The layoffs of over 100 people at ESPN, including some of their most recognizable and accomplished journalists, has shaken the sports world and created what for non-sports fans must be a puzzling level of grief across social media. It is worth explaining what we are losing, and what it says about my profession as well as the ruptured wall between journalism and entertainment.
On the most basic level, it’s demoralizing that a journalist like Johnette Howard, who owned the story about the threatened strike of the US women’s hockey national team in the lead-up to last month’s World Championships, is now unemployed. In addition, not having Jayson, Stark who performed the impossible task of making baseball analytics fun, or Tom Farrey, who has done more than any reporter in the country to educate all of us about the professionalization of youth sports, weakens journalism. It also looks like some of the best shoe-leather reporters at the network—Ethan Strauss, Jean-Jacques Taylor, Ed Werder—were seen as expendable, while the professional pundits—in general paid far more than the journalists—are staying.
The line between entertainment and journalism at ESPN has never been fuzzier. This hurts, because for all ESPN’s faults, its journalism has been critical to expanding the conversation on issues ranging from domestic violence in sports to concussions in the NFL. When ESPN covers these topics, they are more likely to become part of a national conversation.
To add insult to injury, the firings are hardly going to save money. Tom Ley at Deadspin writes, “Add up all the salaries of the people who lost their jobs today, and how much of a single Monday Night Football broadcast does it buy? Ten minutes? Fifteen?”
As Ley and others have explained, these layoffs are about the staggering multi-billion dollar price tags that sports networks are paying for the rights fees to broadcast games because live sports are the last shows that people are willing to sit through commercials to watch. They are also related to changing viewing habits that have more people “cutting the cord” of cable and the high costs of having ESPN as part of our cable packages. But these layoffs are not even a bandage on the money being hemorrhaged by the network. They are more about “assuring Disney stakeholders that ESPN is taking things very seriously and is prepared to keep itself lean and competitive.”
If you see any article that tries to blame ESPN’s economic struggles on the “liberal” tilt of the network, use those to line your birdcage. First, it’s not true. Second, it seems to be a reaction to the fact that ESPN actually has a laudable commitment to diversity and putting women, black people, and people of color in positions to actually talk about sports. This sends the alt-right sewers of the Internet and their minions at publications like the National Review into fits of hysterics. It’s an unserious argument made by unserious people.