By Suspending Jemele Hill, ESPN Betrays Its Institutional Cowardice

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By Suspending Jemele Hill, ESPN Betrays Its Institutional Cowardice

ESPN suspended Jemele Hill for breaking code. Two weeks. Hill had previously called Trump a white supremacist, which was true. Her crime this time was daring to criticize Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. Jones stated that he’d refuse to let any player disrespecting the flag on the field, as if cranial trauma had to be sanctified with patriotism beforehand. As if Jerry hadn’t broken every Commandment of God and naval law by his very existence. Hill correctly pointed this out, which is her job as a broadcaster-journalist.

ESPN decided Things Had Gone Far Enough, and removed her from the air. She specified she wasn’t asking for an NFL boycott, but said that an unfair burden had been placed on the players with “anthem directives.” Hill merely noted that Jones’ advertisers were sensitive to consumer spending. That’s all. For that, she was yanked.

Apparently, the broadcaster violated ESPN’s social media guideline—whatever subcategory B of contractual subparagraph D that falls into. Of course it was done as a matter of convenience. Hill fought the President and an owner, and such squabbles cannot be allowed. Like the Democratic Party, ESPN has certain narrow ideas about its base, and is frightened of losing them. According to the Hollywood Reporter:

Jemele Hill has been suspended for two weeks for a second violation of our social media guidelines. She 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.

Then, to use the three most familiar words in any modern political journalists’ rhetorical bag—the three words that will occur in any future history of our upcoming nuclear war—Trump got involved:

According to Vox, Hill wrote later that “Twitter wasn’t the place to vent my frustrations because, fair or not, people can’t or won’t separate who I am on Twitter from the person who co-hosts the 6 p.m. SportsCenter.”

But this is unfair to Hill: this is exactly what ESPN has paid her for—to give opinions about matters regarding sport on the air, online, and offline. There are multiple reasons that television networks don’t simply have a scrolling wall of text giving you the news at night. One of these is the reason of personality: it is easier to relate to a moving, talking, pleasant human being whom, we suspect, has emotions and feelings and orientations that are not unlike our own.

Let me add to this explanation a notion that will shock you—many of the people watching ESPN have opinions about sports. ESPN fans expect the networks’ anchors to be looser and dryer than the news-mongers of the major broadcast networks. To some extent, they are buying the ESPN brand: the knowing, shade-of-Weekend-Update, unimpressed-by-anything version of SportsCenter that was founded by Dan Patrick and Olbermann’s mustache, by Chris Berman, Bob Ley, Mayne, Van Pelt, Stuart Scott, and other names most of you know in your sleep. In other words, we expect the ESPN anchors to be Of the World. They are not disembodied, Jovian presences, like the French Presidency or the Intel Company. They are immediate, close to us, in the same way sports is forever close to us.

ESPN punished Hill not just for scrutinizing the President—how could ESPN, which covers the National Football League, avoid discussing Trump?—but for committing the maximum blasphemy, violating the holies of holies: going against the advertisers. For that is something which is just not done. The thought that customers could electively go against the sponsors is an action so forbidden that it must have horrified the networks’ top brass. Hill simply stated that if fans were upset—and noted that there were ways to deal with such feelings.

Jones was and is out of line threatening peoples’ jobs, if players do not show compelled love. The President is beyond the pale. His fans know he is beyond all norms, and love him for it. The great majority of the country knows he is past the point of acceptability, and revile him for it. If ESPN had failed to discuss the fight, and not commented on the moral fault line, they would have been another PR loudspeaker for the network. What has ESPN concerned is the NFL, and what has the NFL concerned is viewership—specifically, the revenue from viewership.

According to Awful Announcing:

Among all male viewers, the league lost 9% versus a year ago with the average broadcast being watched by 11.07 million men versus 12.21 million in 2015. Asian men are a smaller percentage of the country, yet the drops are similar to 2014. The steady growth among Hispanic/Latino men has plateaued some with 2-3% declines in the key demos (and though unlisted, there was a 21% drop among teenagers). After somewhat holding steady over the previous two season, viewership among black males in the three key demos showed significant erosion – down 7% among black men 18-34, down 9% with those 18-49 and down 4% with black men aged 25-54.

The dangers of declining consumption, bucking the owners, and striking against advertising, is just too much for the network. We know what they are, and their priorities. How can ESPN air sage-like documentaries about politics in sports, and then strike down their signature spokesperson when she dares speak about political matters on her Twitter? Do they really think politics is not part of sports? I can only wonder what the suits at the network thought of Pence’s blanched, hair-covered skull appearing in San Francisco, to attempt the clumsiest and most obvious troll in American history.

We all live in a world where we are compromised, to some extent. As Twitter loves to point out, there is no ethical consumption under later-stage capitalism. But ESPN’s signal problem has always been its dual life: as a purveyor of raised-eyebrow sportscasting, and the plain financial fact of its existence as a business enterprise. Every news organization faces this challenge, but ESPN’s brand was built on eliding this divide; that they were somehow different. Jemele Hill, who was 1) outspoken, 2) knew her stuff, 3) a woman and POC, and 4) reflects the popular consensus about President Trump, makes ESPN come across in the worst possible light: they really are as square and reactionary as the sports journalists our uncles and fathers watched.

ESPN reflects an old dream, the dream we already know is false: that sports is both of and outside the world. That competitive athletics partake of the grittily physical but stand aside issues of economics, race, and politics. Of course, that’s never been true, but it’s a nice, agreed-upon illusion, like the Fourth Wall. That’s why ESPN’s about-face is so peculiarly disappointing. When a sports-news organization shows its tail, when Sports Illustrated declines to show Kaepernick on its cover, then the fantasy nature of the enterprise is stripped away, and we are reminded of the creaking economic machinery behind of the enterprise.

We know where ESPN stands now—backpedaling to the most reactionary part of their fan base. They’re playing a different game, after all.