A tweet posted by ESPN “SportsCenter” host Jemele Hill labeling President Trump a “white supremacist” continued to make waves on Wednesday after a Washington Post reporter asked about it during the press secretary’s news conference. Later on Wednesday, Hill expressed “regret” for the way her comments “painted ESPN in an unfair light.”
White House correspondent David Nakamura began his question by reading Hill’s tweet, then asking press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders whether the president was aware of it.
“I’m not sure he’s aware but I think that’s one of the more outrageous comments that anyone could make and certainly something that I think is a fireable offense by ESPN,” Huckabee Sanders said.
Hill’s tweet about Trump came just before 8 p.m. Monday as a reply to three others who had joined a conversation sparked by an earlier tweet about musician Kid Rock, who has spent much of the summer teasing about a Republican run for the U.S. Senate.
Hill originally commented on an article tweeted by the Hill about Kid Rock’s rejection of being labeled a racist because he favors the Confederate Flag. Hill’s tweet about Kid Rock spurred hundreds of responses, which eventually resulted in a discussion of the White House.
On Wednesday evening, after a day in which she was the subject of conversations in the sports world and far beyond, Hill returned to social media to, as she put it, “address the elephant in the room.” She posted a statement in which she said, “My comments on Twitter expressed my personal beliefs. My regret is that my comments and the public way I made them painted ESPN in an unfair light.
“My respect for the company and my colleagues remains unconditional.”
On Tuesday, ESPN had released a statement addressing Hill’s tweet and the growing controversy surrounding it.
ESPN called Hill’s tweet “inappropriate” and noted her comments do not “represent the position of ESPN.”
The network said it addressed the issue with Hill, who will not be suspended or further punished for expressing her views online.
Hill, who has not publicly commented on the matter, did not immediately return a request to comment.
Among those offering support for Hill online was Colin Kaepernick, who told her Tuesday via Twitter, “We are with you,” and who himself has been highly critical of Trump. The former 49ers quarterback has been notably unable to latch on with an NFL team, which many attribute to his protests of racial injustice last season when he knelt during pregame renditions of the national anthem.
In March, Hill tweeted that while there was a “limited market” for Kaepernick, once Trump told a rally that NFL owners “don’t want to get a nasty tweet” from him about signing the quarterback, it was a “wrap” that he would remain a free agent. Hill continued her support for Kaepernick earlier this year when the Baltimore Ravens, in the wake of a July injury to quarterback Joe Flacco, added a relative unknown in David Olson. Hill referred wryly to Kaepernick when she tweeted that Baltimore “signed a dude who quit football to be a realtor and played in 2 games in college over a Super Bowl QB.”
Hill has received support for expressing her opinions, but the 41-year-old has also been the subject of criticism. Before Huckabee Sanders’s comments, several conservative media outlets, including the Federalist, the Daily Caller and Breitbart wrote strongly worded articles chastising both Hill and ESPN, which some claim would’ve fired her already if she were conservative and said such a thing about a liberal politician.
ESPN has fired people over social media comments before. For instance, the network famously canned Curt Schilling after he shared on Facebook a lewd cartoon criticizing North Carolina’s controversial “bathroom bill,” that would have required transgender individuals to use public bathrooms that corresponded to the sex they were assigned at birth. (Schilling now works for Breitbart.)
In that case, Schilling didn’t insult a politician, but the country’s transgender population. Commenting on Schilling’s firing, the network assured fans, “ESPN is an inclusive company.”
This is not the first time ESPN has gotten grief from conservatives, who believe the network has become too liberal or political in general.
The network saw backlash from the right when it awarded Caitlyn Jenner its Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2015 ESPYs. The network even saw political backlash earlier this year when it laid off dozens of employees, including former reporter Britt McHenry, who suggested her conservative politics played into why she was targeted. (McHenry now regularly appears on Fox News.)
“It’s a sign of the times,” Neal Pilson, a former president of CBS Sports who is an adjunct professor at the Columbia University School of Professional Studies, told the New York Times in May about the perception that politics have become intertwined with sports. “I think people are looking for bias, and opinion, and information that in some way involves some hidden signal or indication that there’s a political bias in one direction or another.”