ESPN Issues Guidelines on the Line Between Sports and Politics

And where and how it can be bridged

With a new set of guidelines issued yesterday, ESPN clarified the place of politics in sports, at least as it applies to its own staff discussing politics.

The guidelines prevent news reports from “includ[ing] statements of support, opposition or partisanship related to any social issue, political position, candidate or office holder,” but also extends this to the “public-facing forum[s]” used by “writers, reporters, producers and editors directly involved in ‘hard’ news reporting, investigative or enterprise assignments and related coverage.” While “public-facing forum” encompasses many things, social media is probably the most significant of these.

The guidelines do not apply to those who deal in commentary, a departure from previous guidelines, as ESPN public editor Jim Brady explained in a post on the new rules:

This is meaningful because, unlike the company’s previous policy, it states that commentary on political and social issues is OK. The previous policy not only didn’t say that but also conveyed a tone that suggested that dipping into political waters carried more danger than reward. Put another way, the new policy has gone from “It’s dangerous out there, so probably best to stay home” to “It’s dangerous out there, so here are some tools to best keep you safe.”

That doesn’t mean it will be a political opinion espousing free-for-all for ESPN commentators; the politics should still relate to sports topics. Of course, certain ESPN properties are designed, in whole or part, specifically to cover that intersection, and the guidelines adjust for that, stating “this condition may vary for content appearing on platforms with broader editorial missions –such as The Undefeated, FiveThirtyEight and espnW.”