October 25, 2020

ESPN Suspends N.B.A. Reporter for Vulgar Reply to Senator

ESPN’s most prominent basketball reporter has been suspended for a two-word vulgar email reply to the office of a United States senator on Friday morning in response to the senator’s critical statements about the N.B.A.’s relationship with China.

The reporter, Adrian Wojnarowski, sent the email to the office of Josh Hawley, a Republican senator from Missouri, who posted a screenshot of it on Twitter.

The suspension, which was confirmed by someone close to Wojnarowski, means he will not be traveling this week to report on the N.B.A.’s resumed season at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World in Florida. On a recent podcast episode, Wojnarowski said he had sent a number of packages to the Orlando area in advance of his planned arrival on Sunday.

Hours after sending the email, Wojnarowski apologized, saying he was “disrespectful” and “made a regrettable mistake.” ESPN called his email “inexcusable” and said it would address it with him internally. A spokesman declined to comment on the suspension.

The Washington Post reported the suspension would be from one to two weeks.

Wojnarowski was responding to an email sent by Hawley’s press office to a number of journalists, criticizing the N.B.A. for “kowtowing to Beijing” and its decision to allow players to wear social justice messages on their jerseys during the coming restart of the N.B.A. season in Florida.

The list of acceptable messages, which was agreed to by the N.B.A. and the union representing the players, includes “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe.” None reference last year’s widespread protests in Hong Kong or China’s increasing grip on the city.

The matter called into question Wojnarowski’s distance from a league he covers and appeared to be defending. Hawley has been known to selectively criticize the N.B.A.’s relationship with China.

The N.B.A. has been a frequent target for many Republicans since the league’s rift with China began before the season started. Several castigated the N.B.A. — accusing the league of not firmly standing behind Daryl Morey, the Houston Rockets’ general manager, who posted an image on Twitter that was supportive of the pro-democracy Hong Kong protesters in October. This incensed the Chinese government, which has since limited its business with the N.B.A.

Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, even called for the N.B.A. commissioner, Adam Silver, to testify on the subject. When prominent and frequently outspoken league figures like Steve Kerr, LeBron James and James Harden were asked about Morey’s comments, they either demurred or declined to support Morey.

When it comes to the leader of their own party, President Trump, Republicans have mostly been silent, including after Trump said to Axios that he wanted to avoid punishing China for its mass internment of ethnic Uighurs last year because of ongoing trade talks. Trump has also spoken warmly about President Xi Jinping of China, referring to him as “a friend of mine” and “an incredible guy,” and urged the country to investigate the Bidens.

After Wojnarowski’s tweet, conservative critics like the sports blogger Clay Travis, whom Politico described in 2017 as the “well-paid darling of the alt-right,” pounced. Travis sarcastically tweeted about ESPN’s “left-wing bias,” and Hawley reshared that tweet with his followers. Travis’s site, Outkick, later was first to report about Wojnarowski’s suspension.

For years, conservative critics, and often some competitors, have accused ESPN of liberal bias and claimed, with little evidence, that it has resulted in lower ratings. Still, Jimmy Pitaro, who became ESPN’s president in 2018, has sought to steer the network in a direction that focuses more on what happens on the field. In the last few months, that position has been challenged, as there have been few sports to cover because of the coronavirus pandemic and as athletes have spoken out about racism in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in police custody.

Sopan Deb contributed reporting.