The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion ESPN doesn’t deserve Jemele Hill

President Trump blasted ESPN's Jemele Hill in a tweet on Oct. 10, claiming that Hill “tanked” the network’s ratings. (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

ESPN doesn’t deserve to retain the services of Jemele Hill, its opinionated “SportsCenter” anchor.

Proof? On Monday, the Disney-owned sports-broadcasting colossus suspended Hill for issuing an insightful tweet about the NFL, a league that ESPN supposedly covers. At issue was Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, a guy who is sounding a lot like the president of the United States these days. “If there’s anything that is disrespectful to the flag, then we will not play,” said Jones on Sunday after his team sustained a difficult loss to the Green Bay Packers. “Understand? We will not … if we are disrespecting the flag, then we will not play. Period.” The Dallas Morning News reported that two Cowboys players had raised their fists toward the end of the anthem before the Green Bay game.

#IStandWithJemele: Stop trying to silence us black women on racism

The Cowboys — long known as “America’s Team” — are hewing close to the position of President Trump himself, who has railed against the practice of kneeling during the playing of the national anthem — a practice that dates back to former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who cited police brutality for his peaceful protest. This past weekend, Vice President Pence attended a game in Indianapolis, only to bolt early in his own protest of the protest:

NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith issued this statement:

The game is on, in other words, before the game is on. Hill jumped into things on Sunday night with this tweet:

There were several others, too, laying out her position that Cowboys players have too much burden to bear here. If people really want to see the protests prevail, they’ll have to get involved as well.

On Monday morning, Hill tried to place herself in the territory just south of activism:

WATCH: The White House and big brands care more about the word "racist" than they do about racism, says Global Opinions editor Karen Attiah. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

Whatever Hill was advocating, she was digging into the essence of a massive controversy animating not only sports fans but also the White House, veterans and anyone who has tuned in to cable news in recent weeks. And, hey, who cares if an ESPN anchor writes an insightful, edgy tweet that could be read to contemplate financial difficulties for her own employer? ESPN’s big enough to deal with that, right?

No. It’s unacceptable, according to ESPN, which has announced Hill’s suspension over Twitter.

There’s just so much to say about this move. First is that ESPN has a miserable habit of relying on suspensions, a tactic that helps no one — not the organization, not the supposedly misbehaving party, not the business model. Nothing.

Follow Erik Wemple's opinionsFollow

Next is the tweet itself, which relied on just the sort of quick thinking for which Hill is paid good money at ESPN. This business with Trump, the NFL and peaceful protest is not going away, in part because Trump and Pence don’t want it to go away. With his own autocratic announcements about the consequences of kneeling, Jones is sounding a lot like an NFL stand-in for Trump, a position that’ll harden some attitudes around the league. The matter is escalating, and already there’s been some reporting about advertisers wondering how it’ll all play out.

So just where did Hill run afoul of ESPN guidelines? Have a look at the strictures governing commentary:

Though we don’t know how extensively Hill communicated with colleagues before her Jones tweet — perhaps not much, considering that she was suspended — but otherwise, her compact contribution to the debate around Jones and kneeling appears to check off all the other boxes. Perhaps another entry in the guidelines could address the situation: The presentation should be thoughtful and respectful and should never suggest an outcome detrimental to the multibillion-dollar interests of ESPN.

And cut it out, ESPN, with the crack about Hill’s “impulsive tweet.” That’s a reference to this:

Far from something off the cuff, however, that thought came amid a string of September tweets from Hill that just so happen to rely on a firm bed of evidence. After a backlash over those thoughts, Hill was somehow persuaded to issue a statement copping to some sort of foul relating to platform usage. Or something:

What mattered, of course, is that she didn’t back down from her convictions. She stayed on the air. Now that she appears to be tweeting about ESPN’s livelihood, however, she has to take a seat on the bench.