Jemele Hill has made herself the eye of a political storm, since sending out a tweet last week in which she called President Trump a “white supremacist.”
At first, the backlash was limited to Twitter, talk shows, and ESPN viewers on on social media. Then, things got ratcheted-up quite a bit last Wednesday when White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, called Hill’s comments “outrageous.” In addition to claiming that Hill’s tweets represented a “fireable” event for ESPN.
ESPN President John Skipper responded to the strong, public statement from the White House by reminding his staff that they’re supposed to be sports journalists, not political activists:
I want to remind everyone about fundamental principles at ESPN.
ESPN is about sports. Last year, we broadcast over 16,000 sports events. We show highlights and report scores and tell stories and break down plays.
And we talk about sports all day every day. Of course, sports is intertwined with society and culture, so “sticking to sports” is not so simple. When athletes engage on issues or when protests happen in games, we cover, report and comment on that. We are, among other things, the largest, most accomplished and highly resourced sports news organization. We take great pride in our news organization.
We have programs on which we discuss and even debate sports, as well as the issues that intersect with sports. Fans themselves love to debate and discuss sports.
ESPN is not a political organization. Where sports and politics intersect, no one is told what view they must express.
At the same time, ESPN has values. We are committed to inclusion and an environment of tolerance where everyone in a diverse work force has the equal opportunity to succeed. We consider this human, not political. Consequently, we insist that no one be denigrated for who they are including their gender, ethnicity, religious beliefs or sexual identity.
We have issues of significant debate in our country at this time. Our employees are citizens and appropriately want to participate in the public discussion. That can create a conflict for our public facing talent between their work and their personal points of view. Given this reality, we have social media policies which require people to understand that social platforms are public and their comments on them will reflect on ESPN. At a minimum, comments should not be inflammatory or personal.
We had a violation of those standards in recent days and our handling of this is a private matter. As always, in each circumstance we look to do what is best for our business.
In light of recent events, we need to remind ourselves that we are a journalistic organization and that we should not do anything that undermines that position.
We also know that ESPN is a special place and that our success is based on you and your colleagues’ work. Let’s not let the public narrative re-write who we are or what we stand for. Let’s not be divided in that pursuit. I will need your support if we are to succeed.
However, Hill has had her supporters as well. On Friday, Al Sharpton joined an MSNBC panel to discuss the issue of Hill’s tweets, and the various reactions to them. After mocking and shaming President Trump’s tweet attacking ESPN, and warning of its impending demise. Al Sharpton had a word of warning for ESPN as well, should they decide to punish Hill too harshly.
Sharpton said, “The thing that is dangerous about this, I think that people are missing, which is why many of us in the civil rights community are saying that if ESPN does this they are going to face the wrath of a lot of us.”
Sharpton invoked the civil rights issue, to assert that if ESPN fired Hill for her tweets,, the network would be robbing her of her right to freedom of expression. Of course, no one at ESPN has so much as broached the issue of firing Hill. John skipper said in his statementthat the matter of Hill’s discipline would get handled as a “private matter.”
Private matter can mean any number of things, however, it seldom, if ever, means fired. Now, if Jemele Hill had dared to go on Facebook and point out that a men’s room was made for a biological man, and a women’s room was made for a biological woman. Well, that would be an entirely different story.