This story has something you rarely if ever see when it comes to either ESPN or politics: nuance. And some maturity, even. I’ve read the column a couple of times and watched the video and I still don’t have my head around it completely, but I feel like this is a rare glimpse of adults acting like adults in the space where sports radio, sports columns, and politics intersect.
The columnist/radio host in question is Dan Le Batard. He’s a good one on balance. Better than most in that line. He’s also employed by ESPN for his radio gig and the Miami Herald for print. He also happens to be the son of Cuban exiles and was born and raised in Miami. He grew up with his parents and the Cuban exile community, almost all of whom had their families uprooted and many of whom had relatives killed by the Castro regime.
ESPN has put on a full-court press for its coverage of today’s Rays-Cuban National Team game. It’s running alongside a diplomatic initiative which seeks to normalize relations between the United States and Cuba. As we noted yesterday, there is considerable pressure on ESPN — self-imposed for the most part, but pressure all the same — to limit anything approaching controversial political sentiment on any of its outlets and from any of its personalities. If you expected Karl Ravech to go on the air today and blast Fidel Castro, well, you were dreaming.
But Le Batard did not pull any punches. Yesterday he wrote a scathing column in the Miami Herald about the series and the president’s visit. Today on ESPN radio he reiterated many of the sentiments and explained himself a bit more. The radio thing is hosted on ESPN’s site as “Why Le Batard will not attend MLB-Cuba Exhibition Game.” He specifically takes issue with ESPN going to down to Cuba at all and explains why he refused the company’s offer for him to come along.
His comments are not sugar-coated — he pulls no punches — but they are nonetheless grounded. Unlike many who argue against softening of Cuban-American relations, he does not pretend that the feckless 56-year-old embargo needed more time to work. He admits it failed. There is nothing more combustable than a Hitler comparison and he makes one, but he does so based on the subjective experience of his grandparents and his parents, who believe that based on what happened to their lives and families, not as some objective absolute comparison, which would not be apt.
La Batard is likewise clear that this is not his pain. That he has had a great life as someone born and raised in America. He calls it “borrowed” pain and does not sound for a moment that he’s seeking sympathy or trying to generate fake heat. He’s simply using his informed voice to communicate the feelings that Cuban refugees, their families and large parts of the Cuban-American community harbor. I think it’s especially important to listen to him talk about it on the radio clip because his tone matters. He is sincere and it’s clear where this is coming from. This is the polar opposite of the usual sort of thing you hear from some radio guy. He’s like the anti-Skip Bayless here.
My personal view is that the opening of relations between Cuba and the United States is a good thing and that baseball is a great way to work to thaw a nearly six-decade-old cold war. On most things — and contrary to some of the stuff Le Batard mentions in his work here that is not about his family’s subjective experiences — I tend to be of the view that we have to move forward, end the last skirmishes of the Cold War and normalize relations. But I can’t, under any circumstances, put myself in the shoes of Le Batard’s family or the Cuban community and can’t dispute for a second the pain many of them feel given their own personal histories. It’d be the height of obnoxiousness to tell the victims of tyranny that they’re overreacting or that they have to “let it go.”
I think Le Batard was open and honest about all of that and I think his was a useful voice to counterbalance the understandably optimistic tone the rest of the coverage of this game has taken. Rapprochement is a good thing but you can’t have it unless there were bad times before. There were bad times before. Nations can move beyond them but individual people can’t necessarily be expected to forget them. And some of them, depending on their age and their experiences, cannot be expected to forgive.
Yesterday, after Le Batard’s column came out, some wondered whether ESPN would discipline him for going against the party line and wading into controversial political waters. By promoting his radio show comments today I think it’s safe to say ESPN isn’t doing that. And good for them. It’s one thing for the network to discipline personalities who offer ignorant and knee-jerk political hot takes or who throw irresponsible rhetorical bombs. It’s another thing for someone to talk about a controversial issue with some intelligence and maturity, which I think Le Batard did, no matter whether or not you agree with everything he said.
Good job, ESPN. We don’t say that very often around here, but, good job.