After a second string of statements by Jemele Hill that were deemed to have violated ESPN’s social media guidelines, the company announced they were suspending her for two weeks. Regardless of one’s political stance on the issue of the national anthem protests, ESPN’s decision to suspend Ms. Hill illustrates a fundamental problem with their business model. On one hand, ESPN advocates for an intersection of sports and culture, as evident by their daily debates on Colin Kaepernick’s protest. However, while the company has made a conscious choice to embrace these types of subjects, they punish their employees when their positions become too controversial. This attempt to balance controversy and mainstream appeal results in dissatisfied consumers, and unfair treatment to their employees.
Former ESPN employee Bill Simmons discussed the first incident with Jemele Hill with author Malcom Gladwell on his podcast last week. Simmons himself faced punishment in his time at ESPN for his staunch criticism of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. They brought up the point about why ESPN would hire Hill if they didn’t want to hear the perspective that she brings to the table on issues such as this. Gladwell and Simmons bring to light the contradiction of ESPN’s business model: they want the presence of youthful and diverse energy without the controversy of youthful and diverse energy.
This incident reminds me of the dynamic between Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden during the OJ Simpson trial. The white Clark brought Darden, a black man, onto the prosecution team, yet ignored his plea to not use white supremacist Mark Fuhrman as their primary witness in the case. In the FX dramatized rendition of the case, once Fuhrman’s racist background dominates the trial, Darden angrily tells Clark, “You put me on this trial because you wanted a black face, but the truth is you never wanted a black voice.”
This is the same dynamic occurring at ESPN, where the network uses Jemele Hill and her co-host Michael Smith to represent hip, black culture on their show SC6. In an obvious attempt to try and appeal to a younger audience, ESPN has made the business decision to put two young black hosts on their 6 pm slot. The duo consistently makes references to black history, culture, and music throughout their scheduled timeslot. The very nature of the show encourages a free-flowing discussion from a demographic that has all too often been silenced in mainstream sports journalism.
Yet once Jemele Hill states that the president (who refuses to condemn white supremacists and whose political base consists of a substantial number of white supremacists) may in fact be a white supremacist himself, all hell breaks loose. The president himself demands that she be fired and attributes the network’s dwindling ratings to people like her, and ESPN forces her to apologize. The next week she states the objective truth that if one took offense to Jerry Jones saying he’d bench anyone who sits for the anthem, that boycotting his advertisers is an effective way to protest. She was cautious to the point that she even clarified that she was “not advocating for an NFL boycott.” The network decides this second “offense” is egregious enough to warrant a two-week suspension. As a side note, ESPN suspended Stephen A. Smith in 2014 for just one week after he said that women should not do anything to “provoke” domestic violence.
What the episode with Jemele Hill and ESPN illustrates is that you are either fully on board or fully detached from the intersectionality of sports and politics. If the network wants to stick to showing just highlights and scores, then they should not attempt to profit off black culture in the way they do with SC6. But if they want to show some semblance of a conscious and allow their broadcasters to talk about how various social dynamics pertain to sports, then they need to grant their employees the freedom to say things that some of their viewers may deem controversial. Until ESPN makes that decision, awkward and chaotic incidents like we have seen with Jemele Hill will not go away any time soon.
Jake is a junior majoring in economics and history with a certificate in environmental studies. Is Jemele Hill’s suspension justified or not? Please send any and all questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.