The apology was weak but warranted, lawyered to placate without taking too much responsibility for a bit that should never have seen the light of day.
ESPN decided to air a segment that took the concept of the NFL fantasy draft auction — a commonly-employed method for distributing players to individuals’ teams — and staged it as a real-life event with a roomful of bidders and a fast-talking white auctioneer replete with typical gavel and gibberish, selling off some African-American men depicted as commodities by pictures of their respective heads held up on sticks.
It was a bad look.
Let’s get out of the way the truth that both the NFL and NBA drafts themselves have long contained overtones that recall past American atrocities, with white owners divvying up black resources based on assessments of raw physical ability so they can help their businesses make more money. Particularly evocative is the NFL’s annual combine, which is as close to a literal meat market as can be. None of it is pretty for anyone conscious enough to care, but we accept it collectively for lack of a better way to do things and little desire to confront intellectually the ongoing socioeconomic disparities that drive the images.
This, however, was entirely avoidable. The fact that it went from concept to execution without anyone at ESPN thinking otherwise it what is so bewildering.
The network is sorry now, pretty much, stating “Auction drafts are a common part of fantasy football, and ESPN’s segments replicated an auction draft with a diverse slate of top professional football players. Without that context, we understand the optics could be portrayed as offensive, and we apologize.”
It’s not that they could be portrayed as such, it’s that they were — a white auctioneer selling big, strong black people to the highest bidder. Social media erupted in incredulous response, particularly considering the larger climate of heightened racial tension beyond sports that shows no signs of abating anytime soon.
Auction-style fantasy drafts are indeed a real thing, with many hobbyists preferring the extra challenge of how to allocate finite resources most efficiently. There are rooms all over the country filled with people bidding on players to stock their preciously monikered teams. But the abstract idea of “owning” another person for pretend football is not the same as actually depicting them being sold publicly.
It’s almost impossible to consider how there was no fail-safe mechanism that could have prevented ESPN from eventually gathering people together on a stage to execute this unfortunate programming idea. All it takes is one person in one meeting to point out that this could come off poorly, understanding how stark the imagery is of a white man auctioning off black guys. One “wait a second,” one “We might want to think twice about this,” one “Am I the only one uncomfortable with this?” It’s possible that any number of people knew but did not feel empowered to speak up, or did say something and were overruled by superiors.
But it’s not like this bubbled up from the dark swamp of Fox News or elsewhere lacking awareness or humanity. ESPN, to its credit, has taken steps to encourage greater social consciousness in recent months, and that makes it highly unlikely that not a single person at or after any of the numerous meetings involved in a television production thought better of this. Someone had to have said something along the line, even if on the set that day, looking right at it in rehearsal.
That should have been all that it took to not let this exist.