More than a week into her suspension for some highly anodyne tweets related to the Take the Knee protest, it feels long overdue to devote space to the ESPN anchor Jemele Hill. Still, I vaguely heard we were listening to women for a minute, and wondered if a black woman could catch a little of that entitlement to be heard. The traditional answer to that has been “No, I’m afraid she can’t” – which accounts for the nagging sense among many women of colour that sisterliness only stretches so far. Its borders are currently feared to mirror precisely those of Hollywood, California.
Even so, let us journey into the great wilderness beyond. Let us go where the vice-president of the United States can spend up to $250,000 of taxpayer money attending a game just so he could walk out of it when players knelt; where two owners in an 80% or so black NFL can decree that any athlete who silently kneels during the national anthem will be benched; but where a woman whose job is in part to talk about sports and social issues is suspended for doing that.
By way of background: along with her longtime collaborator Michael Smith, Jemele Hill hosts the 6pm edition of SportsCenter, in a pairing ESPN heralded at launch as “the first African-American duo to host SportsCenter on a regular basis”. Last month, Hill was disciplined for tweets suggesting Donald Trump was a white supremacist. The White House spokeswoman called for her to be fired. Last week, Hill was judged to warrant suspension for a short series of tweets in which she attempted to point out that there were other ways to show displeasure with the two NFL owners threatening to bench players for kneeling than expecting the athletes to do it for them.
“Just so we’re clear,” ran one of these. “I’m not advocating an NFL boycott. But an unfair burden has been put on players in Dallas & Miami w/ anthem directives.” She pointed out that “change happens when advertisers are impacted”, advising those calling players “sellouts” might want to devote some of their attention in that direction. So, pretty standard stuff that people could mostly have worked out for themselves anyway. It’s not like she just slipped her Twitter followers the nuclear codes.
Yet ESPN released a statement saying Hill was being taken off air for two weeks. Trump himself reacted to the news of her suspension with typical gossamer-touched statesmanship, tweeting: “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!” And with that, he returned to touting an author’s book entitled The Art of the Donald: Lessons from America’s Philosopher-in-chief. “Really good book!”
Hill, on the other hand, faces a difficult future when she returns from the naughty step next week. The actual president of the actual United States has twice made it perfectly quite clear he’d like her never to work in this town again. That alone should make any self-respecting network go the extra mile to bolster its employee in pointed defence of its independence – which is why every instinct suggests ESPN will bottle it. Various commentators predict this episode will ultimately make Hill too controversial to retain. Dear, dear. Imagine being such a remorselessly political network that one woman’s tweets about a sports-related issue being talked about across America were regarded as so dangerous that you had to shut her down for two weeks. Imagine treating her tweets as though they were an existential threat to your command and control. Imagine being ESPN.
It’s difficult to even see what rules Hill meaningfully broke with the tweets leading to her suspension, other than mildly, indirectly inconveniencing some corporations who advertise with both the NFL and ESPN. ESPN’s code of conduct forbids employees “involved in ‘hard’ news reporting” from taking political positions. But Hill can’t sensibly be judged to be a hard news reporter. In fact, when promoting her and Smith to their slot, the network made specific play of the fact that the show would include “a deliberate and well-paced conversational format in which they discuss sports topics, news, culture, and social issues”. Furthermore, the code states that outside of hard news reporting, political or social commentary is appropriate. “The topic should be related to a current issue impacting sports.”
Well … I don’t think it would be going out on a limb here to suggest this particular topic is currently impacting sports. Hill may well argue her views are not even political. Speaking to Sport Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch in the past, she explained: “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 marginalised people isn’t politics. That’s right and wrong.”
In the end, perhaps it would be most helpful for ESPN to tighten up their code of conduct by explaining precisely how black you are allowed to be on their network. Some black seems very important to them. Just a few months ago, ESPN promoted Hill and Smith’s show with a recreation of the entire title sequence of the classic all-black sitcom A Different World, with several of the original cast members drafted in to give it that crucial authenticity. So that much black was good. But this much appears too much. As far as how to phrase the addendum, ESPN may simply care to enshrine the immortal words of reactionary sportswriter Clay Travis, who summarised the real injustice thusly: “So many dudes coming home putting on @espn to pop a beer & chill and they got some chick in a feminist tshirt talking about police shootings.”
Well quite. If only athletes would start taking the knee to assert the constitutional right to a hassle‑free Bud Light, instead of frittering their time away on this business of summary police execution. And if only anchors such as Hill would understand that you never talk about money as something which might be withheld; only as something of which more might be spent.
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