As one of the biggest TV networks out there, ESPN can't do much without the entire country paying close attention. And so, given the abundance of racial tension webbed throughout news, entertainment and social media, perhaps it's not surprising that the recent ESPN2 special Fantasy Football Marathon II took some critical flak for handling segments with live-action auctions for the athletes, which drew comparisons to slave auctions. That wasn't ESPN's intention, obviously, and the Disney-owned channel released an official apology on the matter.
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.
As it's put in that apology, given to THR, the biggest factor in all of this is that all-important element of "context." For everyone at ESPN and ESPN2 trying to put together footage to cover the 28-hour runtime that this year's fantasy football marathon boasted, it's highly unlikely that the segments with auctioneer Al Wheeler appeared to be anything more than a fun way to kill some airtime while also showing off Wheeler's verbal skills on the auction mic. After all, this isn't exactly a new concept to those for whom fantasy football is a way of life, and while auctions probably aren't as common as the traditional "snake" drafts that more closely resemble the NFL Draft, it's not like there are other options beyond the two.
Unfortunately, though, for people unfamiliar with fantasy football and/or ESPN2's coverage of it, there likely wasn't a lot of casual acceptance when a flip past the channel revealed a white dude holding a sign with a black athlete Odell Beckham Jr.'s head on it, while said white dude took bids from a crowd of mostly white people. It might have looked weird on any given week, but a wholly new light could be shined on it after this weekend's heinous mayhem that went down in Charlottesville, Virginia, when a white nationalist rally turned violent after a car was driven into a group of counter-protesters, killing one and injuring many others.
Granted, the fantasy football auction wasn't only relegated to just black football players being "sold" to team owners, as the NFL is quite a diverse company. But those segments didn't get shared around social media nearly as often.
Because modern society is so interconnected, it's easy to take nearly anything out of its own context in order to spin it to fit a preconceived narrative. But even if that wasn't the case, ESPN has been trying to give its fans things to be happy about, as opposed to all the changes that have happened at the network in the relatively recent past, including mass firings of employees both familiar and not, as well as tensions reportedly building between its personalities.
On the celebratory side for ESPN, the marathon was a massive success with its intended goals, and over 2.05 million fantasy teams were drafted during the giant programming block, which gave audiences special fantasy-themed versions of the programs making up ESPN2's normal schedule. That total was apparently over 300,000 higher than last year's already impressive numbers. So in case anyone thought that fantasy football's popularity had declined in the face of political arguments, that's probably not the case.