CNN  — 

On Friday morning, President Donald Trump tweeted this: “ESPN is paying a really big price for its politics (and bad programming). People are dumping it in RECORD numbers. Apologize for untruth!” He was referring to comments made on Twitter earlier in the week by ESPN anchor Jemele Hill in which she labeled the President as – among other things – a “white supremacist.” Hill later apologized for airing her views publicly – and ESPN accepted that apology.

The White House weighed in when press secretary Sarah Sanders was asked about it Friday.

“ESPN has been hypocritical,” she said. “They should hold anchors to a fair and consistent standard.”

But, the whole episode has re-ignited a debate about what the politics of ESPN are – and what they should be. It’s also reaffirmed how politics – and Trump – are inescapable in American culture at this moment, and how media companies (and the rest of us) are adjusting to that fact. There’s also, obviously, the element of race here. Hill, an African American woman, accused Trump of being a white nationalist. Trump, in his campaign and in his White House, has repeatedly dabbled in racially-coded language and sometimes overly apologetic language about white supremacists – most notably in his response to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

In hopes of shedding some light on both of those points, I reached out to see if CNN media reporter Brian Stelter might have an email conversation with me about it all. He agreed. Our exchange – edited only lightly for flow – is below.

Chris: The whole back and forth between ESPN and Jemele Hill – and, now, Donald Trump – reinforces something that I think is super important: How EVERYTHING and EVERYONE has become political in the age of Trump.

I remember (I am old) when Michael Jordan reportedly refused to take a stance on anything even remotely political for fear it would hurt shoe sales. But, now, it’s surprising if LeBron James doesn’t say something about a major controversy like Charlottesville. (Remember, too, that he led his Cavs teammates in wearing “I can’t breathe” t-shirts during warmups in honor of Eric Garner.)

We also have football players – led by Colin Kaepernick – refusing to stand for the national anthem. And players on championship teams opting out of coming to the White House (with Trump in it) to be honored.

With everything so political, it seems to me that the media world has been slower to adjust to this new reality – and is still playing by the rules where sports and politics should never meet.

Where do you come down on it?

Brian: Whether or not Jordan ever really said “Republicans buy shoes, too,” the adage still rings in the ears of ESPN executives. The network is in an incredibly difficult position here. Millions of people – devoted Republicans and dedicated Democrats and lots of people who don’t care one bit about politics – turn on ESPN for games and highlights. ESPN execs know that. But they ALSO know that “stick to sports” is a hollow talking point.

You know it’s a popular line in conservative media circles – ESPN should just “stick to sports.” This argument has been going on for a couple years. “Stick to sports,” they say, don’t push your social justice agenda through your programming. But there’s a three-word comeback: “Sports is political.”

That’s been true for a long time. It’s true every time a city gives a tax break for a new stadium and every time an athlete takes a knee. It’s even more obvious right now, in the Trump age, when emotions and fears and resentments are running high.

But look, folks have been fighting about ESPN’s political bent for a while. I’ll leave that to the sports media critics. Going back to the difficult spot ESPN is in… even IF the network is able to produce an apolitical product every single day, free of any perceived political bias on the air … even if that is the IDEAL product, and I’m not saying it is … a tweetstorm by one of ESPN’s thousands of employees can still provoke a presidential response.