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Lindsay Czarniak on leaving ESPN, Jemele Hill and what comes next

Lindsay Czarniak, in a promotional image from the Indianapolis 500. (Courtesy ESPN)

Lindsay Czarniak has always been cautious about expressing opinions on social media. Last week, she made an exception. Czarniak was already on Twitter when she learned that ESPN host Jemele Hill had been suspended two weeks for tweets suggesting that NFL fans unhappy with the treatment of activist players might enter the fray themselves, potentially by targeting sponsors.

For Czarniak, Hill’s suspension felt “like a kick to the stomach.” And so she tweeted exactly what she was thinking: “The suspension of my friend @jemelehill is sad and disappointing on a number of levels.”

It was a striking statement from someone who had been a prominent presence on ESPN. It also served as a de facto announcement of her own: After six years in Bristol, Czarniak no longer works for ESPN. Her contract expired over the summer, and while she had an offer to return, she and the network could not settle upon a time slot and a role that both sides found appealing.

There might have been other ways to break the news that she had left ESPN. But in the moment, that isn’t what Czarniak was thinking about.

“I did not and I do not think that it was the right move to do that, to suspend [Hill] for that,” Czarniak said in a phone conversation this week. “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.”

Czarniak was able to do so by virtue of her departure, although she also has a virtually unique context to her response. She had been the host of ESPN’s 6 p.m. SportsCenter program for more than two years, taking the show on the road to the World Series, the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals and other A-list events.

Jemele Hill and the nature of objectivity

“It was like the country was your sports playground,” she said.

But while she was on maternity leave after the birth of her daughter last November, the network announced that it was changing the format of her show, turning it into a vehicle for Hill and her co-host, Michael Smith. (Czarniak knew about the pending switch before she went on her leave.) When that news began to emerge, Hill emailed Czarniak, explaining how excited she was but also expressing concern for her friend.

Czarniak understood that the move was meant to inject more opinion and voice into the 6 p.m. program, something Hill and Smith were known for. Which is why the news that Hill was being suspended precisely for expressing an opinion — not long after she caused national headlines but was not suspended for pointed criticism of President Trump — hit a bit too close to home.

“The reason that they’re there, doing that [show], is because they’re great at voicing their opinions,” Czarniak said. “Regardless of how you feel about there not being a suspension for the previous comments, I was just shocked that that was what they decided to suspend her for. And I also felt for her, because they are so good at doing what they do. And I think it’s really difficult to then come back and do what you do. I just think she’s in a very difficult place.”

Beyond backing up her friend and former colleague, Czarniak’s tweet led to questions about her own status. So here are a few answers. When she and the network couldn’t agree upon a new role and her time at ESPN ended, Czarniak was nervous and terrified and everything else you’d expect. Her broadcasting career — which first gained prominence at Washington’s WRC — had gradually led up to this national platform, and now she was walking away from that without a next destination. It was the last thing she ever thought she would do, and the last thing she would have advised her younger self.

“You try to kind of compartmentalize and move on,” she said, “but the truth is that it’s really hard.”

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But she’s also spent the past two-and-a-half months doing things you can’t do when you’re a full-time host at ESPN. She spent time with her parents. She explored her love of art and design. She spent time with her two kids. She took them to the pumpkin patch — on a weekday. She started thinking more about what made her passionate and what made her feel alive — “Deep Thoughts, with Lindsay Czarniak,” she joked this week — and she even joined a Bible-related book club through her church. It was a dramatic change from life in a major newsroom.

“It actually is probably the best thing that has ever happened to me,” she said. “It’s awesome to kind of be forced to take a step back and sort of open your eyes to what’s around you. Initially, it was like I was jumping off a diving board — Oh my gosh, what am I doing? — and then it quickly became, ‘Wait a minute, this is actually such a gift.’ That sounds totally cliched, but it really is.”

Czarniak still wants to get back into broadcasting. She still thinks her future is in sports — “sports is still very much my love,” she said — but she’s also interested in reporting on broader topics, and “if I could flex those muscles at the same time, I would love it.” Her husband — NBC and MSNBC anchor Craig Melvin, another WRC alum — remains in the business, so Czarniak is hardly cut off from the industry. She doesn’t even rule out a return to ESPN one day, speaking fondly of her time there.

“When I look back at it, I am shocked at the amount of things I was able to do there, honestly, and that’s the truth,” she said. “That’s partly what also makes it really bittersweet and hard at the same time. If you do what I do, what we do in this industry, to do all those things and be at those places and cover the World Series and be there live on the field, I mean, that’s a freaking dream. … And the people along the way that you meet — the athletes, the coaches, the colleagues — it’s really hard for me to leave the people.”

As a sports fan, she of course still watches ESPN and keeps up on what’s happening there, including in her old time slot. Which, again, is why the Hill suspension struck a particular chord.

Czarniak ran into Hill and Smith on her first day on-air at ESPN, “and I remember seeing their chemistry then,” she said. Some of the staffers from her 6 p.m. SportsCenter still work on the new show; Czarniak said the show and those staffers are “creative, insanely creative.” She isn’t exactly an objective observer, then, when commenting on Hill’s suspension. But she had an opportunity to express her opinion, and she took it.

“I come at it from a very different, angle because my show changed and then became what their show is,” she said, repeating her disappointment at the suspension. “At the core of it, I just think that it is very important to stand up — not that that’s going to accomplish anything — but I felt it strongly. It matters when you see something that you don’t think is right, and you are able to share your opinion.”

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