ESPN in its current form is a bad fit for Jemele Hill. That much is painfully obvious. The SportsCenter anchor has been suspended two weeks for violating the company’s social media policy. It feels more like the final nail in the coffin than a slap on the wrist.
So here’s an honest plea to Hill. Do not return to ESPN. Do not admit defeat and capitulate. Do not set aside your principles in an attempt to make it work. It’s clear your ethos and the ethos of your employer are in stark contrast.
It’s not working and will only work in the future if you sacrifice for their betterment, not the other way around.
The bigwigs at network would prefer their sports pundits not opine on sports-related issues. They would prefer the sports punditry be left where it belongs — in the hands of Vice President Mike Pence and Jerry Jones. They would prefer someone who doesn’t have the audacity to point out the efficacy of boycotts in general. They would prefer someone who sticks strictly to sports even as politics and social issues are being force-fed into the sporting ecosystem foie gras style.
More than anything else, they would prefer pressing real-world concerns and society-paralyzing social issues not have the slightest impact on the almighty bottom line. And that’s their prerogative. ESPN’s mission is not to deliver journalism and opinion in the search of truth and entertainment. It’s become abundantly clear that any such mission stops the moment fear of advertiser reprisal or league commissioner blowback enters the equation. The mission’s top bullet point will always be that bottom line.
Based on her actions over the past few months, Hill would like to perform the role of sports journalist and push for what she believes is right in the real world at the same time. An ideal situation would afford her the opportunity to do both.
Let’s be clear. Hill’s initial comments in which she called President Donald Trump a white supremacist were most definitely not in her role’s purview. Reasonable minds can disagree with both her conclusion and if ESPN did the right thing in reacting to them. But anyone arguing that Hill’s Sunday night tweets addressing Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and his promise to bench any player who doesn’t respect the flag isn’t a sports issue is either dim or disingenuous. One may find Hill’s decision to turn the mirror on fans unseemly. ESPN may find even the whiff of boycott surrounding their cash cow unacceptable. But Hill’s commentary doesn’t even flirt with the out-of-bounds line.
In fact, her comments about the importance of advertisers and wallet-pinching pressure were proven accurate the moment her suspension was handed down.
ESPN’s statement announcing the discipline reads:
“Jemele Hill has been suspended for two weeks for a second violation of our social media guidelines. She previous acknowledged letting her colleagues down with an impulsive tweet. In the aftermath all employees were reminded of how individual tweets may reflect negatively on ESPN and that such actions would have consequences. Hence this decision.”
Although Hill has already offered some clarification that she was not pushing for a boycott, it would be naive to think she didn’t know on some level that she was dipping her toes into dangerous waters. Critics will accuse her of intentional martyrdom.
It’s fair to say that a previous brush with tweet-fueled controversy — one that ascended to the highest level of government — should have been stark warning of those potential “consequences.” And yet Hill persisted.
ESPN is not a good fit for Hill as it was not a good fit for Curt Schilling, though their worldviews exist in different solar systems. In both cases we have habitual line-stepping for political or at least politically-adjacent reasons. At a certain point, ESPN should be expected to respond to the continuation of behavior they’re seeking to eliminate. What kind of message does it send if there’s no teeth to the policy?
Fair or otherwise, we live in a time where entertainment hosts like Billy Bush and SportsCenter anchors like Hill are held to a higher standard than the man in the highest office in the land. There’s something borderline insane about sanitized corporate guidelines governing lukewarm tweets when the man in the Oval Office cranks off several seemingly undisciplined examples before 8 a.m. daily.
But ESPN has them and Hill has proven herself incapable of operating that framework. Those who disagree with her and those who nod with every word can find common ground in understanding that something has to give.
Will it be network or anchor? One needs not understand the dynamics of power thoroughly to have a pretty good idea of who wins in these situations.
Hill is a thoughtful voice in a television world clamoring for them. Her talents would translate to a venture more willing to talk about the issues, whether that be on a news network or a sports-pop culture hybrid. Her star has risen through these incidents, putting her in crosshairs, but also on the radar of landing places that would open her with ready arms.
Hosting SportsCenter has turned from a dream job into a recurring nightmare for Hill — at least from the outside. Perhaps she enjoys the tempest. Or perhaps she’s perfectly willing to stop talking about social issues in exchange for keeping her high-profile role.
More likely? She knows that the ideal Jemele Hill is not the ESPN-neutered one that would return following a suspension. The best Hill is the one engaged and speaking passionately on subjects she cares about deeply. That may be the one that would best fit the network, but wouldn’t come without some latent awkwardness.
Hill and this version of ESPN are a bad fit. At least for now.