ESPN Must Relive the Jemele Hill and Dan Le Batard Fiascos Thanks to Adrian Wojnarowski

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Pardon Dan Le Batard and Jemele Hill if they spend the weekend obsessively checking news sites on their phones instead of giving undivided attention to family and friends. More so than anyone else, they’ll be understandably curious about Adrian Wojnarowski’s future at ESPN.

Wojnarowski’s reputation in the media world as one of the best reporters covering any sport won’t save him from a detour to the woodshed on his way to Florida for the restart of the NBA season.

Adrian Wojnarowski just caused ESPN a great big headache

Responding to a new league policy allowing social messages on jerseys, Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri sent a letter to the NBA suggesting that the league allow players to display messages supporting the military, police officers, or citizens of Hong Kong. When he looped in Adrian Wojnarowski via email, the ESPN reporter replied with what polite people refer to as an F-bomb.

Hawley, 40, a first-term Republican and the youngest member of the Senate, shared a screenshot of the vulgar response on social media. Wojnarowski, or someone in a pay grade above him at ESPN, realized that, aside from being rude, the reply was problematic for ESPN. The NBA insider quickly put out an apology on Twitter, where he has more than four million followers, and vowed to apologize directly to the senator.

For its part, ESPN put out a statement:

“This is completely unacceptable behavior and we do not condone it. It is inexcusable for anyone working for ESPN to respond in the way Adrian did to Senator Hawley. We are addressing it directly with Adrian and specifics of those conversations will remain internal.”

Jemele Hill and Dan Le Batard have backed the network into a corner

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While ESPN’s statement says the specifics of its conversations with Adrian Wojnarowski will “remain internal,” it might be hard for the media giant to hide whatever disciplinary action it takes. That’s because ESPN’s on-air talent has a recent history of broadside blasts at Donald Trump, another Republican, that have required the network to respond.

Most recently, ESPN’s Dan Le Batard, who frequently strays from sports in his TV and radio gigs, used his radio show to criticize the president for admonishing four minority members of Congress to “go back” to what Trump termed the “crime-infested places from which they came.” Le Batard subsequently missed several days of his show, but that was reported to be by mutual consent rather than an outright suspension.

This week, just short of the anniversary of the incident, it was revealed that Le Batard’s radio show was being trimmed from three hours a day to two. Is that a case of revenge being best served cold?

Before the Le Batard episode, ESPN had to deal with a more serious incident. In September 2017, SC6 with Michael and Jemele co-anchor Jemele Hill tweeted a series of remarks critical of President Trump, including calling him a “white supremacist.”

ESPN trotted out a statement saying the comments didn’t represent the company’s position, though Hill later held her ground by saying she stood by her personal beliefs and her regret was that it put ESPN in a tough position.

A month later, Hill was suspended for two weeks after encouraging a boycott of advertisers supporting the Dallas Cowboys over remarks that team owner Jerry Jones made about players who disrespect the flag. She was gone four months after that.

Here’s the problem for ESPN and Adrian Wojnarowski

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As far as anyone outside of ESPN knows, Adrian Wojnarowski’s profane broadside was a first offense since arriving from Yahoo! Sports in July 2017. Ordinarily, that would give ESPN latitude in dealing with him. So, they may decide that a suspension isn’t needed.

That gets tricky in two respects:

  • Wojnarowski is an ESPN star. But if they let him slide, then the human resources department is going to have to tread gently on the assistant producer making $32,000 a year assembling highlight packages if he or she makes a similar mistake. It’s a lot easier to replace someone in that pay grade, but the inevitable lawsuit for firing them after appearing to do nothing to Wojnarowski could be expensive.
  • Wojnarowski dragged the NBA, a valuable partner with the network, into a mess with which it wants nothing to do. Sen. Josh Hawley’s letter to the NBA might have gone largely unnoticed had Wojnarowski counted to 10 before hitting the send button. Now, the NBA has to relive a controversy that commissioner Adam Silver thought had gone away.

Hawley’s letter referenced Hong Kong, which has been trying to free itself from the Chinese government. Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey infuriated league officials last year by tweeting support for protesters on the eve of NBA exhibition games in China, a country that the NBA regards as a major growth opportunity.

The Chinese government severely limited the NBA presence in the country afterward, hitting the league in its wallet. The NBA has been working to repair the relationship while walking the fine line of trying to look like it’s not tacitly supporting repression.

Look for the NBA to mention that the next time broadcast rights come up for renewal.