Earlier this month, Jemele Hill, a co-host on ESPN’s popular SportsCenter program, published a series of tweets in which she called President Donald Trump a, “white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself [with] other white supremacists,” and claimed that he rose to power as a “direct result of white supremacy.”
Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists.
— Jemele Hill (@jemelehill) September 11, 2017
Trump is the most ignorant, offensive president of my lifetime. His rise is a direct result of white supremacy. Period.
— Jemele Hill (@jemelehill) September 11, 2017
The next day, ESPN distanced itself from Hill’s position, tweeting that her comments, “do not represent the position of ESPN,” and that Hill recognizes her comments were “inappropriate.”
ESPN Statement on Jemele Hill: pic.twitter.com/3kfexjx9zQ
— ESPN PR (@ESPNPR) September 12, 2017
That Wednesday (two days after the initial publishing of the tweets), White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked about Hill’s comments during a press conference.
She replied that the claims were among the “most outrageous comments that anyone could make,” and said that she thought Hill’s statements constituted a “fireable offense” on the part of ESPN.
The day after Sanders’ press conference, Hill publicly apologized for her comments painting ESPN “in an unfair light.”
— Jemele Hill (@jemelehill) September 14, 2017
That Friday, Trump criticized ESPN on Twitter for its ratings and its politics — presumably a reference to Jemele Hill’s comments.
ESPN is paying a really big price for its politics (and bad programming). People are dumping it in RECORD numbers. Apologize for untruth!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 15, 2017
The reaction to these comments varied across the political spectrum. For conservative media, these comments fit in quite well with their narrative that the mainstream media — including ESPN in this case — suffers from an irreparable and significant left-wing bias.
On Fox News program Outnumbered, Lisa Boothe exemplified this view, saying that the Jemele Hill incident was a part of the “hard, left, radical turn that the network [ESPN] has taken.”
Many conservative media outlets (like Western Journalism and Fox News) have also taken up the cause of ex-ESPN analyst Curt Schilling, who was fired in April 2016 over a Facebook post he wrote in opposition to transgender individuals using the bathroom in accordance with their gender identity.
This line of reasoning has been amplified by the perception among conservatives of a “double standard” at ESPN — that the “apolitical” network reacts much more strongly when employees cross the political line on the Right than they do for employees on the Left.
The notion of a double standard was disputed at the (mostly centrist) Business Insider by sports editor Cork Gaines. He argued that the disparity in punishment between Hill and Schilling was not likely due to the nature of the comments themselves, but rather the context.
Schilling had repeatedly violated ESPN’s apolitical policy before being finally fired after his 2016 Facebook post. For Hill, however, this was her first violation. Given this, Gaines argued that until Hill “shows that she is a recidivist like Schilling, it is an apples-and-oranges comparison.”
Gaines also noted that ESPN has made “concerted efforts” to remain apolitical and keep itself clean from a potential stain of “liberal bias” among its conservative viewers, like parting ways with frequent Trump-basher Keith Olbermann and hiring the conservative Hank Williams Jr. to perform the opening song for Monday Night Football.
Since the incident, there has also been much discussion on the subject of the appropriate intersection between sports and politics. Many fans want to keep the two entirely separate from each other.
As AP Sports Columnist Paul Newberry argued, sports may be an ineffective tool for political progress. He asserted in a Sept. 15 column that while activism through the sports world often gets attention easily, the rhetoric is seldom convincing on either end and discourse is reduced to “simply spouting off.”
At the Chicago Tribune, Dave Zirin argued the opposite position in a column published the same day. For Zirin, sports is a particularly effective venue to discuss political issues (particularly those related to race relations) due to the racial demographics of its watchers.
“Sports has become a central space … where the realities of racism are discussed with an overwhelmingly white audience,” Zirin wrote.
CNN’s Chris Cillizza also took issue with the separation of sports and politics in a published conversation with CNN’s Brian Stelter. For Cillizza, journalism can be divided into categories of “what,” “so what” and “now what,” implying that Hill’s comments fall under the “so what” or “now what” categories — categories that are equally important as “what,” and often ignored, in his view.
In response, Stelter fired back that many right-leaning ESPN watchers would, “want the ‘now what’ coverage to be about the Indians’ winning streak, not about the president.”
Regardless of whether Hill’s comments were justified and/or should be allowed, one thing seems to be clear: from Colin Kaepernick to Jemele Hill, sports and politics don’t seem to be separating any time soon, whether fans want them to or not.