CABLE WARS

The Alex Jones of Sports Just Blew Up ESPN

If you thought the right’s moral panic over ESPN’s Robert Lee controversy was a new phenomenon, you haven’t been watching Clay Travis’ Periscopes—or buying his merchandise.

On Tuesday, Clay Travis, a Fox Sports Radio host and owner of the site Outkick the Coverage, revealed that ESPN had yanked a reporter named Robert Lee from an upcoming college-football broadcast in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee was used as a flimsy excuse by white nationalists to hold a “Unite the Right” protest last week.

By Travis’s estimation, ESPN’s decision to have Lee call a different college-football game was a massive sop to political correctness and a desperate attempt to avoid “offending left-wing idiots,” and yet another indication that ESPN’s supposedly liberal bent had caused the network to come untethered from reality. (It was also another chance for him to float the clunky and false neologism he’s been trying to will into existence—namely, that ESPN should be referred to as “MSESPN,” a combination of its name and MSNBC.)

In response, ESPN said that higher-ups and Lee—who is Asian-American and bears no relation to Civil War Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee—came to a mutual agreement to switch him to a different game. The network added that neither party felt strongly about whether the move was necessary at all.

Though ESPN did confirm that it first approached Lee, it explained that the network feared he would find himself on the receiving end of silly and possibly cruel “memes and jokes” should he call the game, which could unnecessarily harm his career.

Meanwhile, Travis was far from alone in howling at ESPN’s purported leftism run amok. Breitbart, Fox News, the Washington Times, all the conservative-leaning sites that aggregated Travis’s story, and even those ostensibly on the left criticized the decision. You’d be hard pressed to find a prominent conservative pundit who didn’t fire off an aggrieved, enraged, or eye-rolling tweet. Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway even liked a tweet making fun of the move.

None of this is plausible. A far more logical explanation is that a corporate media entity was seemingly bending over backward to avoid even the slightest hint of controversy or unnecessary attention. And ESPN exacerbated this self-created problem with its subsequent public statement, calling it “a shame that this is even a topic of conversation and we regret that who calls play by play for a football game has become an issue.”

Indeed, an internal memo to ESPN employees posted by ESPN President John Skipper on Wednesday and reviewed by The Daily Beast expanded on ESPN’s response, saying there was never any concern that Robert Lee’s name would “offend anyone.” Skipper reiterated that the network wanted to guard against “social hectoring and trolling,” and that any insinuation to the contrary should be dismissed, given that it emanated from “someone with a personal agenda.”

But for a critic like Travis or anyone on the right, ESPN’s public responses can easily be misinterpreted, either willfully or otherwise, as if ESPN is blaming conservatives for the story being covered at all—and only confirms their paranoid suspicion that ESPN is trying to conceal that it kowtowed to jackbooted PC thugs yet again.

The story of Not-That-Robert Lee is just the latest example of how and why ESPN has been targeted over the last three years as part of an escalating culture and information war that uses the network as a key national battleground where logic need not apply.

To be clear, ESPN has never identified as a “liberal” media company. You’d be hard pressed to find a business more devoted to the principle that, for any issue, Both Sides must always be heard than ESPN. But now every action taken by the Worldwide Leader in Sports—every editorial choice, hiring and firing decision, and the loss of subscribers—can and will be viewed first and foremost through a political lens.

In reality, ESPN has always been driven by a singular goal: increased audience and increased profits, despite recent, significant losses.

Just how the “liberal ESPN” narrative became commonly accepted as truth on the right owes to a series of high-profile stories covered by ESPN and and an increase in political activism by the athletes themselves, all of which landed just as a larger culture and information war was gathering steam, fueled by entities that had a vested interest in framing ESPN as a liberal mouthpiece.

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According to multiple sources that spoke with The Daily Beast, there could be strong financial motives for Travis to bash ESPN. Fox Sports 1 was cited as being the loudest, most prominent exponent of the “ESPN has become a left-wing mouthpiece” narrative, but the recent rise in ESPN-bashing was pegged to Travis in particular.

SportsCenter anchor Jemele Hill said that this kind of criticism had spiked “considerably” in the last six to eight months, right around the time that Travis started ascribing ESPN’s subscriber losses to its so-called politics.  

According to Mike Soltys, ESPN’s vice president of corporate communications, there’s a clear business reason why he might have been inclined to hammer away at this issue.

“We looked at one point, and over a two-month period, half of his top 10 most trafficked stories were critical of ESPN and most of them talked about our alleged liberal bias,” he said. Travis did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding the popularity of these stories prior to publication.

Bryan Curtis, a media reporter with The Ringer, added that lobbing this particular critique at ESPN is practically guaranteed to ensure a great deal of attention and will be trumpeted by the non-sports media, though he admitted that he didn’t have access to Travis’s internal traffic numbers.

“I would guess that there's a really strong incentive to keep writing this stuff,” said Curtis. “He talks frequently about building an audience and getting attention for his website. It pretty easily follows that this stuff gets a lot of attention.”

The battlefield in which ESPN finds itself enmeshed is a two-pronged one. For Fox News, Breitbart, and the entire right-wing media ecosystem, it was inevitable that ESPN would be eventually lumped into its now-decades long efforts to discredit mainstream journalism.

Similarly, Fox Sports 1 and Travis have arisen as competitors for ESPN’s core audience and possess a clear financial motivation to highlight how “edgy” it intends to be—even if no top-down directive to take on ESPN’s politics and label it liberal from FS1 executives was ever issued or even implied, according to sources that spoke with The Daily Beast.

These two flanks will often intermingle and blur as a story gains enough traction to make its way up the right-wing media food chain, as we saw with Not-That-Robert Lee, culminating in Travis’s Tuesday and Wednesday night appearances on Tucker Carlson Tonight.

It’s a culture and information war ESPN wasn’t aware it was fighting until it had already lost. And while the company is still in the black, and there are serious questions as to what degree the notion that it had pivoted left has impacted it financially—if at all—the label has stuck, and there’s not much it can do to remove it.

*

Over the first four decades of ESPN’s existence, the network was seen as being anything but an ideological entity.

ESPN was not only beloved across the political spectrum, its flagship show—the 6 p.m. airing of SportsCenter—was a cultural touchstone. The pairing of Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann was credited with revolutionizing how sports were covered on television: with wit, verve, and a cheeky self-awareness that belied the staid, overly serious and Howard Cosell-ian tone that had been the industry standard.

There were moments here and there when ESPN was criticized for breaking down the supposedly impenetrable firewall that it had erected between sports and real-world political issues, but that all changed with Michael Sam.

In the winter and spring of 2014, Sam, then an All-American SEC defensive lineman at the University of Missouri, came out of the closet. Though he’d been named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and was originally pegged to go as high as the third round, his draft stock started tumbling following his announcement, with unnamed scouts and various anonymous front office members whispering that his sexuality would somehow prove a problem or—as the term the NFL uses to blot out anyone or anything that might harm the bottom line such that it has been rendered meaningless—a “distraction.”

Sam eventually was selected in the seventh round by the then-St. Louis Rams. Though he had previously stated he didn’t want ESPN’s cameras to be present, ESPN was in place Sam’s home to broadcast the moment when he kissed his boyfriend. At the time, ESPN producer Seth Markman said airing the kiss, which by any definition was newsworthy, should not be viewed as an example of a political agenda. “We’re there to document the moment, not make a political statement,” he said.

But a large and vocal contingent of the conservative press and viewers felt that mere presence of an openly gay man on television in a time and place reserved for sports qua sports was more than enough reason to explode with seething, inchoate rage at ESPN’s “left-wing agenda.”

That segment of ESPN watchers found the kiss not just offensive, but  “disgusting.”  NFL players and fans tweeted out all manner of homophobic responses. The future president, Donald Trump, even weighed in, calling the sight of a loving couple “pretty out there.” Various Fox News opinionists batted around the topic ad nauseum.

ESPN’s own pundits and commentators, as they always do, weighed in on both sides, with Stephen A. Smith confessing that he “respected” NFL players and others who said they didn’t “want that in their face.” Paul Finebaum, a prominent ESPN college-football radio host, said Sam “went too far,” particularly for viewers from the South, and added Sam shouldn’t be blamed, since it was “part of some agenda.” Finebaum did not say exactly whose agenda it was or what the endgame might be, but the implication was clear: ESPN had joined the so-called mainstream media and was therefore a justified target for the right.

Robert Lipsyte, the former longtime New York Times sports reporter, was ESPN’s ombudsman when the Sam story broke and says he received more angry emails in response to the broadcast of that kiss than any other programming or article during his tenure.

The diatribes came rolling in by the thousands, he told The Daily Beast, including allegations that ESPN was “promoting the homosexual lifestyle to my children.” Lipsyte recalls that they largely seemed to be written by Christian viewers from the South, Mid-Atlantic, and Midwest states, all of whom felt that the presence of Sam in this “sacred family area” was a violation of basic morality, an encroachment into, for lack of a better phrase, their safe space.

Then came the 2015 ESPYs, ESPN’s awards show that had little import before or since, and the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, which was given to Caitlyn Jenner. In the months leading up to the awards ceremony, sports and non-sports pundits debated whether it was appropriate, or as Bob Costas said, amounted to little more than a “crass exploitation play, a tabloid play.” Airtime and column inches were devoted to parsing what the definition of “courage” is, and whether Jenner, who received death threats and was subjected to a torrent of transphobic abuse online after coming out publicly, should be seen as on par with Nelson Mandela, who also won the same award.

Various online battles were waged across social-media platforms, and Jenner went on to give an impassioned speech during the ceremony that was widely praised and received a standing ovation. And while the firestorm eventually died down, it would never be forgotten by those on the political right.

According to BuzzFeed’s Steven Perlberg, of the conservatives he’d interviewed, they largely pointed to Jenner’s ESPY as the most prominent example of ESPN’s political bias, but that may be a case of selective memory. Hill, the co-host of SC6, ESPN’s newly rebranded 6 p.m. edition of SportsCenter, recalls a far different and less lasting impact.

“People were outraged, the outrage passed, and then that was it,” Hill told The Daily Beast. She believes that citing Jenner and Sam are indicative of a retconned set of opinions, and the feedback she heard at the time wasn’t political. “I never heard ‘You’re too liberal’ after that. I heard people say ‘It was a mistake’ and ‘What are they doing’ or applauding us, and it was divisive for some people, but I never heard we were liberal until literally in the last year.”

A recent poll conducted by YouGov showed, though, that the perception that ESPN had tilted to the left didn’t really set in until ESPN parted ways with its former baseball analyst Curt Schilling. Beginning in 2015, Schilling grew increasingly incendiary on both Twitter and Facebook, posting all manner of fact-free memes, sometimes focusing on Islam. He was first suspended by ESPN in August 2015 after he tweeted an image comparing Muslims to Nazis, though he was reinstated prior to the start of the 2016 Major League Baseball season.

Still, Schilling persisted. During a radio interview, he said that because then-candidate Hillary Clinton had been using a private email server, “she should be buried under a jail somewhere.” Even then, ESPN declined to take action. But the final straw came at the peak of the debate over North Carolina’s anti-LGBT “bathroom bill,” when Schilling forwarded a meme that portrayed transgender people as subhuman, and then later doubled down on his anti-trans rhetoric. He was fired shortly thereafter.

ESPN’s Soltys told The Daily Beast that according to their research, firing Schilling “resonated” with conservative viewers as much as Jenner’s ESPY—even if they were “missing out on the point that we had a long stretch with him where he was spoken to, suspended, and suspended again,” Soltys said.

Soltys added that Schilling’s behavior was in violation of ESPN’s strict guidelines regarding social media. (The guidelines have since been updated to allow political commentary if that commentary is connected to sports.)

“He ultimately was fired over a long-term refusal to change what we were asking him to do. But it got perceived to be, well, he’s a Republican, and therefore we’re firing him,” said Soltys.

None of these instances—neither Jenner’s ESPY award nor Sam’s kiss, nor Schilling’s loss of employment—fall in lockstep with ideas anyone would call “liberal,” let alone ascribe to the far left. Schilling, for example, went far beyond what anyone would consider bog-standard conservatism. He suggested Muslims and trans people are less than human, and his actions would have gotten him kicked to the curb by the vast majority of media companies. To wit, Breitbart fired one of its reporters recently for tweeting in a manner not dissimilar to Schilling.

But according to the individuals who spoke with The Daily Beast, there’s a simpler and decidedly apolitical motivation behind Jenner’s ESPY, the coverage of Sam, and eventually the Colin Kaepernick anthem protests that has provoked a year-long stream of outrage on the right: When it comes to the ESPN’s editorial choices made concerning which stories and athletes receive coverage, celebrity far outweighs politics.

“ESPN chases celebrity,” Lipsyte said. “At one point it was Michael Sam. At another point it was Caitlyn Jenner. At another point it was Tim Tebow. At another point it was Brett Favre. At another point it was Tom Brady. And you know, Brady, Favre, and Tebow and [Peyton] Manning are all clearly conservatives and yet they get as much conversation about them as anyone else.”

The Ringer’s Curtis, who has extensively covered ESPN and the question of whether sportswriting as a whole has become the domain of left-leaning individuals, agreed with Lipsyte. In his assessment, the idea that ESPN is driven by any political ethos, pales in comparison to “ESPN’s obsession with celebrity, which has been going on for eons,” he said.

A current Fox Sports executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity, echoed Lipsyte’s assessment. “Anyone attributing the reporting and commentary on both ESPN and Fox Sports to some political motivation were dead wrong,” he said.

Both companies, the Fox Sports executive said, are using data they’d compiled of their audience’s viewing and reading habits, and then tailoring the programming and online content accordingly, even if they’re netting hate-clicks and hate-viewing.

He brought up the Howard Stern biopic Private Parts to explain why this is so.  In one scene, two WNBC Radio producers are staring glumly at Stern’s skyrocketing ratings, baffled as to why people were tuning in. The respondents who loved Stern were asked why they didn’t change the dial. The most common response was, “I want to see what he’ll say next.” Those that loathed Stern provided the same answer, and as a whole, spent more time glued to the radio.

The same guiding principle is at play at ESPN and Fox Sports 1, for stories about Kaepernick, or Tebow, or whomever the sports celebrity du jour is, he said

Travis knows this all too well. When viewers complained about the amount of coverage he has given Kaepernick, he responded, “Stop with your ‘No one cares about Kaepernick,’ Tweets too. [sic] I see the site traffic and the ratings. Despite what you guys say, the general public is obsessed with Kaepernick. The moment I publish this article the site will be flooded with traffic.”

*

One way in which ESPN has opened the door to this criticism—no matter how misguided it may be—is in its change in programming, albeit one that was surely both necessary and reactive to larger market forces. Once highlights were readily available and SportsCenter’s vital role as a recapper of the day’s events became outdated, ESPN pivoted to the “Embrace Debate” era. This shift put an emphasis on loud opinionists like Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith, and poured cash into shows like First Take and Pardon the Interruption.

But there are only so many programming hours that can be devoted to full-throated arguments about LeBron James’ legacy, and so societal and political topics eventually became a regular feature—whether or not the format or the pundits were equipped to handle them.

No matter how many aspects of any given debate were explored, the mere presence of conversations focusing on race, sex, and politics in an arena where they’d never existed before was not acceptable for certain viewers. It was seen as an act of violence, the destruction of something both comforting and deeply American—which gave not just Travis but Breitbart, the Daily Caller, The Drudge Report and the entire right-wing outrage machine an opening to crank into high gear.

Given that right-wing news stories receive a much greater rates of engagement, if there’s enough ambient noise, stories pushed by Travis or even a swarm of angry social-media posts will eventually reach Fox News itself. After a decades-long attempt to discredit and delegitimize mainstream news outlets, Curtis believes that the right’s eventual move to target ESPN was inevitable.

“I remember reading National Review in the early Aughts. At that point it was the New York Times and then Dan Rather and CBS News, and everything that's being said is straight out of that playbook,” Curtis said.

“If we pull back from sportswriting for a second, conservative critics have found every single mainstream-media institution to be nefariously liberal. First it was newspapers, then it was broadcast networks, and sooner or later, they were going to get around to ESPN.”

Even if ESPN did everything in its power to avoid stepping outside a sports-only lane, Hill said, the athletes themselves would make that task impossible.

“Are we supposed to pretend like Gregg Popovich doesn't have a sermon every week about how much he can’t stand Donald Trump?” the ESPN host asked. “When Lebron, Carmelo, Chris Paul, and D-Wade decided to make a statement at the ESPYs, were we supposed to fade to black? And even Colin Kaepernick, and even other athletes around the NFL, who started to express their opinions and their experiences about police brutality—were we supposed to pretend they didn’t say it?”

*

Jamie Horowitz, the former president of Fox Sports, never explicitly encouraged anti-ESPN blogs from Travis, who has repeatedly stated that he has always retained complete editorial independence. (Fox Sports did previously host Outkick the Coverage on its website and maintained a licensing agreement beginning in 2013, but that relationship ended in 2017. Currently, Travis does not receive a salary from any Fox Sports properties, though he appears on Fox Sports Radio.)

A former Fox Sports executive told The Daily Beast that it was his impression Travis’ ESPN-bashing was purposely kept at arm’s length. “Those guys were not allowed to do that under the Fox Sports banner,” he said. “Which is why Clay [Travis] had his own Outkick site where he could write what he wanted and we had no say.”

Although Horowitz—who was credited with creating the “Embrace Debate” era while at ESPN, and was fired last month amid allegations of sexual harassment—reportedly did not overtly direct or even suggest an editorial direction for Travis, that doesn’t mean he took issue with his anti-ESPN broadsides.

“I think Jamie was personally uncomfortable with the social and political stuff, but as ratings continued to suck and things got more desperate, he certainly encouraged extreme behavior,” the former Fox Sports executive said. “My read is, those guys are provocateurs, and while no one was telling them they had to do those things, I'd bet no one was telling them not to, either. There was a lot of desperation in that building, and creating controversy was their Hail Mary."

The Daily Beast spoke with Travis by phone. He repeatedly claimed that ESPN had a very clear political agenda, one that was adopted in order to stem its six-year-long persistent subscriber losses. His critique of ESPN, he said, was not that ESPN dallied in the political implications of any given sports story, but rather that alternative, and specifically a conservative viewpoints, were not aired.

“The way ESPN debates something is they basically say, ‘Look, how heroic is Colin Kaepernick?’” said Travis. “It’s not, you know, ‘Is Colin Kaepernick making a good decision,’ it’s ‘How heroic is he?’ There’s no counterpunch.”

While many prominent ESPN personalities have praised Kaepernick’s now-shuttered protest, the network has not treated him like he’s “the Rosa Parks of football” or “a modern-day Nelson Mandela” as Travis wrote. Steve Young called his actions “thoughtful.” NFL analyst Trent Dilfer even resoundingly criticized Kaepernick, describing the protest as “selfish.” Will Cain said, “Let’s not act like he’s this virtuous guy.”  

Stephen A. Smith pilloried Kaepernick for declining to vote in the 2016 presidential election, calling him a “flaming hypocrite” and “absolutely irrelevant.” Smith also also lambasted Kaepernick for wearing a T-shirt depicting Fidel Castro’s meeting with Malcolm X, calling it “dumb” and saying it rendered much of Kaepernick’s activism invalid—as did Dan Le Batard, whose parents fled Cuba. Le Batard called him a “dope,” before adding that it was possible to be supportive of Kaepernick’s anthem protest and still criticize the shirt.

And per a report by Deadspin’s Kevin Draper, when President Trump’s first attempt to ban individuals from seven majority-Muslim countries entry into the United States was announced, ESPN’s vice president of audio sent out a memo informing ESPN audio employees that Cain, a climate-change denier and First Take talking head, could be brought onto segments about the ban to provide “balance” and an “opposing viewpoint.”  

When The Daily Beast mistakenly cited Mark Schlereth and Merril Hoge as two ESPN personalities who had been critical of Kaepernick, Travis said, “Where does Mark Schlereth work now?” and “Where does Merril Hoge work now?” with the implication being their estrangement from the network was more evidence of an anti-conservative bias.  

With regards to Jenner and the ESPYs, Travis sees a conspiracy: Jenner’s ESPY was part of a quid pro quo between Jenner and two Disney properties. “They give an award like that to Caitlyn Jenner and suddenly she gives an exclusive interview with Diane Sawyer to ABC?” he asked. “If all that’s coincidental, it’s amazing. I just don’t buy a coincidence there.”

The actual timeline of events doesn’t support Travis’s viewpoint. According to Maura Mandt, the owner of the production company that has been producing the ESPYs for over a decade, Jenner was one of a pool of candidates under consideration for some form of recognition, but she was not up for the Arthur Ashe Courage Award until after the Diane Sawyer interview aired on April 24, 2015, when Jenner first came out publicly. The vetting process kicked into gear shortly thereafter, and in early May 2015, the ESPYs committee tabbed Jenner. James Andrew Miller broke the story on June 1, 2015.

But Travis’s seeming inability to recall that ESPN does offer ostensibly conservative viewpoints and his penchant for floating questionable theories very much falls in line with a growing trend in far-right and pro-Trump media circles.

Travis believes, for example, that ESPN pivoted leftward to bolster Disney CEO Bob Iger’s (still undeclared) presidential campaign. He claims it’s “not unreasonable” to suggest that Kaepernick’s anthem protest swung enough votes to gift the election to Donald Trump. Travis thinks someone working for LeBron James could have scrawled a racist epithet on his California home in order to generate positive press for James the day before Game One of the 2017 NBA Finals, a conspiracy theory for which there is no evidence.

The near-constant periscoping and tweeting by Travis is also a tactic used by the alt-right, particularly the burgeoning pro-Trump media. Like a sports-centric version of pro-Trump troll Mike Cernovich, he offers up a near-constant swarm of takes, and by the time any one of them is debunked, he’s already moved on to the next one.

He’s always available to periscope any time a hot-button issues arises, calling for “emergency press conferences” that consist of Travis staring into the camera wearing a T-shirt, often unshaven, in front of an Outkick the Coverage backdrop. But the lo-fi production values and always-on accessibility create a sense of intimacy and familiarity with readers, in contrast with the professional production values at ESPN or even Fox Sports 1. He treats them not just as consumers of a product he’s offering, but soldiers in a culture war that have joined his side—and one that’s “winning,” as he constantly reminds his fans—simply by clicking on the website or buying his merchandise.

The notion of “winning” is important in Travis’ world. You can see this emotional appeal at play when ESPN announced that it was laying off approximately 100 staffers, largely public-facing on-air talent and reporters, cuts to staff that were enacted largely due to a dwindling cable-subscriber base.

Once again, Travis, who has hammered this idea home time and time again since January, claimed the layoffs were the direct result of ESPN’s politics. The layoffs were, in truth, caused by cord-cutters, and the resulting dwindling cable-subscriber base, which declined from a high of 100 million in July 2011 to 87 million as of March 2017—with the decreases commencing just as ESPN was putting the final touches on multibillion-dollar agreements with the NFL. ESPN also hosts college football, including new, standalone channels devoted to specific conferences, the NBA, and Major League Baseball, and will pay out an estimated $5.6 billion in licensing fees in 2017.

To Travis and his ilk, popular and well-known ESPN reporters and commentators suddenly looking for work were not an indication of the financial strains that plagued journalism as a whole, but a cause for celebration and a triumphalist vindication of everything they’d been howling for three years.

Why? They’d “won.”

But what separates Travis from any other popular sports personality, or even a hot-take artist like Skip Bayless, is he’s enlisting his readers in a cause—and doesn’t hesitate to remind them he’s the only one providing the real story to his viewers. In doing so, he’s further locking down his core audience not just as consumers of sports information, but indebted to a certain culture and ethos. It doesn’t matter if what he writes ends up alienating a large chunk of potential readers, such as his “defense” of Donald Sterling. Those that agree with him will be hooked for good, and will not only remain loyal consumers, but will be part of social-media mobs if anyone dares criticize him.

One other way in which he’s mimicking the techniques of the alt-right? Straight trolling. During a recent Periscope broadcast, Travis announced that he’s going to start selling “MSESPN” T-shirts. Then, Travis said, he will encourage his fans to wear the purchased shirts wherever ESPN is filming because he wants to “drive ESPN crazy” or at least get a shirt to appear on ESPN programming.

This isn’t journalism or even an editorial. It’s activism, an idea seemingly directly stolen from Alex Jones, who offered to pay $1,000 if anyone appeared on television wearing a shirt that said “CNN is ISIS”—a campaign that was also promoted by Cernovich.

*

For his part, Travis insists that he’s not a conservative, and has rejected any comparison between his planned MSESPN shirt and Jones’ tactics. Rather, by his own estimation, he’s a “radical moderate” and repeatedly cites his previous votes for Barack Obama and his work helping to elect Al Gore in 2000 as evidence.

When asked to provide examples of written work or a broadcast in which he espoused a leftist point of view, he replied, “I’ve called Donald Trump a pussy.” Travis claims he’s said this on several occasions, adding that he’s said he would never vote for him.

Not that calling the president a “pussy” should be accepted as an example of a standard-brand critique from the left, but in two mailbag articles at Outkick the Coverage Travis did just that—though it is not an opinion that Travis has deigned to tweet. Travis also endorsed the idea “100 percent” that Trump represents the most moderate Republican in the Oval Office since Teddy Roosevelt.

He also wrote prior to the election, “You can criticize Donald Trump for a ton of things but he’s running an entire campaign modeled on one idea: I AM NOT A PUSSY,” [all-caps his] and has confessed that in retrospect he wishes he had voted for Trump because “those snowflake tears are glorious to behold.”

The word “pussy” is an important one for Travis, who sells shirts, constantly tweets, and includes in his articles his personal catchphrase and hashtag “#dbap,” which means “don’t be a pussy.”

But for this kayfabe act to work, Travis needs ESPN to respond, much like Cernovich and Jones are thrilled when they’re able to crawl out of their fiefdoms for a profile in The New Yorker or an interview with Megyn Kelly. That they’ll be slammed or ripped in a hit piece is irrelevant. They all crave validation from the rest of the mainstream press—which, for Travis, requires constantly prodding and poking, seeing if he can spark the next outrage cycle. If they do, as was the case with the Not-That-Robert-Lee story, it only attracts more acolytes to their causes.

What transpired Tuesday, where every major outlet had to cover his scoop, was very much a success for Travis.

He asked The Daily Beast what other individuals would be included in this article, and he was informed that a number of individuals at ESPN, Fox Sports, and other notable media reporters had been contacted.

“What I would ask is, just get [ESPN] to say my name,” Travis requested. “I don’t want them to be, like, generalizing stuff. I want them to say, like, ‘I hope Clay Travis gets hit by a bus.’”

Travis had previously mentioned that he’d learned that an a high-ranking ESPN executive had said just that, though he declined to reveal the executive’s identity.

“That’s what I’d love, the perfect quote for you to get from ESPN about me,” he said. “I’d be very happy if you did.”