The powers that be at ESPN have removed employee Andy Katz from the new Sirius XM show entitled “The Arena.” As a result, the show has been discontinued after just one episode. The premise of The Arena was to examine the intersection between sports and politics. Sure seems like a promising theme, right?
So why was ESPN so intent on snuffing out a program so early in its existence? The answer unsurprisingly has to do with the content of The Arena’s first episode, when the first (and now only) guest was former Florida governor and current presidential candidate Jeb Bush. The topic discussed (or at least one of them) was the controversy surrounding the Washington Redskins’ nickname. When Bush was asked about the possibility of the name being changed, he said:
“I don’t think [the team] should change it. But again, I don’t think politicians ought to have any say in that to be honest with you. I don’t find it offensive. Native American tribes generally don’t find it offensive. We had a similar kind of flap with FSU if you recall, the Seminoles, and the Seminole tribe itself kind of came to the defense of the university and it subsided. It’s a sport for crying out loud.”
Whether you agree with Bush or not on this issue is not relevant. The point is that many sports fans and individuals around the country agree with him about the lack of offensiveness of the Redskin’s name. So it’s not exactly as if he is expressing some kind of “fringe” opinion which would scare a mainstream media outlet. He also displayed his opinion in a respectful manner which did not insult or demean any of the parties involved.
Apparently this exchange was too much to bear for the higher-ups at ESPN. According to SI.com (Sports Illustrated), “Katz was pulled off the show in an effort to minimize Presidential candidate appearances on platforms connected to ESPN, and the sensitivity of such political identification.”
A few questions persist after hearing that explanation. First of all, if ESPN was going to enforce a “no presidential candidates” rule, shouldn’t they have told Katz and the others involved in making the show? If they had, wouldn’t those involved in producing the show have stayed away from Bush and all of the other presidential candidates and selected another guest? And if ESPN wants to prevent giving presidential candidates a platform on The Arena, can’t it simply enforce that rule from now on without doing away with the show completely?
The irony here is that ESPN appears to be so scared by political controversy and opposing political viewpoints while simultaneously embracing rivalry and debate in the sports world. Rivalries are great for sports, great for ratings and thus, great for ESPN. They (and the rest of the sports media) constantly play up grudge matches, controversies and the players/fan bases behind them. The network has also created shows which feature talking heads arguing with and often yelling at one another in order to win a sports dispute. Of course, there is nothing at all wrong with this.
But if ESPN has learned to promote and profit off of this kind of environment in athletics, why can’t they embrace the same philosophy in politics? The Arena was supposed to be a non-partisan show. So they could have gotten some other politician who disagrees with Bush about the Redskins’ name in order to balance things out. Especially after DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz responded to Bush’s claim by saying that his support of the name was:
“extremely insulting to Native American people. The team’s name is a racial slur that perpetuates negative stereotypes of Native American people and reduces proud cultures to an insulting caricature.”
But rather than having Wasserman Schultz or another like-minded politician come on and rebut Bush, ESPN would rather just cancel the show altogether. Given the PC nature of the sports media in general, the abrupt end of a show like this is unfortunately not surprising. Perhaps in the future ESPN (and other sports outlets) will realize the benefits of embracing political competition as much as athletic competition and shows like The Arena can truly flourish.