Jemele Hill speaks at a 2016 Women & Sports panel at Liberty Theater in New York City.
By D Dipasupil/Getty Images.
Last week, on stage at Vanity Fair’s annual New Establishment Summit in Beverly Hills, my colleague Nick Bilton asked legendary Disney C.E.O. Bob Iger for the logic behind ESPN’s recent decision to support Jemele Hill, a prominent African-American anchor, after she tweeted that President Donald Trump was “a white supremacist who surrounded himself largely w/other white supremacists.” It was a poignant question. At the time, the N.F.L. was involved in some highly public soul-searching. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision last year to take a knee during the national anthem as a way of protesting social injustice had morphed into a larger demonstration about freedom of speech, as many players across the league routinely knelt before kick-off. As Trump raged about his displeasure regarding players’ decisions to express their First Amendment rights, the league’s personnel and even many of its owners had come together in solidarity, locking arms on the sidelines, or staying in the tunnel during the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Yet Hill’s tweet, at the fore of this collective social reckoning, seemed provocative for a journalist. While Trump had been ushered into office on account of fervor from his ardent base, with undeniable pockets of racism, characterizing him as a white supremacist who largely surrounded himself with others racists seemed, if anything, like it ran the risk of journalistic imprecision. Denouncing Trump’s profound limitations, and the horrors presented by the primitive views of some courtiers, seems like the sort of notion best expressed beyond the capacity of 140 characters. Not surprisingly, Trump and his supporters called for Hill’s head, often in profane terms. (Even Hill herself would later express some penance in an essay written for the ESPN-operated site The Undefeated.) Nevertheless, Iger, whose company owns ESPN, sympathized with the anchor. On stage he said, “It’s hard for me to understand what it feels like to experience racism. I felt we needed to take into account what other people at ESPN were feeling at this time, and that resulted in us not taking action.”
Nearly a month after that first inflammatory Trump tweet, however, ESPN has indeed taken action against Hill. On October 8, Hill tweeted that those offended by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’s threat to bench players who knelt during the national anthem should “boycott his advertisers.” Hill, who is a co-host of ESPN’s flagship SportsCenter program and one of the network’s most recognizable stars, known for her provocative commentary and active Twitter presence, was promptly suspended for “a second violation of our social media guidelines,” according to a statement from ESPN, which also indicated that “all employees were reminded of how individual tweets may reflect negatively on ESPN and that such actions may have consequences. Hence this decision.”
Ever since Michael Jordan eschewed inquiries into his political leanings by noting that Republicans, too, bought sneakers, many pro athletes and sports leagues have steered clear of politics. But that line has blurred of late. LeBron James campaigned for Hillary Clinton. Most recently, the Golden State Warriors skipped their celebratory trip to meet the president after stars Steph Curry and Kevin Durant expressed profound distaste for Trump. The N.F.L., itself, is in many ways the most jarring expression of the divisions in our society. The league is 70 percent African-American; the league’s ownership is almost exclusively white and male. Patriots owner Robert Kraft is a major Trump supporter. Jets owner Woody Johnson is his ambassador to Great Britain.
Related Video: Bob Iger Opens Up About Jemele Hill
ESPN isn’t exactly known for confronting thorny political issues, but Hill’s tweets have unquestionably centered the network right in the middle of the culture wars. While the worldwide leader in sports entertainment has been known to venture outside the realm of straight-up sports news—with a track record of covering topics such as race, gender, and L.G.B.T. rights—one can’t recall another instance in which the president of the United States attacked an ESPN journalist on Twitter, or when the White House called for an ESPN journalist to be fired. (Journalists at general-interest news outlets have, in fact, had that distinction under Trump.) All news outlets are in uncharted waters with a president that is constantly upending the norms of politics and social media, at a time when journalists are expected more than ever to engage with their readers on different platforms. For ESPN, where it used to be easier to navigate the relationship between politics and sports, “those two things are on a collision course,” as one close observer of the network put it.
Inside ESPN, which has multi-billion-dollar deals with the leagues it covers, there are many nuanced takes on the Hill affair. Employees may not be in open revolt over Hill’s punishment, and indeed there are those who would argue that some of her recent Twitter activity crossed a red line. But she is a beloved figure inside the network, and I’m told that many colleagues are strongly in her corner. “This is not a Bill Simmons situation,” one of them said, referring to ESPN’s 2014 suspension of the then-Grantland boss and host for calling N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell a “liar” over his handling of Ray Rice’s suspension. “We’re going through an unprecedented time right now. I don’t know if [ESPN management] is in an impossible situation or not, but it’s just a mess. I don’t know what the answer is.”
The suspension, several insiders told me, has also contributed to a sense of confusion, and frustration, over ESPN’s social-media guidelines. ESPN has oscillated from an early practice of discouraging reporters from tweeting at sporting events, to later embracing Twitter, expecting its journalists to be active on the platform and including their Twitter handles in live shots. If an ESPN journalist fires off a tweet that picks up heat or seems controversial, he or she may be asked to “lay low” for a day or two, said one person who’s been in that very situation.
Still, the ESPN sources I spoke with agreed that there’s a lack of clarity around ESPN’s “social-networking” policy, which was made public in 2011. Nor is everyone convinced that Hill’s boycott tweet did in fact run afoul of the policy. My sources noted that the tweet appeared to land Hill in hot water not because it was outside the bounds of traditional journalistic decorum, but because it may have angered ESPN’s advertisers. “She didn’t get suspended for a sin of journalism,” one of these people said. “She was suspended for offending business partners, and that is a harder pill for journalists to swallow.” On Wednesday afternoon, ESPN’s public editor, Jim Brady, weighed in with a thoughtful take, criticizing Hill for unnecessarily provocative journalism in her first tweet, and criticizing ESPN for using her second tweet to conflate the disparate realms of editorial content and business affairs. “[I]t’s not the job of Hill—or any other ESPN journalist, for that matter—to concern herself with the network’s business relationships,” Brady wrote. “So it shouldn’t matter whether Hill’s comments put ESPN in a bad position with the N.F.L., any more than with the network’s excellent reporting on concussions that has done the same.”
Another ESPN employee, with thorough knowledge of the social-media policy, emphasized that, regardless of the rapidly changing nature of Twitter and other social platforms, the central conceit of the policy is, “Think before you tweet. If there’s something you’re not gonna say on your TV show or radio show, don’t say it” on social media. This person also noted the repeat nature of the offense that got Hill suspended. Following Hill’s earlier Trump tweet, network President John Skipper issued a reminder to employees in a memo: “We have issues of significant debate in our country at this time. Our employees are citizens and appropriately want to participate in the public discussion. That can create a conflict for our public-facing talent between their work and their personal points of view.” Skipper noted that there are social media policies in place at ESPN which require employees to “understand that social platforms are public and their comments on them will reflect on ESPN,” and urged them not to post anything “inflammatory or personal.”
An ESPN rep declined to comment beyond the network’s statement and said Hill is not currently granting interviews. (I reached out to her at a mobile number that was given to me, but didn’t get a response.) If she’s feeling at all wounded, however, she might take comfort in some of the public response to her infraction. “ESPN doesn’t deserve Jemele Hill,” was the headline of a blog post by Erik Wemple of The Washington Post.
A Deadspin article was similarly critical: “All ESPN ever wanted was to have some black faces, brown faces, women’s faces, different kinds of faces open their mouths and let ESPN speak through them. . . . But behind those faces are real, actual, whole people, the mere fact of whom is inescapably radical and challenging in an environment as homogenous and corporatized as the industry ESPN dominates. See what happened when one of them gave voice to an idea, not even a particularly radical one, that ran even glancingly up against its interests and those of its corporate partners—up against the way things already are. It silenced her.”