Column: Inside ESPN's 'Diversity' Plans

ESPN spent a significant portion of its airtime the past year telling viewers that America and the world of sports are racist. Its most prominent voice, Stephen A. Smith, manufactured cases of white privilege. First Take, ESPN's flagship program,counted the skin colors of the subjects it debated. ESPN, First Take, and Stephen A. Smith worked to convince viewers that sports hold black people back in favor of white people.

What evidence did they cite? They didn't. Instead, they ignored the facts and refused to look in the mirror.

Approximately 95.62333% of First Take's topics focus on the NBA or NFL. Here are two numbers that are not estimates: 70% of NFL players are black, and people of color make up 81.7% of the NBA. Which sport is Smith saying is racist against black athletes, again? Oh, the white privilege.

Meanwhile, when Smith is not talking about the NFL and NBA, he's talking about ESPN, a network that pays him $12 million a year. He's by far the highest of any ESPN on-air talent. He deserves it, but he would not make double the highest-paid white talent if what he said about the country were actually true. White supremacy would never allow it.

And then there is Smith's show. Since First Take counts how many white and black people are involved in any given topic, we decided to count the racial representations on its new highly promoted revamp. Since Smith and Dave Roberts booted Max Kellerman -- who is white -- off First Take last week, the program has gone exclusively with black personalities. Here is the list: Michael Irvin, Marcus Spears, Kim Martin, Bart Scott, Mike Tomlin, Keyshawn Johnson, and Damien Woody. In addition, the show has promoted upcoming appearances by Michael Strahan, Eddie George, Deion Sanders, and Omari Hardwick.

See, ESPN will defend this push by noting that Tim Tebow will appear for a bit on Fridays. When it does so, laugh at them. It's hardly noble to allow one person of a different race onto a few segments of the show.

What about the show's host, Molly Qerim, who is not black? The moderator who doesn't offer any input on the show and whom Dave Roberts has also pushed to remove? I hear you. 

I want to be clear on this: a show going with one or predominately one skin color is not on, its face, a story. (Though if ESPN went only white people, Sports Illustrated would probably riot.) However, to make that decision after ESPN executives repeatedly emailed talents about "Diversity and Inclusion" is eye-opening. ESPN executives use words to convey the opposite meaning. At ESPN, inclusion means exclusion. There was once a book about this.

It's an open secret among ESPN talents, broadcast agents, and network producers that ESPN factors skin color into its decision-making. It isn't the only network to do so either. It's just more open about it in negotiations. ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro admitted as much in a memo.

"We started our second MORE mentorship cohort this fall, meeting our goal of over-indexing on diverse talent, with 47% of the 53 participants identifying as Black or African American," Pitaro said.

In other words, ESPN sets goals to hire and promote people based on their skin color. Therefore, it's unfathomable that ESPN honchos did not notice that 90% of the analysts in First Take's rotation are black. It's more likely they were proud to see the following ratio joining Stephen A. Smith in the first week:

(UPDATE: ESPN declined to comment on this decision. Also, the above ratio has been updated with Friday's analysts.)

I reached out to ESPN for comment on this article -- the network has not responded.

The idea behind this push is that the network historically promoted white people more than black personalities. While that's true, it is not a valid excuse to disqualify various personalities today. We need to lose the mindset of your turn, my turn. White people and black people should not be on teams separated by their skin tone. 

First, that kind of twisted mindset says that if someone with your skin color got an opportunity before you, you've had your chance

Second, ESPN has addressed any shortcomings from the past decades it had on promoting black personalities, as it should have. ESPN should not apologize anymore. Yet the network still is. Inside the walls of ESPN, the word "diversity" means more black people and fewer white people, even though that's not its true definition.

That kind of continual apology is happening across the country: people refuse to acknowledge when an issue has been fixed. They don't want to -- there's more incentive to pretend you are still outraged.

"There's a whole financial incentive for racial division," The Five's Jesse Watter told OutKick this summer. Watters is right. Racial division sells, even when it doesn't exist.

To say ESPN's record promoting black people is poor, as the New York Times, Twitter, and Jemele Hill all do, does not hold weight.  At least half of the personalities on ESPN's TV and radio daily lineups are black. And now that ESPN had discussed Malika Andrews, Chiney Ogwumike, Richard Jefferson, and Kendrick Perkins as possible replacements for Rachel Nichols, the network's daily NBA show would be only black. No one would care about that except that so many insist that ESPN is holding black people back. It isn't true. Now it's a story.

So what is the problem? Why does ESPN feel the need to overshare its hiring of black on-air personalities? ESPN is trying to appease a group it cannot please: the social media mob. As Megyn Kelly told me this week, "It doesn’t matter how many chips you deposit in the Woke Bank. They will come for you, they will cut you."

ESPN is trying hard. As evidence, see the series of headshots ESPN heavily promoted recently for the college football season:

Look at the reaction to that tweet. ESPN put that out knowing Twitter would celebrate that a company mostly left white, Hispanic, and Asians out of the hiring process. How kind of them.

A hiring spree like that would be worth noting if those new analysts joined a roster that lacked black football analysts. But they haven't. Most of ESPN's analysts are black, defeating the need to promote the new 12-2 black-white ratio.

Critics of this article are likely waiting to say that most of ESPN's executives are white. Not only is that assertion correct but it's a necessary component of this dynamic.

After the death of George Floyd, ESPN's mostly white executives felt pressure from Disney to prove the network was not racist. In 2021, proving you are not racist is key to longevity in the public eye. Simply treating people equally, regardless of skin color, will not do it anymore. Therefore, ESPN's white executives have spent the past year looking for ways to prove they are not racist to keep their jobs. View it as a temporary shield.

To its credit, ESPN already has such a diverse lineup that it need not factor skin color into its hiring practices. Neither white nor black personalities are underrepresented at ESPN. However, that's not good enough anymore, and executives don't have the spine to fight back.

ESPN could quickly point to its hires, promotions, and programming to debunk any narrative that it has not positioned black people well. That would not be subjective -- the numbers tell the story. Yet no one there points out the obvious -- they sit back, take it, and obey. Social media is dictating ESPN's programming. Those living online are changing reality.

ESPN's plan to counter Twitter users' baseless claims of racism includes judging its on-air employees based on the color of their skin. Backward is now the way forward. What cowards these people are.

Whatever word describes this, whether it's racist or overcorrection or hypocrisy or something new -- please, let me know. That way I use it properly. Because what's happening on First Take is only a tease of what ESPN has planned.

Written by
Bobby Burack is a writer for OutKick where he reports and analyzes the latest topics in media, culture, sports, and politics.. Burack has become a prominent voice in media and has been featured on several shows across OutKick and industry related podcasts and radio stations.