Jemele Hill Returns
When Jemele Hill returns to work Monday as co-anchor of ESPN’s 6 p.m. SportsCenter, she’ll find a very different atmosphere than the one that existed two weeks ago when she was suspended, one where the oxygen of unfettered speech may have vanished.
And that lack of fresh air may eventually choke Hill out of a job.
Hill, who co-hosts “The Six,” with Michael Smith, has been the subject of wide speculation about her future at the Worldwide Leader.
For her part, Hill told TMZ in a video posted over the weekend that she and ESPN are “fine,” adding “We’re in a good place and I’m happy to be back at the network.”
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
However, Sports Illustrated media writer Richard Deitsch, among the deeply sourced and plugged in in the business, has speculated that Hill’s time as a SportsCenter anchor is “effectively over” and that her time at ESPN is “down to months rather than years.”
If Deitsch is right, Hill’s eventual departure, whether it comes through firing or through her “voluntary” resignation, would send a chill through what passes for sports journalism and commentary.
If Jemele Hill leaves ESPN before she’s ready to go or for reasons other than performance or ratings, it would breathe life to the noxious notion that sports writers, columnists and broadcasters should “just stick to sports.”
Here’s a good place to tell you in the interest of full disclosure. I consider myself a friend of Jemele Hill. We have known each other for over a decade, crossing paths initially at basketball events, when I worked at the Baltimore Sun and she worked at the Detroit Free-Press.
While we are not the closest of friends, I admire her talent and moxie. We posed for a selfie last year when she visited Morgan State University where I teach and she has accepted an invitation to speak to my sports writing class, an appearance I look forward to hosting.
For those who have been hiding under a rock, Hill was suspended for two weeks after she tweeted a suggestion that Dallas Cowboys fans should boycott the team’s sponsors if they oppose team owner Jerry Jones’ stance that any of his players who decline to stand for the national anthem will not play.
Hill’s Cowboys tweet follows social media postings in September in which she called President Donald Trump “a white supremacist” and “an unfit, bigoted incompetent moron” on Twitter.
Though she was reprimanded by ESPN management for her Trump tweets, Hill was not sanctioned.
However, her Cowboys’ postings drew punishment from the company, which posted that she had acknowledged that she let “her company and colleagues down with an impulsive tweet.”
In the TMZ video, Hill said her conduct on the Cowboys’ tweets warranted ESPN’s punishment.
“ESPN acted what they felt was right, and, you know, I don’t have any argument or quibble with that,” said Hill. “I would tell people, absolutely, after my Donald Trump tweets, I deserved that suspension. I deserved it. Like, absolutely. I violated the policy; I deserved that suspension.”
But did she?
From this vantage point, Hill was on far shakier ground with her Trump comments than what she said about the Cowboys and Jones.
Hill’s comments about Trump made it difficult for ESPN to bring the president on the air to talk about sports, in even the most generic way, on any ESPN platform.
That’s certainly the case on SportsCenter, which is still seen by some as an honest, straight-forward news broker. It’s one thing for Trump, who has no problem expressing a grievance, to believe that he couldn’t get a fair shake. It’s something else for an ESPN anchor to provide the material to make that claim.
The Cowboys’ suspension, however, rings hollow, especially the channel’s paper-thin rationale for the punishment.
ESPN’s statement said employees were warned that “individual tweets may reflect negatively on ESPN and that such actions would have consequences.”
That statement begs the question: How did Hill’s tweet reflect negatively on ESPN?
It’s a question that ESPN Public Editor Jim Brady (also a friend of mine) wondered aloud in his column on the suspension.
“ESPN has created a guideline that’s so broad that almost any statement it chooses could be considered a violation,” Brady wrote. “In the case of the Trump tweets, Hill could have known she was violating a specific company guideline. I’m not sure how she could have contemplated the same with (the Cowboys’) tweets.”
Now-former ESPN SportsCenter anchor Lindsay Czarniak tweeted that Hill’s suspension was “sad and disappointing on a number of levels.” Czarniak, a former Washington-area sports anchor, told the Washington Post that Hill’s suspension felt “like a kick to the stomach.”
“I did not and I do not think that it was the right move to do that, to suspend [Hill] for that,” Czarniak told the Post. “I just feel like it’s really important to back people up, and to support one another, and I don’t think that’s something that always happens.”
Hill’s tweet thread, which included a reference to Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, who has adopted a similar anthem stance to that of Jones, spoke of how African-American players who don’t take part in protests could be perceived as sellouts.
That’s particularly significant when it comes to the Cowboys, who enjoy enormous support in the black community in large measure because of their history as one of the first teams to integrate in the modern football era.
Hill was drawing on history in her comments and someone in authority in Bristol with a sense of history and some backbone should have recognized that.
Moreover, what should scare Hill and every ESPN news employee is what her suspension represents, namely the idea that the channel will choose profit and corporate relationships over journalistic integrity.
There are literally thousands of ESPN editorial employees who count on the channel to have their backs if their reporting or commentary steps on the toes of a team or a sponsor. Hill’s suspension can’t be comforting to them or to her.
It will be interesting to see if “The Six” is changed substantially by Hill’s suspension. In keeping with ESPN’s trend of personalizing SportsCenter towards the sensibilities of its hosts.
While Scott Van Pelt’s late-night show carries his persona, “The Six” has a decidedly urban, read young African-American flair. Hill and Smith, who are both African-American, were brought into the 6 p.m. slot to make it their own and to bring in an audience that gets what they’re doing.
So far, the total audience is not as large as what it replaced, but “The Six” only premiered just after the Super Bowl. The show should get a year to build what could be special.
And Jemele Hill should get the chance to be what she is: a talented black woman with important things to say, some of which might make ESPN suits squirm, but are worth hearing anyway.
Milton Kent is a veteran of Baltimore and Maryland journalism.
Kent began a long association with the Baltimore Sun in 1985, serving as the Evening Sun’s Howard County reporter for 2 ½ years before joining the paper’s features department as an entertainment writer in 1988.
In the following year, Kent began covering men’s and women’s college basketball for the Evening Sun, concentrating on the Maryland men’s and women’s teams. He continued covering college basketball when the writing staffs of the Evening and Morning Suns merged in 1991.
From there, he covered the Orioles for three seasons before becoming one of the nation’s first fulltime sports media critics for parts of six years. In 2000, he began covering the NBA until 2004, when he launched a high school sports column, which he wrote until he left the Sun in 2008.
Kent joined the staff of AOL Fanhouse, an online sports operation in 2009, covering sports media and women’s basketball, until operations ceased in 2011. He then joined the faculty at Morgan State University in the fall of 2011, where he has taught until the present day.
In addition to writing for various platforms, including Sports Illustrated.com and TV Guide, Kent has hosted “Sports At Large,” a weekly commentary program airing on WYPR (88.1 FM) since 2002.