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As the White House calls for her firing, ESPN’s Jemele Hill addresses the ‘elephant in the room’

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)

Hours after a White House spokesperson called for ESPN to fire her because she called President Trump a “white supremacist” on Twitter, Jemele Hill tweeted about the topic Wednesday night, saying she was going to “address the elephant” in the room after becoming the latest flash point in a cultural skirmish that has enveloped the sports network once again.

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Hashtagging her tweet #Facts, Hill wrote: “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.”

When asked Wednesday afternoon by The Post’s David Nakamura about Hill’s original tweets, Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she was unsure whether the president was aware of the kerfuffle they caused, but added, “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.”

ESPN, in a statement after the first tweets, said that the “comments … do not represent the position of ESPN. We have addressed this with Jemele and she recognizes her actions were inappropriate.”

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Hill, who is the co-host with Michael Smith of the network’s signature “SportsCenter” franchise at 6 p.m. EDT, was on the air Tuesday and Wednesday as the tweets were drawing loud reaction across the political spectrum, with some pointing out that the network fired Curt Schilling in April 2016 from its baseball broadcasts and accusing the network of pushing an increasingly liberal agenda, especially after Robert Lee was removed from the broadcast of a University of Virginia football game. The topic came up on Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight” and “Fox & Friends.” On Wednesday night, Schilling fired away at Hill, telling Sean Hannity, “Jemele Hill has always been a racist — the things that she says, the things that she does — I don’t have a problem with the fact that Jemele Hill is racist, that [ESPN’s] Bomani Jones is racist, and Colin Kaepernick knelt for a lie, and that Disney and ESPN, who they own, supports liberal racism.”

Those two words were heard often last winter when the network removed Sage Steele from its “NBA Countdown” show, prompting cries that it was because of her presence at the center of social-media flaps involving NFL national anthem protests and airport immigration protests. There were suggestions that she move to Fox News, with the Daily Beast calling her “a right-wing favorite,” and with Clay Travis describing her as “a prominent conservative voice.” Steele now appears on “SportsCenter: AM” and she described how she feels to The Post’s Dan Steinberg last May. “I mean, honestly, one of the many beautiful things about being in your mid-40s is you just don’t care anymore,” she said. “I don’t care. Along with gray hair and all the other awesomeness about aging, I am just so comfortable in my own skin. And it took years to get to this point. So no, I’m good. If anything it has motivated me to continue to be me, and I feel blessed that I just have the right family and friends around me to encourage me to still be me.”

That’s just what Hill was doing, too, and found support in the sports community and beyond. Colleagues, such as ESPN’s Michael Wilbon, were supportive and the “Pardon the Interruption” co-host tweeted to his 4.81 million followers: “Happy to stand [with] my friend and colleague Jemele Hill any time and anywhere … especially now.” His tweet has been “favorited” more than 55,000 times, retweeted more than 14,000 times and drawn more than 2,400 replies. Charles Pierce chastised ESPN in an post for straying from journalism and taking it to task for a statement he said was written “by some beancounter or, worse, some beancounter’s lawyer who is more concerned with ‘the brand’ than he or she is concerned about standing by a valued employee when the wind begins to rise.”

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The ESPN brand is now something new and Hill was tasked with finding that as she brought her experiences as a reporter and columnist to the revamped “SportsCenter” — “SC6″ — last winter with Smith. As ESPN adapts to cord cutting and has laid off employees, it has moved from rehashing sports news to analysis and commentary, encouraging its employees to express opinions and push the conversation forward. For many of its stars, that includes moving from merely sports into culture and, often, into black culture. That can put ESPN’s TV faces, increasingly personalities rather than reporters, in dangerous territory and has created a debate over whether the network’s identity is inherently liberal or conservative. It’s an identity with which even the Disney-owned network seems to struggle. The Hill kerfuffle, for instance, came just a day after Hank Williams Jr., who had been fired in 2011 for comparing President Obama with Hitler, returned to “Monday Night Football” with his signature theme song.

With its identity evolving toward debate- and opinion-driven shows, ESPN updated its guidelines for political and social issues last May. It gives employees greater room to talk about politics when there is a natural sports connection, such as the visits by championship teams to the White House or Kaepernick’s national anthem protest. Employees, the guidelines state, should “avoid personal attacks and inflammatory rhetoric.”

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For her part, as her supporters have reminded everyone, Hill is a smart, confident woman who knows exactly who she is and what she stands for, even as her network is trying to find its way.

“There’s a certain crop of people who’s not trying to see ESPN get more ethnic, more gender-balanced …” Hill told The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis in a story titled “Deep Six: Jemele Hill and the Fight for the Future of ESPN. “As a discredit to all of us, they use words like too ‘liberal’ or too ‘politically correct.’ As if there’s ever been this widespread movement in television to just give black people and women shows. No, it’s been the exact opposite.”

And, as if you hadn’t figured it out, she also said: “Mike and I know who we are. We know who we’d like to be on TV. But figuring out who we’d like to be in this space is our ultimate, continual challenge.”

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