of sports media adopt.

This comes at a time wherein ESPN struggles with outsized TV contracts, “cord-cutting”, and the likely alienation of half the country as it recently laid off more than 100 employees announced in late April.

As Outkick The Coverage editor Clay Travis puts it:

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. ESPN’s business is collapsing and the network is desperately trying to find a way to stay above water. You know how a drowning person flails in the water before slipping under? ESPN’s left wing shift is that flailing. They think going left wing will save them. The reality is the opposite, ESPN going left wing was like giving a drowning person a big rock to hold and thinking it would keep them from drowning. Instead, it just made them sink even faster.

That’s why ratings are down 16% this year compared to last year and viewers are abandoning the network in droves.

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.

ESPN and others on the progressive left vehemently deny the injection of politics has anything to do with ESPN’s struggles.

It’s incorrect to say that it’s the only reason for its struggles, but it’s also incredibly myopic to pretend it has nothing to do with them.

ESPN’s lurch to the left isn’t the cause of its decline, but a cause.

For example, I don’t think anyone has to be a swivel-eyed rightist to understand why half the electorate might find something wrong with Caitlyn Jenner being awarded ESPN’s Arthur Ashe Courage Award in 2015 above Mount St. Joseph basketball player Lauren Hill, who battled brain cancer while continuing to play on the university team.

She died Apr. 10 of that year.

Many also objected to Jenner being given the award above Noah Galloway, an Iraq War veteran who, after sustaining injuries in combat which necessitated the amputation of his left arm above the elbow, and left leg above the knee, went on to compete in extreme sports and was a finalist in the spring 2015 season of Dancing with the Stars.

Jenner by contrast was given the Arthur Ashe Courage Award for doing something all the right-on, Very Important People™ in the media, academia, and politics would have fallen all over themselves to fawn over anyway, calling her “stunning and braveadnauseaum.

In the current political climate in which the notion that there are only two genders and sex is biologically determined regardless of gender identity or expression are now incandescently controversial, that’s not courage — not in the least bit.

It’s empty, sugar-high virtue-signalling for the sake of being showered with approbation on social media as a Very Good Person™ by other Very Important People™ .

ESPN is of course free to give the Arthur Ashe award to whomever it likes, but whether anyone wants to admit it or not, everyone knows awarding it to Caitlyn Jenner was about showing the requisite propitiation to far-left progressive orthodoxies in a day when presumably serious people suggest with all apparent seriousness, that children aged in the single digits should now be fed puberty blockers, other hormones, or be subjected to sex change surgeries because some people believe on a hair trigger children that age can determine their own gender before they’re mature enough to decide who to vote for or what they want to do for a living when they grow up.

It should not be in the least bit surprising when people who, for one reason or another, object to this agenda (among others), look at ESPN’s promotion of it and say “I’m out” before cancelling their cable subscriptions.

Some of Deadspin’s attacks against ESPN, as Whitlock notes, included suggesting Stuart Scott was cheating on his then-wife and spreading unconfirmed rumors of widespread sexual misconduct among ESPN employees.

They evidently worked, as Whitlock had the temerity to point out a cause he has identified as a reason for the network’s shift to the far-left, as part of the reasons behind its decline:

On the plus side, Deadspin’s exposure helped end ESPN’s sexually charged frat-house atmosphere. But it also extinguished the network’s risk-taking culture and infused it with strict obedience to progressive political correctness.

During ESPN’s presentation to advertisers last year, Deadspin’s Kevin Draper wrote a post that all but declared the blog’s victory over the media giant. In the piece, “ESPN’s Vision of Its Future Is Good for Sports Fans, for Now” the writer celebrated the network’s firing of Curt Schilling and the “targeting” of nonwhite and female viewers.

“The old-school viewers were put in a corner and not appreciated with all these other changes,” veteran ESPN anchor Linda Cohn said during an April radio interview when asked if ESPN’s liberal bent hurt the network. “If anyone wants to ignore that fact, then they’re blind.”

Rather than sue Mr. Denton’s bullying internet pirates into submission the way tech billionaire Peter Thiel did, ESPN chose to acquiesce and adopt progressive ideology and diversity as groundbreaking business innovations. ESPN is the exact network Deadspin desired. It’s diverse on its surface, progressive in its point of view, and more concerned with spinning media narratives than with the quality of its product.

Particularly after the recent termination of longtime Fox News primetime staple Bill O’Reilly on allegations of sexual harassment, it’s certainly wise of networks (or any other place of business, for that matter) to discourage any atmosphere that could in even the most vague terms be considered “frat-house”.

In fact, whether you believe O’Reilly is guilty or not, he’s a walking billboard for a broader interpretation on how not to behave of the Mike Pence rule, even if you don’t like the Vice President nor are even remotely as religious as he — you don’t have to be a regular churchgoer to believe it to be a matter of simple prudence.

It’s another thing however to steer the company in a direction in which it alienates half the country with a political slant in sports — a part of American culture which otherwise crosses a multitude of socio-political lines — especially when you have other problems threatening your network, such as subordinating quality-of-work by talent to other considerations when making hiring and firing decisions:

The channel has become too handcuffed by politics to protect its most experienced and loyal employees. It’s a massive symbol of everything that fueled Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency.

ESPN NFL reporter Ed Werder, one of the most prominent faces among the layoffs last month, said in a podcast that he heard quality of work would not be a consideration when employees were let go. He lamented that “it seemed to me that quality work should be the only consideration.” Not in this America, the one ruled by social-media perception and dismissive of the real world.

Political correctness is an especially powerful force such that judging by some of the reactions to Whitlock’s commentary there’s very little tolerance for freedom of thought among the left.

I understand what this is like particularly from my experiences in the political left which I quit in part over the strict ideological conformity ruthlessly policed by “call out culture“, social media shaming, or the targeting of livelihoods among other tactics of silence and intimidation at the sign of the slightest deviation from the party line.

This is exactly what Deadspin targeted ESPN with, and Whitlock knows this:

ESPN is the worldwide leader in sports. and going after ESPN is a way to move the rest of the media. And so…if you understand how to move the media, you don’t go after low hanging fruit, you go after the highest hanging fruit.

[If] you go look at what Deadspin and Gawker have been doing just in the sports lane…there’s a reason Peter King was in the crosshairs…Peter King I think personally is a liberal, but he covers football and football is a conservative sport.

if you look at Deadspin’s attack on me I’m probably the highest profile African-American columnist who writes from an independent point of view…I’ve been published in the Huffington Post and I’ve written about America’s Drug War, and mass incarceration, I’m not some flaming conservative, but in this environment where I tend to go either way, I could be a conservative or a liberal, I’m seen as a conservative and there’s been attack on me, and there’s been a much more consistent attack on ESPN, and I think the point of it was to move the entire media to the left.

If you make ESPN the example and everybody sees ESPN in the sports media lane as the destination  and if Deadspin is going after people on a consistent basis that either represent conservative institutions or occasionally spout conservative viewpoints or viewpoints consistent with sports culture, of course you go after ESPN and move the rest of the media.

Whitlock lays out a compelling case that Deadspin uses call-out culture, shaming and intimidation to enforce ideological conformity within the sports media.

The emotional manipulation they rely on to this end however may be a well that will soon run dry.

Easily the most fascinating reactions to President Trump’s victory I’ve seen or heard were from people who weren’t conservative, didn’t want him to win, or didn’t particularly like him, but who nonetheless savoured his victory because of the apoplexy from those who adamantly opposed his candidacy — the progressive-left has become that insufferable to many who might even agree with them on a number of issues.

Organizations like Deadspin may see themselves as thought leaders (as well as thought police), but as they continue their long march through the institutions, they’re shedding supporters as a result of their own conduct.

Armed with the ethics of Gawker and business sense of ESPN in 2017 Deadspin goading ESPN into making a hard left turn might lead them both to smash straight into a brick wall.