Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., tweeted an image of an email from Adrian Wojnarowski on Friday in which the lead NBA reporter for ESPN responded to a news release sent out by the senator’s office with an expletive.
Hawley sent out an announcement publicizing a letter he sent to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver that criticizes the league for allowing messages that promote social justice on player jerseys during the season’s restart this month, while not allowing messages of support for law enforcement or criticism of China’s Communist Party.
Wojnarowski responded to Hawley’s press office email, writing, “F— You,” without censoring the expletive.
Hawley then posted an image of Wojnarowski’s response on Twitter with the message, “Don’t criticize #China or express support for law enforcement to @espn. It makes them real mad.”
By Friday afternoon, Wojnarowski, who is among ESPN’s most high profile reporters and best known for routinely breaking NBA news, tweeted an apology, writing: “I was disrespectful and I made a regrettable mistake. I’m sorry for the way I handled myself and I am reaching out immediately to Sen. Hawley to apologize directly. I also need to apologize to my ESPN colleagues because I know my actions were unacceptable and should not reflect on any of them.”
In its own statement, ESPN said, “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 Sen. Hawley. We are addressing it directly with Adrian and the specifics of those conversations will remain internal.”
During the Trump era, ESPN has very publicly sought to portray itself as an apolitical refuge from divisive issues, and a home for sports fans across the political spectrum. The actions of Wojnarowski are likely to drive another news cycle about the company’s politics reminiscent of previous controversies involving some of ESPN’s most visible personalities.
Three years ago, “SportsCenter” host Jemele Hill called Trump a white supremacist in a Twitter reply, which prompted a reply from Sarah Sanders, then the White House press secretary, in the briefing room, calling Hill’s comment a fireable offense. Hill later reached a buyout with the network.
Last year, Dan Le Batard, the popular radio and TV host, rebuked both Trump and the network’s limits on discussing politics on his ESPN radio show after a threatening chant from Trump supporters –“Send her back! Send her back!” – in reference to the Somali-born Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. The network responded by releasing internal polling data that it said its viewers did not want to see politics on its airwaves.
Since George Floyd’s death while in custody of Minneapolis police on May 25, however, ESPN has leaned heavily into coverage of the protests, dedicating extensive airtime to discussing racial injustice and the moment in America, in sports and beyond.
The NBA plans to restart its season this month at a Disney-owned complex near Orlando. As part of the resumption of games after the season was suspended in mid-March due to the novel coronavirus, the league and its players association negotiated a series of messages that players could display on the backs of their jerseys instead of their names. The approved messages, according to ESPN, include Black Lives Matter; Say Their Names; Vote; I Can’t Breathe; Justice; Peace; Equality; Freedom; Enough; Listen to Us; Stand Up. Hawley suggested players put messages such as “Back the Blue,” “Support our Troops” and “God Bless America” on their jerseys.
Many top NBA players have participated in the protests that swept the country after Floyd’s death. Several players were vocal in questioning whether playing the rest of the season at all was a distraction from the larger nationwide conversation about racial injustice that has accompanied the protests.
The NBA has fostered a progressive image as its players and coaches have spoken up forcefully against Trump and in support of causes such as gun control and criminal justice reform and against police brutality. Hawley’s letter was critical of the difference in how the league and its players have supported those issues with its reaction to Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey, who tweeted his support for pro-Democracy protesters in Hong Kong last fall ahead of an exhibition tour through China. The NBA has lucrative TV and merchandise business ties to China and after a backlash from the Chinese government, Morey deleted the tweet and the league called his comments “regrettable.”
After Wojnarowski tweeted his apology, Martenzie Johnson, an associate editor at The Undefeated, an ESPN vertical that covers sports, race and culture, tweeted, “We should all publicly back our colleagues, especially against bad-faith efforts. [Wojnarowski] has nothing to apologize for, but he did, and that’s OK. I’m always going to ride for my teammates.”
Other prominent Republicans in recent weeks, including the president, have seized on sports as a culture war issue. Trump has tweeted about declining NASCAR ratings (though the sport’s ratings are actually up compared to last year) after a noose was found in the garage of driver Bubba Wallace and NFL players potentially kneeling during the national anthem when the season starts. Kelly Loeffler, a Republican senator from Georgia who is a part owner of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream and locked in a tight primary battle to retain her seat, has been critical of that league for its efforts to support social justice causes.