BRISTOL, CT: ESPN continues to bat away viewers’ criticism that it should just "stick to sports," after President Donald Trump attacked NFL players kneeling in protest during the national anthem.
Over the weekend, Trump called on team owners to fire players that don’t stand during the anthem, a comment that drew fire from Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James, NFL team owners, and broadcast anchors.
#TakeTheKnee proliferated across Twitter as NFL teams locked arms during the anthem, some kneeling while others stood.
"The whole notion of ‘stick to sports’ – we never said we’d only do sports," said Josh Krulewitz, ESPN’s VP of comms. "Of course, the sports backdrop is here and that’s why we’re addressing [the protests]. That’s one thing getting lost."
ESPN has hosted town halls with presidents on the social and political issues of the day, such as race relations with President Barack Obama, Krulewitz said. Its 30 for 30 series, which produced the Oscar-winning O.J.: Made in America, also prods controversial topics intersecting with sports.
More recently, ESPN held a 22-minute discussion on anthem protests during its regularly scheduled 3-hour NFL program this past Sunday.
"That’s not normally what we cover on an NFL Sunday, but it’s an important issue and it was on the minds of everyone watching," Krulewitz said.
He added that maintaining the organization’s journalistic integrity and balanced viewpoint, while providing a platform for diverse perspectives, remain important values in its coverage of the ongoing protests.
But covering political and social issues has challenged ESPN’s code of conduct. Less than two weeks ago it reprimanded host Jemele Hill for calling Trump a "white supremacist."
"[Hosts] obviously have their own personal opinions, in many cases even strong ones, and they have to figure out how that can align with the fact they work for a larger company that serves millions of sports fans around the world, with the ESPN name attached to it," Krulewitz said. "That balance remains a challenge all the time."
The media giant circulated an internal memo, written by president John Skipper, that reaffirmed its mission and said Hill violated its standard of public behavior and social media use.
Skipper wrote, "At a minimum, comments should not be inflammatory or personal."
"Social media certainly throws a curveball to that process, because it’s a different medium with a different feel, and the way [hosts] present their thoughts is different than they have in other places," Krulewitz said.
While neither Hill’s nor her colleagues’ criticisms of President Trump have stopped, ESPN has taken no further action against them. The NFL, with whom the ESPN holds a massive contract, continues to break ranks with Trump in high-profile stories.
Asked why ESPN reprimanded Hill for her earlier comments and not for the ones she and other anchors have made after the NFL rebuked Trump publicly, Krulewitz said, "Our general principle in a lot of this stuff is each situation is different; there’s context and background to all of it."
The difficulty of covering this subject transcends the arena of sports.
Fox News host Shep Smith took issue Monday evening with what he called the "re-framing" of the anthem protests. While Trump casts the protests as an affront to veterans, the country, and the flag, and the NFL has characterized it as a free speech debate, original intent of the protests are far different.
Last year Colin Kaepernick sat during the anthem to protest racial injustice and inequality.
Smith confronted this inaccuracy during his show.
Fox News' Shep Smith: Trump is turning around the NFL kneeling issue for his base, reframing it into something it's not. pic.twitter.com/ARhmDm95MC— Yashar Ali ?? (@yashar) September 26, 2017
The so-called reframing of the debate is an issue Fox Sports’ Shannon Sharpe also highlighted during a widely disseminated segment, in which he admonished NFL team owners and even friends for muddling Kaepernick’s original message.
Kaepernick remains a free agent.