Monday December 4, 2023

Is ESPN ‘Going Easy’ On Business Partner Dana White?

  • Criticism over ESPN’s coverage of Dana White’s altercation with wife criticized.
  • ESPN defends its coverage of its UFC business partner.
Dana White
Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
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Ten days after video surfaced of UFC president Dana White slapping his wife, questions about ESPN’s alleged softball coverage are raised.

Former ESPN personality Jemele Hill accused her former network – and its biggest star Stephen A. Smith – of “intentionally going easy” on White, who was caught on camera angrily exchanging slaps with his wife Anne at a nightclub in Mexico. 

Yes, ESPN has covered the story. On Monday, for example, posted a story on the California Legislative Women’s Caucus calling on UFC owner Endeavor to remove White from his position. “SportsCenter” covered the story for nearly a minute Tuesday morning, and the network aired the TMZ video of the confrontation.

According to an ESPN spokesperson, the network has devoted much ink and air time to the story across its linear, audio and digital platforms.  

“We have been covering the story on our platforms since it broke and will continue to do so,” the spokesperson said. 

There’s a difference between saving-face coverage and ESPN’s flood-the-zone outrage on controversial issues, wrote Hill in The Atlantic. In a story headlined, “The Sports Scandal Almost Nobody Is Talking About,” Hill asked if ESPN’s five-year, $1.5 billion media rights deal with the UFC is making it pull its punches. 


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Beyond ESPN, UFC’s parent company —  entertainment giant Endeavor — has been quieter since the incident. Endeavor has yet to offer up public comment. FOS reported on Saturday that Endeavor was unlikely to let White go due to the incident. 

California state Sen. Nancy Skinner, chair of California Legislative Women’s Caucus, already aimed Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel with Monday’s letter she co-authored that called for White’s removal.

In an interview with FOS, Skinner didn’t rule out reaching out to ESPN or its parent company, The Walt Disney Company, in a similar manner. 

“We will continue to put pressure wherever it’s appropriate,” Skinner said. 

Compare ESPN’s White coverage to that of NBA star Kyrie Irving, asked Hill. Much less NFL running back Ray Rice, who never played in the league again after TMZ published video of him knocking out his fiancee in an elevator in 2014.

Hill also pointed to Smith and “First Take” host Molly Qerim’s empathetic discussion of the White incident as an example of ESPN’s “compromised” coverage. 

“The issue isn’t that ESPN has ignored White’s situation entirely. It’s just that the coverage of the incident has overall been pretty soft,” she wrote. “Having worked at ESPN for 12 years, I know intimately the difference between cursory coverage and an ongoing national conversation fueled by the massive sports media machine. 

Unlike all other major ESPN broadcast partners like the NFL and MLB, UFC produces its own shows for the network. That gives White and UFC officials unparalleled control of their shows, leaving ESPN as the content’s delivery method. 

The first show since the White incident is slated to air on ESPN+ on Saturday. UFC didn’t return multiple FOS messages asking if it would address the White’s domestic incident or if he’d be on the show. 

Last week, ESPN staffer Jeff Wagenheim tweeted he and his colleagues had been told not to write anything inflammatory about the story.

“We’ve been told to not write anything incendiary on social media about the Dana White situation, and I understand why and have abided by that. I just ask y’all to understand that some of us at ESPN do not have as soft a take as this on domestic violence.”

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He later clarified his position on Twitter: “There was no edict from ESPN bosses regarding the White situation, but in general, we are strongly discouraged from incendiary posts on social media, and with a business partner things are sensitive. My bad on the wording.”

Hill wasn’t surprised by the clarification.

“Given ESPN’s huge financial stake in UFC’s success, Wagenheim’s revelation is hardly surprising. Because ESPN is a business partner of virtually every major sports league in the country — the NFL, the NBA, college sports, and professional soccer, among others — the network’s journalists face a difficult balancing act when major players of those leagues behave inappropriate,” she wrote.

White himself expressed remorse about the incident to TMZ. And Anne White also expressed remorse, chalking up the incident to too much alcohol on New Year’s Eve.  

If White didn’t make any excuses for his violent behavior, why are others making excuses for him, Hill asked.

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