NBC Sports reporter Michele Tafoya is an anomaly among high-profile sports TV people—her social media feeds are very politically oriented. Tafoya has been openly critical of Hillary Clinton and GOP debate moderators. She discusses many other politically related topics on Twitter. She classifies herself publicly as a “a pro-choice conservative.”
In an interview last December with SI.com, Tafoya said NBC Sports was fine with her political advocacy but they did ask her to remove the NBC Sports part from her handle. Tafoya asked her NBC Sports bosses for permission to speak publicly on behalf of certain candidates she favors, as well as to serve on committees promoting certain candidates. It’s a professional back and forth that seems to be an example for others in the media. “I understand the ramifications,” said Tafoya. “They will ask what I am doing and what I am going to say. It’s not that they are censoring me but they just want to prevent me from going off the deep end, which I am not because I am a fairly moderate person. They have been extremely respectful about it.”
My interview with Tafoya got me thinking about how sports media people view discussing politics publicly, especially in a heated Presidential election season. With that in mind, hoping to offer readers some insight, I empanelled seven well-known sports media people for an email roundtable on the issue.
• Nancy Armour, columnist, USA TODAY Sports
• Bruce Arthur, sports columnist, Toronto Star
• Bruce Feldman, college football insider/sideline reporter, FOX Sports
• Jemele Hill, co-host of ESPN2’s His and Hers
• Bomani Jones, ESPN Radio host, co-host, ESPN’s Highly Questionable
• Jose de Jesus Ortiz, sports columnist, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and a former Astros beat writer at the Houston Chronicle
• Adam Schefter, NFL insider for ESPN and ESPN.com
The panel was asked to go as long or as short as they wanted with their answers. They were free to skip any questions. This is long, but I think it's worth your time if you want insight into today's sports media.
SI.com: In your opinion, should people in the sports media make their political viewpoints known publicly? If yes, why? If no, why?
Armour: I go back and forth on this. Personally, I enjoy seeing and reading different viewpoints, especially when they’re from people who I respect or admire. But I was taught early on that nothing is more important than your credibility, and maintaining objectivity plays a huge role in that. You don’t give your opinion and you don’t take sides.
However, when people on the news side root openly for their favorite teams or athletes, it’s never seen as a problem because they don’t cover sports. So if I don’t cover politics, what’s wrong with me saying how I feel about a candidate or an election? I’m also not sure how much anyone cares about the opinions of sports writers on topics outside of sports. If you follow me, it’s because you want to know what I think about LeBron finally bringing a title to Cleveland, Deflategate or how the Olympic selection process works for the U.S. gymnastics team, not the potential impact of Brexit.
Arthur: I think it should be a personal decision, based partly on who employs you. But if you’re informed—or even just feel strongly about something—and you’re comfortable making your voice heard, then you should be able to say what you think. Sports are great, but they’re not the world. It’s okay to live in the world a little, too.
Feldman: In almost all cases, no, I don’t think so. We’re in sports media. That’s how we make our living by covering those sports and people in that world, not politics. I suspect where we all get into the gray area is because of social media, and Twitter especially. It makes “reporters” opine much more than they ever might in their primary jobs. It’s also always a hot mic and affords us the chance to vent or spout off whenever the mood may dictate. I think most people follow me on Twitter because of my perspective on college football. I doubt many care how I feel about the death penalty. How I feel about that issue, or abortion or Ted Cruz or Bernie Sanders has zero relevance to how I cover my sport. Beyond that, the notion that we (sports media) use these social media platforms to share political views is probably bad for your own business. The things that often drive politics are very personal and polarizing. For instance, let’s say I do open up about my political beliefs, for those who already agree with me, I’m preaching to the choir. For those who don’t, they’re likely to be turned off or insulted like I’m preaching at them. I’ll be honest, if I feel like someone I follow does that, I either unfollow or mute them.
Back to my initial point: The rare cases where I think it’s acceptable, are for those who actually are hired to write or speak about politics. I know there are a few folks who do also work outside the sports arena, but like I said those are pretty rare.
Hill: It's based on the assumption that the sports world isn’t political, so the thinking is that whenever someone in sports ventures into politics, we are stepping into some treacherous, new world.
NEWSFLASH: Sports is political. This idea that sports is untouched by politics is bull. In both little and big ways we’re exposing our political views all the time. We just buried arguably the greatest athlete of all time in Muhammad Ali, and the majority of conversations about Ali were about his beliefs and politics. If you express open admiration for Ali because he stood up against the war, or if you’re among those that still consider him to be anti-American, aren’t you exposing a little bit about your politics? When Richard Sherman criticized the Black Lives Matter movement, my co-host Michael Smith and I took him to task, and thus exposed our politics. Congress inserted itself in the performance-enhancing drug and concussion issues. We have billion-dollar stadiums being built on taxpayer money. We also need to understand there is a difference between social and political commentary.
Regardless, sports people have every right to express their political opinions. It doesn’t matter if it’s left or right leaning. The question isn’t so much if we have the right to express political opinions, but WHERE and WHEN we do it. ESPN should not become ABC News, or This Week. Nor should we use ESPN platforms to openly campaign for candidates. But we’re citizens of this world, too. There are sometimes things that happen in our communities, cities and country that we have a right to react to, just like anyone else.
Jones: I’m not sure I can answer if anyone should or shouldn’t, but I think it requires a clear look at what one is saying and what one is doing. Depending on where you work, your expressions of your views will be taken as representative of your employers. So I don’t think explicit endorsements of candidates or parties is wise for someone in my position, but I can’t ever say that avoiding an objective truth is a good idea. The problem, of course, is how one determines what is or isn’t objectively true when political opinions are now treated like religious views, supposedly worthy of respect no matter how crazy they sound. But if someone is willing to live with everything that comes from being a public political spokesperson, they should say what they feel. For most people, the cost-benefit analysis motivates most to be silent, but I can’t help but notice that politics is the only realm where those who make their livings giving opinions are asked not to give a take.
Ortiz: For the most part, I don’t think readers care what our political views are. We’re expected to be experts on sports, and that is difficult enough as we try keep up with all the sports and teams a columnist must follow. I don’t have a problem with sports media folks discussing politics, but I don’t think those topics are why our readers follow us. With that said, there are times when I’m compelled to address an issue on Twitter when it pertains to inclusiveness or diversity.
Schefter: No. Politics is not a normal day-to-day topic of discussion and reporting. It does not impact how we go about our jobs. Sports figures who publicize their political viewpoints only serve to divide the audience. People are drawn to sports as an escape from politics. Even for someone like Andy Katz, who gets President Obama’s NCAA picks, Andy should not have to disclose his political views because he’s doing the interview. The focus of their interaction is basketball, not politics, as it should be. Though also allow me to say that while we’re on the topic of reporting and the White House, no President ever has invited me to make his playoff picks up to and through the Super Bowl. If whichever President is in office will have me down to Washington to do this story in January, I’m all in, Democrat, Republican, independent or any party.
SI.com: How does your employer feel about political opinions made public by staffers?
Armour: It’s expressly forbidden.
Arthur: I’ve been lucky. Even when I worked at the National Post, which was a newspaper with a conservative bent, I was never told what not to say, and I had four or five bosses who followed me. The Star has been the same: they have no problem with me saying what I think. That I know of, anyway. I’d hate to give up that freedom, really.
Feldman: You should probably ask my employer on how they feel about this rather than me speaking for them. I know I was hired by Fox Sports to talk about the sports and events that I am covering. Not politics. When it comes to my social media platform that is an extension of what I do on television and online.
Hill: My understanding of ESPN policy is that they don't want us using their platform to openly campaign for candidates or bashing them. I have never gotten the impression that ESPN has a problem with us being passionate about issues, provided we express that passion in a way that does not conflict with or undermine company values. And by that, I mean values such as openness, diversity, respect, etc.
Jones: ESPN sent out an email that most of the world has seen on its guidelines about how to handle the election and related topics. I have to say, I found all of it to be reasonable. Given that ESPN employees are first identified by most as “ESPN employee”—I hear “you’re the dude on ESPN” as often as “Are you Bomani Jones?”—there’s a danger in having those on the payroll making explicit endorsements. One thing I would say, though, is that I find it difficult to determine what is and isn’t a “political opinion.” Calling something “politics” is what we do when we decide something is polarizing, even if it has nothing to do with politics. I had an incident with a t-shirt I wore that was a parody of the Cleveland Indians mascot that many deemed to be “political,” but that would make the Indians logo itself political, and I’ve never heard someone say during an Indians game that they don't want to talk about politics when they watch sports. "Politics" is a word that's just thrown around. Think about it—singing the national anthem is expressing a political opinion. One could say the same about flyovers and other tributes to the military and police at games. ESPN televises those, just like every other network does. Since the beginning of time, sports have been used to push political agenda. Some of them just happen to be in a protected class.
Ortiz: When I worked at the Houston Chronicle, we were cautioned a few times by editor Nancy Barnes against making political comments on social media. That request came after more than a few of us commented on our personal Facebook pages and on Twitter after the transgender/bathroom vote in Houston. That issue hasn't come up since I took the columnist's position at the Post-Dispatch in April, but the same standards apply.
Schefter: ESPN has political guidelines in place. Employees are asked to refrain from political editorializing, personal attacks, anything like that. Approved commentaries on sports-specific issues, or seeking responses from political figures and candidates on relevant news issues, are appropriate. But they want us to avoid perceived endorsements, as it should be.
SI.com: How often have you referenced something political on your social media feed and what has been the reaction?
Armour: I do it very rarely and, when I do, it’s usually a pretty general comment.
Arthur: Uh, often. It’s a hobby, and I’m interested, so I talk about it. The reaction has been varied: attacks from groups like GamerGaters, angry yelling, constructive disagreement, but most often supportive engagement. And after all these years, nothing is funnier than the old chestnut, “stick to sports.” I wonder if anyone has ever used that, and had it work? Overall, I find I get less anger in response now. Maybe people are just used to me by now. That, or I’ve muted the worst of the chorus.
Feldman: Talking about pay for play with college athletes often triggers a political discussion but it’s usually pretty tame. Commenting on ousted Baylor president Ken Starr and his dreadful handling of the sexual assault scandal that unfolded on his watch in Waco stirred up a few people who came to his defense.
The thing that stands out most in my mind was a few years back at the conference (Pac-12, Big 12, Mountain West, the American Football Coaches Assoc.) meetings in Arizona there was a story most of us were all working on. It came on the heels of Jason Collins coming out in SI. We were asking college coaches at the meetings how they would handle if one of their players wanted to reveal publicly that they were gay. I worked for CBS Sports at the time and was helping Dennis Dodd with the story. I tweeted out a link to the story and immediately noticed how nasty some of the responses were to the piece, or even to the idea of the piece. I know those were hardly the only comments to the story, but those are the ones that tend to stay with you.
A couple of years later, I wrote a column for Fox after former Auburn standout Philip Lutzenkirchen passed away, that got into him speaking out on Twitter in support of Michael Sam after the Mizzou star got drafted. The piece was about Lutzenkirchen and he knew he was going to irk many of his followers (most of them were from deep in the Bible Belt) which he told me via direct message. But it didn’t deter him because he felt something more important needed to be said. I shared that story after he died because I felt like it was him preaching about a more compassionate society and that spoke to his impact on people. I figured that column wouldn’t sit well with some of the folks Lutzenkirchen thought he was riling up, especially after recalling the reaction to the previous piece. But in this case it was almost entirely favorable. I do think a lot of the reaction can depend on how stories are framed on social media in the way you tweet about them.
Hill: I guess it depends on what you define as political. I tweeted something following the tragedy at Pulse nightclub in Orlando that stirred a huge reaction. My tweet was in response to what I considered to be the widespread moralizing and grandstanding directed toward Muslims and Islam culture over their treatment of the LGBTQ community. I certainly understand that there are many countries where the killing of LGBTQ folks is sadly embraced and considered just punishment under Islamic law. And obviously in America, we have made some significant progress in ensuring equality for LGBTQs. However, as my tweet observed, we don't have the greatest track record with the LGBTQ community, either. The Muslim religion is not the only one that considers homosexuality an abomination.
Although we finally have marriage equality, we have had religious leaders here openly champion discrimination, encourage homophobia and even the death of LGBTQs. Look at the suicide rates of trans people, or the number of trans people that are murdered and bullied. When ESPN decided to give Caitlyn Jenner the Arthur Ashe Courage award at the ESPYs last year, some people reacted as if we'd raised Arthur Ashe from the dead and spit directly in his face.
But I don't consider that a political opinion. That's just right and wrong. Equality isn't political.
Jones: Probably every day. I can't disconnect myself from the world my audience lives in, and I spent too much time in school studying politics and economics to avoid those topics. Understanding those topics has made my work better, and using those topics to explain sports phenomena is one of my calling cards. Like everything else, those opinions make people love me and hate me. But I could get that reaction saying the sky is blue, so what's the point of completely avoiding discussions of politics? I'll discuss what's going on in the world, but I try to stick as closely to fact and pure logic as possible. I will not campaign or endorse a candidate or platform. But I'm not gonna pass up a good joke during a debate or avoid discussing that Brexit thing that's killing my viewers' and listeners' 401K's because politics are off limits. My work is focused on finding common ground. The thing we all have in common? The world we live in. It's counterproductive for me to pretend nothing's going on in that world.
Ortiz: I have retweeted political stories in the past, and that usually prompts some angry readers to tell me they don't follow me for political stories. Depending on my mood at that point, I either ignore them or remind them that I'll do with my Twitter feed what I please.
Schefter: Never. But I live in fear of accidentally doing it. There have been occasions when I've looked over my Twitter feed only to see that I've accidentally liked a tweet by simply rubbing my thumb over it on my iPhone. I'd be like, “How did that happen?” and then I realize I accidentally must have hit the like button on that tweet. And that's one of my great social-media fears, that I'm going to like a tweet about some political candidate that I never intended to. So let me be clear and beg for forgiveness right here right now. I NEVER would favorite any tweet about any political candidate. Should one happen to show up on people's timelines from me, ignore it. It was purely accidental.
SI.com: Has the climate specific to your social media feeds been more heated during this presidential election campaign?
Armour: Absolutely. There’s a lot of polarization anywhere you look in society. But I also think people feel as if we’re at a defining moment in our country and they’re determined to make their voices heard and try to convince others of what they see as the “right” viewpoint.
Arthur: Oh yeah. This presidential race is the best show on television, an absurd carnival of loons and idiots and madmen, with the caveat that all that’s at stake is the fate of the United States. In a way, having Rob Ford as Toronto’s mayor prepared me for Donald Trump Twitter. The crazy stuff piles so high every day that you get addicted to the news rush, and you lose track of what’s already happened, and it all starts to feel normal. The key here is to remember that it’s not, and shouldn’t be.
Feldman: Yes, I think it has been. I follow almost 900 people. Most are college football related people. Some are not. It’s pretty ugly given all the rhetoric and sketchy “facts” that seem to be out there with a ton of it devolving into #NeverTrump or #NeverHillary. Also, the level of discourse we have on social media is pretty disgraceful.
Hill: Donald Trump is such a polarizing, in-your-face candidate and unfortunately some of the distasteful incidents that have happened between his supporters and his detractors—violent confrontations that have been aggravated by both sides—is a reflection of the angry discourse in social media. This is the nastiest, most divisive election I've been apart of as a voting adult. I'm not picking on Donald Trump, but the very phrase "Make America Great Again," is an emotional, divisive trigger, just like "Take Our Country Back." There is an underlying, obvious implication is that there are people inhabiting the country that have stolen something or are enjoying benefits and rights they never should have been allowed to have. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out who wants the country back and from whom.
Jones: Not really. Or maybe I don't notice, because it's always summer on my Twitter feed. The dilemma for me is that there are things in this election that aren't about politics to me, but rather humanity and basic decency. Some of them I have to avoid because they are now "politics" because they involve the candidates running for President. I think humanity and decency should always be fair game, but also understand why many of them will not be until November of this year.
Ortiz: I have received a few e-mails or tweets with the hashtag #BuildTheWall even when I don't discuss politics, and those are clearly folks implying that I'm an outsider. I just laugh those off and mute the folks who send those messages. With Donald Trump's ascension, it does seem that the tone is tremendously uglier. I have noticed a bit more hostility when folks disagree. It's not just the right wing, though. I also received some negative reactions after I wished President George H.W. Bush a happy birthday on Twitter recently. In that tweet, I posted a picture of a luncheon I attended with President Bush and former First Lady Barbara Bush and a few Astros players. At least one follower took offense to the picture and responded with his negative opinion of Bush.
Schefter: Funny you should ask. Beneath some of the most benign tweets, I've noticed some of the nastiest comments. I asked one of my closest co-workers at ESPN, Ashoka Moore, what he thought was behind that. And right away, he said, "election year." People are angry. People are critical. Maybe they're taking their tones from the candidates, or maybe our society simply has become that mean spirited.
SI.com: How comfortable would you feel talking politics on television or an audio platform?
Armour: I’m very well-informed on political and social issues, so from a knowledge perspective I’d have no problem. But I’d find it uncomfortable to give my opinions because I do believe the idea of objectivity is important.
Arthur: I’ve been asked some political questions on radio, and haven’t choked on them; I think I’d be OK. I mean, CNN put Jeffrey Lord on TV. Besides, we appear to be in the post-gaffe economy. Makes everything easier.
Feldman: Talking about politics on TV or in some other public forum is not something that interests me.
Hill: Very comfortable. But I don't mind stepping in muddy waters or exposing my beliefs. Not everybody wants to do that, because the headache isn't worth it sometimes and people can treat you differently once they know where you stand. The exchange of ideas outweighs the negative as well as the opportunity to try to get people to think.
Jones: Oh, I'd be perfectly comfortable. I am well-read, informed and trained to discuss these things. I feel confident in my ability to civilly support my opinion, I don't mind people disagreeing with me, and I don't have many political views I think I should be ashamed or afraid to express publicly. I also don't think my views will stop someone from watching me on TV or listening to me on the radio, which is more important than whether someone agrees with or likes me. But I think I have figured out how to discuss these topics and find objectively interesting points that one can appreciate regardless of his or her political inclinations, which is imperative for me if I'm going to discuss politics given my current professional situation.
Ortiz: Now that I'm a columnist, I'd feel a bit more comfortable discussing social issues, but I prefer to keep my political views private.
Schefter: My job is based off preparation and information. As long as there were enough time for sufficient preparation and gathering information, there’d be no issue. I’d feel comfortable. But speaking publicly about politics is a great responsibility that should be taken seriously, especially at such a critical time in our country's history.
SI.com: If you could set policy at a sports media organization, what would you set with regard to staffers commenting on political or social issues?
Armour: Honestly, I think I’d probably have something similar to what ours is now. We’re not robots, and I’ve yet to meet a reporter who isn’t informed about the key issues of the day, be they social or political. But where do you draw the line? Can you advocate? On a highly contentious issue, how far can you go in expressing your opinion? What happens if it leads to conflicts among staffers? It’s got the potential to be a slippery slope.
Arthur: That’s a good question. I suspect I’d be very careful with it, because depending on your market, politics can be bad business. But then, if I was advising the owner, I’d say taking certain stands is a good use of your social capital, on issues that could actually matter.
Feldman: It’s a slippery slope because if you mandate they can’t talk about politics, how much can you open the door on social issues? Does that mean columns talking issue with how leagues or the NCAA handle cases involving the way some states pass certain laws are off-limits? I think you have to trust the people you employ to use good judgment and be responsible and not reckless in their discourse. If they prove to reckless and irresponsible about it, I’d talk to them because you do represent the company and it is a business.
Hill: I would discourage openly campaigning for candidates on company platforms. I would also discourage any vicious personal attacks toward candidates. Other than that, I think it's a case-by-case basis. People have a right to react to issues that affect them or touch them. Gun control is currently a very polarizing issue in this country, but did we not have a right to react to the mass shootings at Sandy Hook and in Orlando? Same with police reform. Do we not have a right to express outrage over Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, and Jordan Davis?
Jones: It honestly would depend on the operation. A big, corporate operation has greater incentive to ask its employees to be quiet. Determining how one person's political opinion is okay to express and someone else's isn't is far too unwieldy for a big company. They've either got to let everyone say whatever they want and deal with whatever comes next—HA!—or tell everyone to fall back. Smaller outlets can get away with letting their folks say how they feel no matter what, so I'd probably do so if I ran such a place. But we all must remember—if any of us ran a sports media outlet, we'd do that which makes are jobs the easiest. Or, at the very least, we wouldn't invite that which would make our jobs hell.