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Thursday, August 31, 2017

Strategic CSR - ESPN

There is an interesting moment happening in the U.S. – both in terms of the level and intensity of social discourse.
You will all have seen the articles in recent weeks focusing on the pressures CEOs are increasingly feeling to take a stand on political/social/activist issues. At least in the U.S., there is a similar debate happening in the world of sports.
The focus is on Colin Kaepernick – a quarterback, made famous for his time with the San Francisco 49ers, whose declining productivity caused him to be kicked-off the team last season. What made the separation controversial was that Kaepernick had also made a very public protest against the U.S. national anthem (in support of the Black Lives Matter movement) – a brave decision given the hyper-patriotic PR machine that is the NFL.
In spite of the focus on Kaepernick, there are other athletes taking more public political stances. Lebron James has been at the forefront of this movement, but other athletes have also been inspired to speak-up (e.g., Steph Curry has been very vocal with his key sponsor, Under Armor). A common story has been a championship team invited to the White House, causing some players to decide between their principles and celebrating their team's success.
Into this hyper-politicized environment wades ESPN – the TV sports network. While I am in favor of political sensitivity (bordering on correctness), you can only feel sorry for ESPN's attempts to navigate the current new and volatile political environment, as noted in the article in the url below:
"The latest episode of the culture wars to wash into sports, and the news media that cover it, was prompted (unintentionally) by a broadcaster named Robert Lee. His employer, ESPN, announced Tuesday night that the name he shares with the Confederate general made him a poor choice for calling a University of Virginia football game in Charlottesville, where a recent protest over the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee left a woman dead and became part of the national dialogue. It was a story tailor-made for America's present hyper-polarized, kinetic and more than slightly absurd moment, and it has left one inescapable conclusion: However many times sports media outlets — and chiefly the biggest of them all, ESPN — are implored to 'stick to sports,' the centripetal force of politics is bound to make a battlefield of almost anything."
It is unclear if the correct response is to laugh or to cry:
"ESPN made the decision with Lee, the company said in a statement Tuesday night, 'as the tragic events in Charlottesville were unfolding, simply because of the coincidence of his name.' 'In that moment it felt right to all parties,' the statement said. 'It's a shame that this is even a topic of conversation and we regret that who calls play-by-play for a football game has become such an issue.'"
The story was first reported by a FOX Sports commentator, who has been a longstanding critic of the network, which he accuses of introducing a "liberal bias" to its coverage of sports. Things went downhill from there:
"Compounding matters, Lee is Asian-American. The Asian American Journalists Association said in a statement that 'it is unfortunate that someone's name, particularly a last name that is common among Asian-Americans, can be a potential liability.'"
Social media, of course, had to get in on the act. While you can imagine some of the responses, it is always reassuring to see those with a sense of humor not miss an opportunity to air their specific grievances. The best response I saw:
Apologies to those of you outside the U.S. (or who are less interested in sports) who might miss the Joe Buck reference, but it is quite funny.
As I mentioned, it is an interesting moment. In The New York Times a couple of days ago, Tim Cook was quoted saying the times had changed and CEOs need to respond accordingly:
"The reality is that government, for a long period of time, has for whatever set of reasons become less functional and isn't working at the speed that it once was. And so it does fall, I think, not just on business but on all other areas of society to step up. … I think we have a moral responsibility to help grow the economy, to help grow jobs, to contribute to this country and to contribute to the other countries that we do business in."
It will be interesting to see where this takes us.
Take care
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ESPN Pulls Announcer and Starts a Storm
By Marc Tracy
August 24, 2017
The New York Times
Late Edition – Final