“Donald Trump is a white supremacist.”
“Trump is the most ignorant, offensive president of my lifetime.”
“If he were not white, he never would have been elected.”
So tweeted Jemele Hill, co-host of ESPN’s SportsCenter 6 – also known as the Six – on Sept. 11. Personally, the Six isn’t my favorite. I haven’t vibed with Hill and co-host Michael Smith going back to their ESPN2 show, His & Hers. That said, I admire their individualism and courage in the face of far too many racist criticisms. Those hateful complaints, of course, come from the fact that ESPN stooped so low as to put two black hosts together for the same SportsCenter show. The horror.
Her words (the quotes above are just a few highlights) sparked a bevy of responses, some from supportive fans, some from angry viewers and a few from media antagonists hungry to hype up both themselves and their brands. One of my favorite tweets came from Britt McHenry, formerly of ESPN: “No way you could say something like that in the media about Obama without backlash or trouble,” she proclaimed. Yes, Britt! I wholly agree. There is approximately a 0.00 percent chance you could tweet out that President Obama was a white supremacist and have no one become angry about it, mainly because Obama wasn’t a white supremacist. To top it off, I am awed by McHenry’s stubborn lack of objectivity. Her tweet is a prime example of the fiery “backlash and trouble” Hill has indeed received. In another example, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, spokeswoman for President Trump, said Hill’s comments were a fireable offense.
Look, I don’t mean to single out Ms. McHenryx for her tweets. She shared how she felt, and that’s her right. However, her complaint (again, in her Twitter feed) that she was “reprimanded for conservative-leaning tweets [that she] favorited” back when she worked at ESPN don’t help her case. Does she deserve the right to share her political opinions without rebuke while Hill doesn’t? Smells like a double standard to me, although I think McHenry should be free to like conservative-leaning tweets if she chooses. Impartiality aside, she gives us a great example of the challenges of sports journalism today by raising two important questions:
1) Is it okay for a SportsCenter anchor to call President Trump a white supremacist?
2) Are we okay with politics intersecting with sports?
To the first question, ESPN has answered negatively. They published a press release one day later, admonishing Hill and assuring all of us that “she recognizes her actions were inappropriate.” I respect that some people come to ESPN to escape reality and take solace in the simplified world of wins and losses. Luckily for them, Hill didn’t spew her anti-patriotic liberal propaganda on air. Instead, she did so through her personal Twitter account. No one who wants to only think about sports needs to follow her on Twitter. As a counterpoint, one might say that as a public figure and representative of ESPN, Hill is always responsible for what she says, even if she does so in her own time and through her own platform.
In a later statement, ESPN took this stance. That’s a good counterpoint. Even so, ESPN is in the midst of a transformation. Desperate to preserve their legacy as the worldwide leader in sports in a world where social media has overtaken traditional media, ESPN has labored to become more social media savvy. In true social media form, ESPN now devotes precious air time to memes, tweets and Instagrams. It calls for their on-air personalities to not only report but also personally relate to viewers. Starting off a show with Klay Thompson making a fool of himself in a Chinese club has nothing to do with wins and losses. That’s what modern sports news looks like, for better or worse. ESPN doesn’t get to cherrypick when it comes to its anchors’ personalities. If one of them spots, in her view, an obvious injustice that merits mentioning, she is going to talk about it. If ESPN doesn’t want its anchor to criticize Trump (in a tweet and in her own time, no less), they should pick someone more bland next time. (Unfortunately, we don’t have time to get into whether it’s okay for anyone to call Trump a white supremacist. He shouldn’t take offense though; I hear they’re good people.)
The second question is a bigger one that requires more context. It’s also a bit of a trick question; the question isn’t, “Do sports and politics intersect?” because the answer to that question is absolutely “yes.” Following the blow-up from Hill’s tweet, ESPN CEO John Skipper sent a companywide memo stating that, “ESPN is about sports. It is not a political organization.”
That bugged me.
I agree that ESPN shouldn’t be a political organization that leans one way or the other, but let’s not pretend sports haven’t always been political. Racism has prevailed as the dominant political issue of our country since our independence, and nowhere is race more evident than in sports. Roughly three-quarters of NBA players are black, while only one owner – Michael Jordan – is black. NBA players may not be treated as slaves, but squint a little and it’s not too hard to see the NBA’s white owner/black player setup mirroring the power structures of early American history. Sports like basketball and football that lean heavily on black athletes, not to mention baseball’s ever-growing reliance on Latino athletes, to play for white men (usually) force us to consider race. The man at the center of this current sports vs. politics debate, Colin Kaepernick, didn’t pull politics into a controversy-free zone. He simply used a sport-political space to make a statement. After all, isn’t the very singing of the national anthem inherently political? Likewise, Jemele Hill hasn’t infected sports with politics.
Are we okay with sports and politics intermingling? Sanders clearly doesn’t think so, but she doesn’t get to decide what’s acceptable. The truth is, we have to be okay with politics colliding with sports. Just like you, if you’ve made it this far, have been okay with reading a “sports op-ed” about media and politics. Clearly, ESPN doesn’t want its personalities to talk politics. They want to protect their customers from hearing opinions contrary to their own. The best way to do that is to make sure those customers don’t hear any opinions at all. That’s ESPN’s prerogative. Jemele Hill, though, is a journalist. Her journalistic integrity dictates that she will share her observations and analysis as honestly as she can. If an unpopular opinion finds its way in her work, so be it. The way to end our echo chamber crisis isn’t to seal off the sports world from any opinions at all. History has taught us is that bad things happen when we try to silence journalists. Instead, let’s reaffirm something we all know: Sports is about much more than what happens during the game.
Contact Jack Golub at golubj ‘at’ stanford.edu.