ESPN unexpectedly became a casualty of the “War on Christmas,” forcing the network to reverse course Thursday and agree to air a television spot from Cardinal Glennon Children’s Foundation that mentions the birth of Jesus.
The about-face followed a social media uproar — stoked by conservative commentators — that accused the sports network of seeking to strip Christianity from the holiday season.
ESPN initially rejected the PSA last week, saying the spot did not meet the sports network’s advocacy standards. If the foundation wanted to hold onto the free air space to promote SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center, it would need to submit an alternative, the network said.
But Thursday afternoon, Dan Buck, executive director of the Cardinal Glennon Children’s Foundation in St. Louis, heard from an ESPN spokesman that the sports network had changed its mind.
“He said: ‘We decided to take a harder look and it is well within the standards. We apologize for the mixup,’ ” Buck said of his phone conversation with Josh Krulewitz, vice president of communications for ESPN. “I said: ‘I appreciate you making the right decision. America will be happy you made the right decision, and I’m sorry it came to this.
“Then he said ‘Happy Holidays’ and I said ‘Merry Christmas.’ ”
In an emailed statement to the Post-Dispatch prior to his conversation with Buck, Krulewitz said: “We have again reviewed the ads submitted for the SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and have concluded that we will accept the original requested commercial. This decision is consistent with our practice of individual review of all ads under our commercial advocacy standards.”
The reversal came less than 24 hours after conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly referred to ESPN’s decision as an example of the “War on Christmas.” Buck said that ESPN probably bowed to media pressure as networks such as CNN and ABC began carrying the story and it began spreading through social media.
In the 30-second spot initially rejected by ESPN, Cardinal Glennon’s foundation asks the public to write messages to sick children.
“Each Christmas, thousands in our community send messages of hope to sick and injured children who may not be able to come home for the holidays. At SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Center, we celebrate the birth of Jesus and the season of giving,” the ad says. It goes on to ask supporters to “help us reveal God’s healing presence this Christmas.”
The initial statement Krulewitz provided earlier in the day said the original spot “did not meet our commercial advocacy standards” and said the foundation had supplied a different spot to air on Saturday during the basketball game between Virginia Commonwealth University and Northern Iowa on ESPNU.
Buck said the foundation had a long relationship with the Missouri Valley Conference, which offered the free air time for the game.
On Thursday, before the leaders of ESPN changed their minds, Buck said the rejection of the spot had come as a shock. It had run on local stations with no problems, he said.
“ESPN told us it was due to religious advocacy rules, specifically the lines ‘celebrate the birth of Jesus’ and ‘help us reveal God’s healing message’ that are problematic,” Buck said. Buck argued that the rejected ad was not advocating religion but “simply professing our faith. … We celebrate our mission. It’s the core of who we are.”
The foundation had sent in an alternative PSA that contains no holiday message, focusing instead on Cardinal Glennon’s services for treating children’s heart conditions, a public service message the foundation had already shot, Buck said.
Named for John Cardinal Glennon, the archbishop of St. Louis from 1903 to 1946, SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center first opened its doors in July 1956. According to the hospital’s website, it was the archbishop’s mission to see a health care facility open to all children in need of medical care. The hospital’s first name was Cardinal Glennon Memorial Hospital for Children.
The foundation headed by Buck raises funds for SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center.
Buck said that since O’Reilly mentioned the disagreement between ESPN and the foundation Wednesday night, more than $2,000 had come in from 19 states. As well, hundreds of people from across the country have logged on to the foundation’s site to leave “Messages of Hope” for Cardinal Glennon’s patients, Buck said.
Social media grabbed the story, which caught the attention of Sarah Palin, who tweeted congratulations when ESPN changed its mind, Buck said.
The initial ESPN decision was rendered on Dec. 5. How that eventually made its way to O’Reilly is unclear, Buck said, saying it did not come from him or the foundation. In fact, the foundation agreed not to alert the media, hoping its request for an appeal with higher-ups at ESPN would suffice, he said.
Buck said he was pleasantly surprised by ESPN’s change of position on Thursday.“When one door closes, God finds a way to open 10 more,” Buck said.