ESPN responds to Dan Le Batard's Trump criticism, but radio host remains on the air

ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro reportedly spoke with Dan Le Batard, but the radio host remained on the air Friday. (Getty)
ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro reportedly spoke with Dan Le Batard, but the radio host remained on the air Friday. (Getty)

Dan Le Batard called out the overt racism at a recent Donald Trump presidential campaign rally and challenged an ESPN policy barring political talk during his radio show Thursday, blasting the network that employs him for operating behind a “weak-ass shield.”

Le Batard was not on the air for the first hour of his daily three-hour show on Friday, leading to speculation that ESPN may have taken punitive action for his outburst. But he returned in the second hour for the remainder of the show.

Le Batard show coy about his 1st-hour absence

The show was typically coy about his absence in the first hour, opting for vague explanations and inside jokes rather than discuss why he wasn’t there.

When he returned to the air, Le Batard jumped immediately into a regular baseball segment with ESPN analyst and reporter Tim Kurkjian.

Le Batard ‘had several conversations’ with ESPN brass

The New York Post reports that Le Batard and ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro “have had several conversations,” but it does not appear that a public punishment is being handed down from the network.

Pitaro, who took over ESPN in 2018, implemented a policy that personalities and journalists on the sports and entertainment network are not to tackle politics when there is no direct tie to sports.

“I will tell you I have been very, very clear with employees here that it is not our jobs to cover politics, purely,” Pitaro told the Washington Post in 2018.

Report: ESPN issues ‘stick-to-sports’ memo

ESPN did reportedly send out a memo Friday reminding employees of the policy.

"It's not about the message," the memo from ESPN executive vice president Norby Williamson read, per The Hollywood Reporter. "It's about the use of [the] ESPN platform."

Williamson also wrote that the network’s agenda is to give fans what they want: just sports and "distraction from heavy issues," per the report.

Le Batard chastised ‘send her back’ chants

Le Batard, whose parents are Cuban immigrants, rarely shies away from difficult topics. He used the guise of show producer Mike Ryan’s absence on Thursday to take Trump and his supporters to task for a rally in Greenville, North Carolina that featured “send her back” chants directed toward Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), a Somali refugee and American citizen who is a frequent target of Trump’s as he rallies his base against liberal policies in the run-up to the 2020 election.

A Donald Trump rally featuring racist tropes inspired a strong reaction from ESPN's Dan Le Batard. (Getty)
A Donald Trump rally featuring racist tropes inspired a strong reaction from ESPN's Dan Le Batard. (Getty)

Trump’s attack on minority congresswomen

Trump has made multiple attacks directed at Omar and her fellow first-term minority congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), and lit a firestorm with a tweet last week telling them to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”

All four are American citizens.

The tweet in part inspired the “send her back” chants that emanated from the Wednesday rally.

Trump changes story multiple times

Amid the backlash from the rally, Trump attempted to distance himself from the chant, telling reporters he “felt a little bit badly” about it and that he attempted to stop it.

In reality, Trump stepped back from his microphone at the rally to let the chant run its course. On Friday, Trump called the people chanting at his rally “incredible people ... incredible patriots.”

Le Batard: Rally was ‘un-American’

Le Batard took on the chant head-on, bypassing ESPN’s policy of not talking about politics without a direct sports tie, decrying the rally as “un-American.”

“So, what happened last night, this felt un-American what happened. Basically, a chant, ‘Send her back’ is not the America that my parents came to get for us, for exiles, for brown people. There’s a racial division in this country that’s being instigated by the president, and we here at ESPN haven’t had the stomach for that fight because Jemele (Hill) did some things on Twitter, and you saw what happened after that. Then here, all of the sudden nobody talks politics on anything unless we can use one of these sports figures as a meat shield in the most cowardly possible way to discuss these subject.”

A full transcript of Le Batard’s comments can be found here.

ESPN’s recent response to politics

Le Batard is an ally of outspoken former ESPN personality Jemele Hill, who left the network under pressure in 2018. Hill spoke often about politics and weighed in frequently on the subject of Colin Kaepernick and NFL athletes using the platform of the national anthem as a forum to protest racial and social injustice in the United States.

The network suspended hill in 2017 for a second violation of ESPN’s social media policy. Hill had previously taken on Trump directly on Twitter, calling him a white supremacist and “unfit for office.”

Dan Le Batard has presented the first significant challenge to ESPN's "stick-to-sports" policy since Jemele Hill left the network. (Getty)
Dan Le Batard has presented the first significant challenge to ESPN's "stick-to-sports" policy since Jemele Hill left the network. (Getty)

The experience with Hill proved a challenge for the network as it faced criticism from the right and directly from Trump with frequent calls to “stick to sports.”

Le Batard’s direct shot at ESPN policy

Pitaro’s response when he took over was to implement a “stick-to-sports” policy that has largely gone unchallenged since he took over. That is until Le Batard’s outburst on Thursday.

Le Batard is one of ESPN’s most popular and well-compensated personalities, and decided to wield his power to directly challenge Pitaro and his anti-politics policy.

Le Batard had strong feelings, echoing FS1’s Nick Wright’s assessment that the vitriol coming from Trump’s rally involved “abhorrent, obviously racist, dangerous rhetoric” that presents a genuine threat to this country.

He obviously wasn’t compelled to mute those concerns in the name of sticking to sports and catering to potential listeners and viewers who agree with those “abhorrent” views.

Le Batard is also not afraid of being suspended, having been the subject of short-term ban in the past.

ESPN would prefer to just move on

But for now, he appears to have avoided suspension despite the network’s reported insistence that its policy remains sticking to sports. In doing so, he’s challenged power of the very policy itself.

If ESPN would prefer that this situation just go away rather than fan the flames by making headlines with a suspension, how much weight does the policy really carry?

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