So, earlier this week ESPN sports anchor Jemele Hill tweeted: “Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists.” Her employer did not fire her.
On the one hand, I had to tip my hat to her. She’s got a tremendous amount of nerve for daring to say something so incendiary. I point my crooked finger at various injustices every Friday within the confines of this blog, and I say what I like to trusted friends and family. But I’ve yet to graduate to the level of freedom Hill displayed when she outright labeled the President something so heinous in such a public fashion. As I write this, that tweet is still in her feed.
The question is, why didn’t ESPN fire her? Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want them to, though her comments would certainly warrant such an action on their part. When I blogged about James Damore recently that was the point I tried to make: When you work for someone else, what you do and say is in many ways a reflection of them. So, if your behavior and your right to free speech don’t align with their mission, values, etc., they are perfectly within their rights to let you go.
ESPN could have pulled the journalist-objectivity, or in this case, poor objectivity, card. Of course, that likely would have started another firestorm of commentary since the statement in question was a tweet – and no one in their right mind could attach a definitive objectivity tag to anything social media related.
Hill herself said the tweet reflected her personal thoughts, not any position associated with the network. Of course, in similar circumstances such a vow made no difference to the end result – a dismissal. Transgender model Munroe Bergdorf found that out when L’Oreal fired her after her now deleted Facebook post condemning racial violence and all white people. But ESPN didn’t fire Hill.
The company issued a public reprimand. Hill apologized. The company accepted her apology, also publically, and Hill went on co-hosting her show, The Six. This, despite the White House suggesting that ESPN fire Hill for her “outrageous comments” about the President.
In its article “Why ESPN has to stand up for Jemele Hill,” CNN mentioned ESPNs falling subscriber numbers and declining ratings. As if that might be a motivator for its response. Perhaps the company hopes that the controversy will subside quickly, and it can get back to business as usual?
Maybe – and I’ll remind you that I’m speculating – the company’s leaders agree with Hill. The President does have a history that suggests his personal or political philosophy does not support diversity and inclusion: pardoning former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, the recent disbanding of his economic advisory council for his response to the incident in Charlottesville, DACA. I could go on, but this blog would get way too long.
Maybe, given Colin Kaepernick’s famous kneel, his subsequent blackballing – what a word, huh? – and all of the heat the football player’s nonviolent protest has generated against the NFL since then, ESPN isn’t sure what to do. I can certainly understand it not wanting to take a hard line.
It’s complicated, and sports is a big money industry. Big money. There’s advertisers and subscribers to please. One false move, and this incident could become an avalanche that ultimately buries the network under a landslide of controversy and bad publicity.
I don’t recall the White House demanding that David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, who recently published that evocative picture of Trump blowing a KKK hood/sail, be fired. And they say a picture is worth a thousand words, not a 140-character tweet. Then again, Remnick is white. Hill is black. I’m sure ESPN’s leaders are well aware – at least one hopes they are – of the comparisons the public may draw here and are understandably cautious in how they proceed.
Further, athletes are no longer just on court talent. They have considerable power to make waves as well as baskets, touchdowns and money. And I’m quite sure someone or several someones somewhere is aware that the cloud of political statements that have consistently rained down following racist incidents – like the “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts many NBA players wore after Eric Garner was killed by police – could easily become a deluge that siphons millions out of team and ESPN leaders pockets.
Can you imagine the cost if, for instance, all of the star black NBA and NFL players got together and decided to strike, at once, in support of racial justice? Man. That would be a statement, no? A very expensive one. Rallies in support of Kaepernick, even a quiet, supportive hand on the shoulder from a white player, make powerful statements that ESPN has to consider before it can take a definitive position on a powder keg issue like white supremacy.
Hill is not without her own support system, and I’m sure ESPN is well aware of how quickly that support could grow. According to the Washington Post, the network did try to take her off the air on Wednesday, reaching out to multiple replacements – all of whom declined. ESPN denies the report. Going back to James Damore, it was easier, I think, to let him go.
Still, it will be interesting to see what happens to Hill going forward. I have a feeling, one more perceived infraction, and The Six will be minus a host. Even a company executing judicious prudence has to put its foot down – one way or the other – eventually.