ESPN baseball analyst and former major league pitcher Curt Schilling, no stranger to controversy on account of his loudly and publicly shared views on politics and social issues, has at long last exhausted his employer’s tolerance for his outspoken behavior. Schilling, who had worked for ESPN since 2010, got the axe on Wednesday after sharing a meme on Facebook related to the new “bathroom bills” limiting anti-discrimination protections for transgender people in North Carolina and other states, which many people found to be offensive and transphobic. The Los Angeles Times’ Chuck Schilken puts the news in context:
The 2001 World Series co-most valuable player (when he played for Arizona) has gotten in trouble before by expressing his opinions. He was dropped from ESPN’s coverage of the Little League World Series in August and then suspended for the rest of the Major League Baseball season for tweeting a meme that compared Muslims to Nazis.
Back in March, Schilling appeared to have violated ESPN’s [guidelines] for election coverage by stating that Hillary Clinton “should be buried under a jail somewhere” during a radio interview. ESPN said it addressed the matter with Schilling and allowed him to be part of its “Monday Night Baseball” broadcasts as planned.
In response to this week’s transgression, his employer finally pulled the plug, releasing a statement insisting that “ESPN is an inclusive company,” and announcing that “Curt Schilling has been advised that his conduct was unacceptable and his employment with ESPN has been terminated.” Richard Deitsch at Sports Illustrated argues that Schilling gave ESPN’s management no choice:
I previously wrote that I did not think Schilling should be suspended for his earlier comments. It’s not that I agree with Schilling’s point of view, but having covered ESPN for a long time, there is rarely a day when one of its staffers is not offering a political opinion on social media. But Schilling knew that he was walking on thin ice given his previous interactions in this space and he provoked management yet again. They had to act in some manner, especially given how active ESPN [has been] with LGBT issues.
This isn’t a freedom of speech issue because Schilling’s speech isn’t being censored on his feed. He has every right to espouse whatever he wants, and his employer in turn, has every right to respond accordingly should it have issues with those opinions, which ESPN clearly did. In reality had Schilling been an analyst that ESPN felt it could not live without, he likely would have gotten a longer rope, perhaps been given a lengthy suspension here as opposed to an outright termination. But he’s easily replaceable – as most of us are. I’d expect him to work somewhere in the sports media again, but it will not be at ESPN.
Maury Brown, who writes about the intersection of sports and business at Forbes, concurs:
Schilling had been given numerous chances to simply stick to baseball, and from time-to-time talk about his family. With ESPN being owned by Walt Disney, who proclaims that they have a respectful workplace, “[fosters] a safe, inclusive, respectful, and fun workplace” that is essential to their business, having Schilling so brazenly and harshly on more than one occasion, promote aspects of his conservative beliefs in inflammatory ways on social media made a case where it was simply a matter of time before he would be let go.
Schilling had the ability to offer great insight into baseball, as well as promote special needs through his life as a parent of a child with Asperger’s Syndrome. He can’t possibly play the victim here as he’s been given every opportunity to stand up for what he believes in but not in the public fashion that breaks with ESPN’s social media code. The question now is whether Schilling will be hired by one of the other networks. While there is always that possibility, the fact that he might seem insubordinate for failing to stop his social media behavior after several incidents with ESPN, it seems Curt Schilling may have been sent to the showers for the last time in the broadcast world.
Deadspin’s Kevin Draper has been following the way ESPN deals with the offensive public statements made by its talent for some time, and looks at the Schilling ordeal through that lens:
ESPN has long struggled with how to deal with employees who post or say objectionable things and things that some people find objectionable—two different if related things. Eighteen months ago we reported on the “minefield” that ESPN suspensions were creating for talent, and even with Schilling’s firing, nothing has changed. The lack of consistency means that ESPNers have no idea what is fair game and what isn’t. Employees are justifiably angry that they and their colleagues have been suspended, or could be suspended, for doing things far less egregious than what Schilling repeatedly got away with until he couldn’t.
“They’ve been doing this ad hoc for so long,” one ESPNer told me. “What you do when you make it situational, is that you make it situational, and therefore it always needs to be adjudicated.”
Draper points to the fundamental problem a corporation, especially a media one like ESPN, has in dealing with potentially offensive public statements from its staff:
How do you set a coherent policy that can adequately govern the behavior of thousands of employees across dozens of work settings in a lawful, empathetic, and fair way? Should talent have more leeway because they’re more valuable to the company, or less leeway because they more publicly represent ESPN? Is vociferously expressing mainstream, rather than extreme, political thought allowed? To what extent can ESPN act independently in this regard from Disney?
Even allowing that ESPN is in a real fix in trying to address all of this, the issue of what speech is allowed, by whom, and on which platforms, and why, has festered for years, and ESPN has never adequately dealt with it. Firing Schilling ends the immediate embarrassment; it’s still clear that a chronic infection has turned into an acute one.