Baseball analyst Curt Schilling was fired by ESPN yesterday. It wasn’t for his political beliefs, but because he so loudly and compellingly proclaimed them.
People will say that ESPN pulled the trigger because they are liberals enforcing an agenda against Schilling’s conservative beliefs. It wasn’t.
The reasons for firing Schilling were entirely pragmatic. You might applaud Schilling as a conservative, and see ESPN as an evil conglomerate intent on silencing a man whose right to free speech is guaranteed by the United States Constitution, but the truth is that Schilling is out of work for a series of very practical concerns that have nothing to do with his politics.
His views had zero to do with the firing.
Here are the top nine reasons Schilling was fired:
9 – If Rush Limbaugh was fired by ESPN, Curt Schilling surely can. Limbaugh is a political pundit who has made hundreds of millions of dollars stoking the furnace of conservatives, and came to ESPN in an effort to bring his fans to NFL Sundays. The intolerance for political takes regarding football were bared almost immediately as Limbaugh was canned. If a media icon can be terminated for doing what was expected from him, Schilling was living on borrowed time.
8 – Self-indulgent talent will always be dispatched. Whether you believe Schilling was right or wrong in his Facebook post attacking those who oppose the law in North Carolina which forces people to use the public restroom designated for the gender of their birth, he decided it was more important to voice his opinion than respect the ESPN brand by sticking to sports. Do weathermen interrupt their forecasts to espouse their beliefs or hot takes on the news of the day? No, never. If they did, they would be former weathermen.
7 – The pragmatic scale did not balance in Schilling’s favor. Make no mistake, Schilling is a good analyst, but he was never going to develop into a signature talent. When a lack of weight on the positive side of the scale is countered by significant baggage on the negative, the decision is easy. If a talent is going to be a pain in the ass, he or she better affect the spread sheet in a very positive way.
6 – ESPN is owned by Disney. This needs no explanation. Disney did not become a huge entertainment conglomerate by excluding chunks of people willing to part with their cash to enjoy a week at one of the hap-hap-happiest place on Earth. Not offending people might be boring, but it leads to success. No way Disney is going to allow Schilling to rail against the illogic he perceives in the world when it would shave a slice from their potential market.
5 – Because they can. There is no downside for ESPN punting Schilling because the place is big enough no individual is important enough to save from their own weakness. In any organization, once sufficient resources are gathered, any can be – and should be – sacrificed for the good of the whole. Jon Gruden is a much bigger deal at ESPN than Schilling, but just as there was an ESPN before Gruden joined the team, there will be one after. If ESPN was a human body, Schilling was a pimple that was popped. Gruden would be a tonsil. The heart is the play-by-play partnerships.
4 – Allowing Schilling to preach grants safe passage to others with the same compulsion. ESPN needs to enforce a culture where people do not feel empowered to say whatever they believe or whatever amuses them. The mothership is a machine that requires all cogs and gears to fit together nicely or the entire thing fails. If one piece goes south, it affects the functionality of all. in a marketplace as competitive as sports media, ESPN could not allow Schilling to gum up the works.
3 – Schilling put at risk ESPN’s relationship with partners. Partnerships with leagues and other organizations that negotiate play-by-play rights are the most important relationships in sports media. A high profile talent who espouses views that alienate a significant portion of their audience (and virtually any constituency is significant to leagues with national or global footprints) cannot be tolerated. it’s one thing to be critical of a piece of a league’s brand like a player or coach, but another entirely to attack a core belief of people who buy tickets and jerseys.
2 – No reason to alienate views/listeners/readers through politics. ESPN’s brand is sports and entertainment, and if a talent can not be trusted to avoid offending users by venturing beyond the parameters of normal content, he or she has to go. Voicing opinions is our right as Americans, but there is no requirement an employer allow us infinite latitude in sharing our passion outside the realm of our job responsibilities.
1 – Schilling never stayed in his lane. Branding is a big deal at ESPN – among individual talent and for the overall health of the network. Schilling became better known over the years for his pungent political takes than his baseball insight. If the initial response of viewers/listeners/readers is political when they see or hear you – as it is with Schilling – you should work for Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC rather than an all-sports network.
If you work in sports media, and indulge in wandering outside your brand strength by yelling about politics, at some point you are going to pay for it. No matter how well-intentioned or funny you believe your comments are, your company is not going to tolerate an erosion in potential profit to protect you.
Go ahead and do what you believe is right, but understand it’s a matter of when not if you will pay for wandering beyond your brand strength.
Kent Sterling hosts the fastest growing sportstalk show in Indianapolis on CBS Sports 1430 every weekday from 3p-6p, and writes about Indiana sports at kentsterling.com.