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As the China-NBA crisis continues, ESPN toes its no-politics line

The network’s coverage of what is one of the biggest sports stories of the year underscores the challenge ESPN faces in attempting to stay away from politics.
Image: ESPN
ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro has told staff not to get into political discussions on the air.Yana Paskova / The Washington Post/Getty Images

ESPN is keeping politics — and criticism of China — out of its coverage of the NBA’s widely panned handling of a tweet about the Hong Kong protesters.

The tweet from a Houston Rockets executive, since deleted, read “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” and kicked off a backlash in China, with sponsors there immediately dropping the league and state television canceling broadcasts of preseason games. Fan events in China scheduled for Wednesday were also canceled.

The story quickly gained momentum over the weekend and continued to develop, with China moving to suspend broadcast plans for preseason NBA games held in China.

It's the kind of story ESPN could not avoid despite its efforts to sidestep politics. On Tuesday, Deadspin obtained an email from ESPN senior news editor Chuck Salituro sent to select producers to reiterate company policy on avoiding talk of Chinese or Hong Kong politics.

David Scott, a spokesman for ESPN, said the company had issued guidance that reiterated the channel's efforts to stay focused on the NBA.

Scott did not have a comment on the difficulty of unthreading the inherent political nature of the discussion in light of the NBA’s expression of regret for the Morey tweet, and its subsequent statement on Tuesday defending the ok free speech rights of its members.

But the network’s coverage of what is one of the biggest sports stories of the year underscores the challenge ESPN faces in attempting to stay away from politics, a policy it already had to reinforce earlier this year.

ESPN's situation is made all the more complicated by the China business interest of its owner, Disney, as well as its crucial relationship with the NBA.

In addition to co-owning ESPN with Hearst, Disney has a deal with Tencent, the Chinese entertainment company that agreed in 2016 to carry ESPN content in the territory. Disney also owns a theme park in Shanghai, as well as a broad movie distribution operation.

Disney CEO Bob Iger’s latest book, “The Ride of a Lifetime,” discusses the extensive talks with officials that went into the development of its Chinese theme park, and also the company’s potential acquisition of Twitter, and why it ended up being problematic. Twitter is blocked in China.

Few U.S. businesses let alone sports leagues have encountered a situation quite like the NBA-China situation, meaning sports media including ESPN are also figuring out how to cover a story that has geopolitical ramifications.

The predicament is “unchartered waters for everybody,” sports marketing consultant Joe Favorito told NBC News.

In the past, ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro has told staff not to get into politics and parted ways with host Jemele Hill after she referred to President Donald Trump as a “white supremacist” on Twitter. Hill wrote a column in The Atlantic this week criticizing the NBA's handling of the issue, saying the league is going to have to choose between being seen as progressive for welcoming free speech, or greedy for mollifying China.

The channel has been consistent on this point even as one of its biggest names veered into politics in July. ESPN host Dan Le Batard criticized Trump, a move that drew some attention but did not result in punishment for the host or an extended absence.

While ESPN has not ignored the NBA-China controversy, it has chosen to focus on the wisdom of Morey’s comment, for which he has since apologized, and on how it will affect his career and the Rockets franchise.

Despite having anchors in China to cover preseason games there this week, there has been no coverage of the protests in Hong Kong or China's reaction to them.

While most ESPN talent have not commented on the situation outside of appearances on the cable channel, ESPN anchor Keith Olbermann, a former MSNBC host, waded into the debate but kept his criticism trained on the NBA.

He tweeted on Monday that the NBA’s "obsequiousness" and its "smarmy league statement" about Morey are "embarrassing beyond words."