Adnan Virk ESPN

ESPN sportscaster Adnan Virk speaks to students and the general public during a visit to LeMoyne College Monday. Virk offered his thoughts on activism and protesting in sports, and how politics has affected ESPN. 

Justin Ritzel, The Citizen

SYRACUSE — What is it like to work for ESPN when the line between sports and politics has blurred?

Adnan Virk, a sportscaster for ESPN, addressed that topic and many more during a visit to Le Moyne College in Syracuse Monday.

Holding court at Le Moyne's campus center, Virk spoke to students and the general public in attendance about social justice, protests and activism in sports.

Virk, currently a host for "Baseball Tonight" and the network's college football coverage, has been working in sports media since 1998. He began his career as an associate producer for TSN's "Sportscentre" in Canada until 2002 when he took a position with The Score, a 24-hour Canadian sports television network.

He joined ESPN in 2010 as an anchor for ESPNEWS.

Virk was at Fenway Park for a game between the Boston Red Sox and the Kansas City Royals on Aug. 26, 2016 when Colin Kaepernick first protested during the national anthem.

As Virk recalls, Kaepernick's gesture immediately became a polarizing topic.

"My first thought was, 'Oh boy.' He's putting himself out there and he's really taking a giant risk. People that don't like him are really going to let him know," Virk said. "A couple of the guys I worked with were outraged by this. 'How dare you sit for the national anthem? This is America and you have to stand.'"

Kaepernick started 11 games and threw for 16 touchdowns with four interceptions for the San Francisco 49ers during the 2016 season. Following the season, Kaepernick opted out of his contract and has yet to sign with another team.

In Kaepernick's absence, many have suggested his public protest as the primary reason why quarterback-needy teams have avoided signing the 30-year old to play. Virk agrees with that stance and praised Kaepernick for having "the courage of his convictions."

"If he feels that police brutality and racial inequality is such a big issue in this country, and he's willing to put his own job security at risk, then I think I support somebody who is willing to do this. I think that takes guts," Virk said. "It is astonishing that he is currently unemployed when you look at his statistics.

"The last time you saw him on a football field he was good to very good with a poor supporting cast around him. I don't know if he's necessarily a starting quarterback, but each (of the NFL's 32 teams) has two quarterbacks, a starter and a backup, to make 64. There's no doubt in my mind Kaepernick should be one of those 64."

Kaepernick recently sued the NFL, suggesting that the team owners colluded against signing him to a contract. Virk stated "there is no doubt in my mind" that the owners colluded but that it is very hard to prove in a court of law.

Virk compared Kaepernick to Muhammad Ali, who had his boxing license revoked after he refused to join the United States military to fight in the Vietnam War. Ali, who held the heavyweight title at the time, was unable to box for over three years and nearly thrown in prison. Like Kaepernick, Ali was a polarizing political figure — some loved his famous quote, "I don't got no quarrel with them Vietcong," while others considered him a draft-dodger. 

Kaepernick's protests have stirred debate on the role of politics in sports, and how sports networks like ESPN should handle its coverage. According to Virk, ESPN prefers its employees don't talk about politics and instead stick reporting on sports news.

He went on to say that Donald Trump's presidency has changed everything "whether you like him or don't like him, and certainly everybody has an opinion on the president."

That includes ESPN on-air personality Jemele Hill. Hill, a co-host of the 6 p.m. Sportscenter, was suspended for two weeks in October for breaking ESPN's social media policy. Hill tweeted, after Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones threatened to bench any players who "disrespect the flag," that fans who disagreed with Jones' stance should boycott Cowboys advertisers.

Hill later clarified that she wasn't advocating for a NFL boycott but that there was an "unfair burden" on players after Jones' comments.

Hill previously called President Trump a "white supremacist" on Twitter, prompting White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to call for her firing from ESPN.

"She is very talented and very smart, and very outspoken," Virk said of Hill. "With social media I prefer not to engage in issues in politics, but Jemele's policy is to engage and engage at all costs. She will fire back with whatever she wants to say and she clearly has the courage of her convictions. I'm a conventional sportscaster, but Jemele's job is to be an opinionist. Her job is to be outspoken. How can Jemele not touch the issue because (Trump) is attacking NFL players and sports?"

Virk added that he was confused about why Hill was suspended and that voicing opinions on social media can be taken the wrong way.

So what is the proper avenue for sports media to share their opinions? Virk doesn't think social media is the right place, and that Twitter's increase to 280 characters per tweet still isn't enough to properly express an opinion. He also considers television "a no-go" and radio appropriate "in spots."

Virk considers face-to-face interaction the best option.

"If I could go to college campuses and talk about social issues and politics in sports, this really is the best forum to do so," Virk said. "Everybody here is so open-minded."

Sports writer Justin Ritzel can be reached at 282-2257 or at justin.ritzel@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @CitizenRitz.

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