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'Stick To Sports?' Tough Call For Some In Sports Media

While checking out my Twitter feed the other night, I happened upon the page of Rich Eisen, an NFL Network anchor.

Eisen, who hosts one of the best sports talk shows in the business, posted a link to a Baltimore Sun editorial which took President Trump to task over his tweets directed at Congressman Elijah Cummings.

Eisen retweeted the piece with the sentence, “Without question, the most scathing op-ed I’ve ever read.” Seems innocuous enough, right?

Yet, it didn’t take long for someone to direct Eisen to "stick to sports." The poster further argued that the mere act of retweeting something was an opinion, adding "celebrity politics don’t matter." 

This follows an incident earlier this month when ESPN radio talk host Dan LeBetard sharply criticized Trump for a series of Tweets and statements that targeted four congresswomen of color.

LeBetard accused the president of "trying to get re-elected by dividing the masses."

This came after ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro issued a policy upon taking over last year that the company would refrain from political commentary unless there was a direct sports tie, which didn’t appear to be present in Trump’s tweets.

That policy was enacted after former ESPN host and commentator Jemele Hill called Trump a white supremacist on Twitter in 2017. Hill eventually left the channel and now writes for The Atlantic.

LeBetard confronted Pitaro’s policy head-on and on the air, saying ESPN only wanted to approach political topics at "some sort of weak, cowardly sports angle that we can run it through."

Pitaro and LeBetard, the son of Cuban immigrants, reportedly met to discuss LeBetard’s comments, and, after a day off, LeBetard returned to the air.

In full disclosure, I’m not a fan of LeBetard, whose work on air and in his previous iteration as a Miami Herald columnist, can border on the sophomoric.

But, on this point, LeBetard may be onto something, though calling your boss and his policy cowardly in a public forum doesn’t seem to be the brightest idea.

The phrase “stick to sports” almost always is hurled at an athlete, coach or sports media figure who has said or, in this case, written, something that runs counter to the hurler’s point of view.

But while a player, say Tom Brady or Stephen Curry, who each passed up White House visits over policy differences with the current and previous occupants, has a level of freedom to speak their minds, what about sports writers and broadcasters?

Does a web page or a radio or television program or placement in a sports section give the media practitioner the ability to opine on any subject, even the ones that have nothing to do with athletics?

Of course it does. Although the First Amendment only protects speakers from censorship by the government, free speech means nothing if the words are only the ones we like and those words only come from approved places and at approved times.

And that’s how I see it for this week.

Milton Kent hosted the weekly commentary Sports at Large from its creation in 2002 to its finale in July 2013. He has written about sports locally and nationally since 1988, covering the Baltimore Orioles, University of Maryland men's basketball, women's basketball and football, the Washington Wizards, the NBA, men's and women's college basketball and sports media for the Baltimore Sun and AOL Fanhouse. He has covered the World Series, the American and National League Championship Series, the NFL playoffs, the NBA Finals and 17 NCAA men's and women's Final Fours. He currently teaches journalism at Morgan State University.