Of all its selective discipline for on-air talent over the years, ESPN management has made it very clear that the subject where it offers little flexibility for employees is when management believes an employee has said something that could impact the company’s bottom line.
On Monday afternoon the network suspended commentator Jemele Hill for two weeks for a series of tweets she made Sunday night calling for an advertiser boycott of the Cowboys following Dallas owner and GM Jerry Jones saying his players will stand for the national anthem and not disrespect the flag, and if they do, the player or players will not play.
Hill said that a more powerful protest than Cowboys players Dez Bryant and Dak Prescott personally boycotting would be to stop watching and buying Cowboys merchandise.
“If you strongly reject what Jerry Jones said, the key is his advertisers,” Hill tweeted at 10:50 p.m. ET Sunday. “Don’t place the burden squarely on the players.” Responding to a tweet from a Twitter follower that listed some Cowboys’ sponsors, Hill tweeted, “This play always work. Change happens when advertisers are impacted. If you feel strongly about JJ’s statement, boycott his advertisers.”
ESPN is a longtime television and digital rights-holder of the NFL. In 2011 the company renewed its partnership with the league for $15.2 billion through 2021. That equals a payment of $1.9 billion a year.
“Jemele Hill has been suspended for two weeks for a second violation of our social media guidelines,” ESPN said in a statement. “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.”
When asked by Sports Illustrated to speak to the executive who suspended Hill, the company declined.
Last month Hill tweeted that President Donald Trump was “unqualified and unfit to be President” and “a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists.” Those tweets came in the middle of a conversation with readers and were eventually amplified into the larger media ecosystem. The following day, ESPN management released a statement via its PR office saying comments Hill made about Trump during an interaction with her Twitter followers “do not represent the position of ESPN. We have addressed this with Jemele and she recognizes her actions were inappropriate.”
ESPN declined to comment on what discipline was given to Hill then but sources said the company wanted to take her off her SportsCenter show that night. The company often tells employees to stay off social media after any controversy.
On the topic of talking politics on Twitter, Hill previously told SI “it’s very important to make the distinction between politics and commentary, information and discussion of social issues. I find that the majority of what comes into my timeline is related to social issues. Nobody is dying to engage in a discussion about repeal and replace, at least not with me. The percentage of people who want to discuss social issues has, however, increased substantially. Everyone is consumed with what’s happening in our country right now. I don’t tweet a lot about politics. I do tweet more about social issues, which I consider to be issues of morality. Racism isn’t politics. Racism is an issue of right and wrong. Tweeting about significant issues that impact marginalized people isn’t politics. That’s right and wrong. If I had to guess, I would say I’ve increased my tweets about social issues about 20%. I’ve tried really hard not to let these issues consume my feed, because there are a lot of days where I just want to have fun on Twitter. I want to debate with Power and Insecure fans about what’s happening on the show. I want to make jokes and have silly sports arguments, but unfortunately those days feel like they happen less.”
There will be vigorous debate inside ESPN for this suspension, and there are those who believe Hill is not long for the SportsCenter brand after this public suspension. “This just isn’t sustainable,” said a longtime ESPNer who is close to Hill on Monday.
Last month ESPN Outside The Lines anchor Bob Ley told SI “that what is permitted and what I consider to be proper are two different things. The usual standard of saying only what you would with a microphone in your hand apparently no longer applies. These are emotional political times. This is one of the consequences. It’s totally predictable the way the wired nation has split down the middle on Jemele’s remarks. Totally predictable. But it falls into a time and space where our network’s perceived place in the political landscape has never been more scrutinized.”
“I love Jemele and consider her a friend, and she has many here,” Ley continued. “I’ve worked with her on a number of shows and projects and she was a guest on OTL even before she joined us. I’m well aware a number of folks will agree with the substance of her comments while others will reject them just as readily. You can love the sinner and hate the sin. It clearly was not a proper use of a company-provided megaphone. There are important responsibilities that come with the many perks, and chief among those these days is realizing your words carry the weight of your platform. You speak for more than yourself.”
On Monday afternoon one of the earliest people to tweet out support for Hill was Lindsay Czarniak, who Hill and Michael Smith replaced as the hosts of the 6:00 p.m. SportsCenter.
Last month on the topic of Hill, I reached out to Jim Trotter, one of the most thoughtful voices at ESPN and a senior NFL writer. He clearly spoke for a lot of ESPN employees, particularly those of color, and was emphatic on his support for his colleague.
“Black folk are tired and we have to recognize some of the things that are going on in this country and we have to be honest about it and meet it head on,” Trotter said. “If you are black and know the history of our country, you can understand her frustration. It is time we stop pretending it is not true. The reason I tweeted what I tweeted is I know Jemele, I have spent time with her, I know what she is about, and I wanted to say that I support her as a friend and a colleague. If anyone has a problem with that, that is on them.”
Hill is one of the most popular on-air talents at ESPN because she has used her platform and standing to give others opportunities, particularly on her His and Hers show where many ESPN-ers have gotten much needed TV reps. There will be particular hard feelings from inside ESPN from people of color, who have publicly supported Hill over the last month.