As if rising rights fees and declining subscriptions weren’t enough sources of angst for ESPN, the network has a new problem: how to deal with the fallout of Jemele Hill’s Twitter rants, her suspension and criticism from President Donald Trump.
To recap: Hill, in mid-September, used Twitter to call Trump “a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself with other white supremacists”; said he was “an unfit, bigoted, incompetent moron” and branded him “the most ignorant, offensive president of my lifetime. His rise is a direct result of white supremacy. Period.”
That sparked a right-wing backlash, and ESPN – while not suspending Hill - announced that her comments “do not represent the position of ESPN. We have addressed this with Jemele and she recognizes her actions were inappropriate.”
Fast forward to this week. Hill, on Twitter, ranted against Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ comment that players who don’t stand for the national anthem will not play, suggesting that Cowboys fans should boycott the team’s sponsors.
ESPN then suspended her for two weeks for “a second violation of our social media guidelines,” noting that Hill “previously acknowledged letting her colleagues and company 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.”
It’s notable that some of the Cowboys sponsors are also ESPN sponsors.
"If you feel strongly about [Jones’] statement, boycott his advertisers,” Hill, who co-hosts the personality-driven 6 p.m. SportsCenter with Michael Smith, said in the tweet believed to be largely responsible for her suspension.
Hill, referencing the Dolphins’ new policy that players who do not want to stand for the anthem must stay behind in the locker-room, then added: “Just so we're clear: I'm not advocating a NFL boycott. But an unfair burden has been put on players in Dallas & Miami with anthem directives."
But the Hill suspension apparently didn’t placate Trump, who tweeted on Tuesday: “With Jemele Hill at the mike, it is no wonder ESPN ratings have 'tanked,' in fact, tanked so badly it is the talk of the industry!"
Actually, there is no evidence that any ‘liberal bias’ – as alleged by some – has driven declining penetration for ESPN. Many viewers looking to lower their cable bill have dropped bundles that include ESPN, while others have switched to streaming services.
Meanwhile, ESPN apparently has succeeded in angering everyone: the president, right-wingers who are outraged that Hill wasn’t disciplined for her “white supremacist” tweet and now liberals who believe she is being silenced unfairly.
Here’s what’s difficult to reconcile about ESPN’s social media policy, which is similar to those of several other media companies: Why would it be acceptable for Hill to suggest boycotting Cowboys sponsors on the air but not on Twitter? The message from ESPN’s statement, which stretches credulity, is that Hill’s indiscretion was not her call for a boycott but the medium she used to advocate it.
Hill was contrite about her white supremacist comments, even after the White House called for her dismissal.
"My comments on Twitter expressed my personal beliefs," Hill said last month of her Trump bashing. "My regret is that my comments and the public way I made them painted ESPN in an unfair light. My respect for the company and my colleagues remains unconditional."
But Hill hasn’t expressed any remorse for her second violation of ESPN’s social media policy.
Even ESPN’s social media editor, Jim Brady, said he’s “a bit perplexed” by her suspension.
“ESPN has created a guideline that’s so broad that almost any statement it chooses could be considered a violation,” Brady wrote in this piece posted Wednesday.
“...Despite issuing a statement, the network really hasn’t been transparent about why Hill was suspended, beyond the nebulous “reflect negatively on ESPN” language. If ESPN acted because she roiled a major partner, say so. If it did so because suggesting a boycott was viewed as a move out of journalism and into activism, say that. But, by being unspecific, ESPN lost any chance to get ahead of the PR mess it finds itself in -- again.”
ESPN, meanwhile, seems unsure how to handle the intersection between sports and politics, which has never been stronger. After Hill’s comments, ESPN president John Skipper said in a memo to staffers that "ESPN is about sports" and that it is "not a political organization."
But Bob Iger, the CEO of ESPN's parent company Disney, expressed sympathy for Hill after her "white supremacist" tweet.
"I've not ever experienced prejudice, certainly not racism,” Iger said at Vanity Fair summit recently. “It's even hard for me to understand what they're feeling about this, what it feels like to experience racism. So I felt that we need to take into account what Jemele and other people at ESPN were feeling at this time. That resulted in us not taking action on the Tweet that she put out."
Players’ boycotting of the anthem – and Trump’s criticism of the NFL – has made it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for ESPN voices to address these issues without saying something that will be perceived as political and invariably anger at least a portion of its audience.
And ESPN needs to recognize that reality and at least rethink whether it should allow those commentators to express those views on social media, even at the risk of angering viewers and advertisers.
The problem, of course, is where to draw the line with those comments. Something malicious? Something patently untrue? And who’s to judge that? The line is blurry.
And whereas ESPN would never publicly acknowledge concern that Hill’s comments could alienate advertisers, it would be naïve to believe that isn’t a factor here.
As ESPN public editor Brady wrote: “Hill’s suspension seems to suggest that journalists should consider ESPN’s business relationships before speaking out, and that, in turn, does undermine the independence of journalists.”
Hill’s tweets, and the network’s reaction, have left ESPN vulnerable to all of these questions. And the network’s biggest shortcoming in this mess is its failure to clearly delineate what is acceptable from what is not, and the rationale behind it.
NBA MEDIA CHANGES
Among changes in the NBA’s broadcast coverage, with the season beginning Tuesday:
1) Doug Collins, who left ABC’s studio last year to return to the more comfortable role of full-time game analyst, is now gone from ESPN altogether. He left to become a special advisor to the Chicago Bulls.
2) ESPN quickly named Doris Burke as his replacement. The versatile Burke has thoroughly earned this job, excelling in every assignment and displaying a keen eye as a game analyst.
She slots No. 3 on ESPN’s analyst depth chart, behind lead analysts Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson and No. 2 analyst Hubie Brown. ESPN also has P.J. Carlemiso and Jon Barry available.
3) Paul Pierce, who aced his audition during the NBA Finals, now has a permanent seat on ABC’s Countdown set, alongside Michelle Beadle and Jalen Rose. Pierce could give the show some stability after more a dozen cast changes over the years, including Beadle replacing Sage Steele in the middle of last season.
4) Teams appearing on ABC’s marquee Saturday night package weren’t scheduled for back to back sets those weekends, significantly reducing the chances of those teams resting stars those nights – an embarrassing problem for the league last season.
Those Saturday night ABC games: Golden State-Houston Jan. 20, Boston-Golden State Jan. 27, Houston-Cleveland Feb. 3, San Antonio-Golden State Feb. 10, Oklahoma City-Golden State Feb. 24, Boston-Houston March 3, San Antonio-Oklahoma City March 10.
I asked TNT’s Reggie Miller and Chris Webber where they see the Heat in the Eastern Conference hierarcy. Here’s what they said.... Twitter: @flasportsbuzz