Viewers of ESPN’s 6 p.m. “SportsCenter” on Wednesday would not necessarily have known that anything extraordinary happened that day. Jemele Hill took her usual place alongside co-host Michael Smith, and the two kicked off the show with a discussion of the red-hot Cleveland Indians before offering their takes on other sports topics.
Hill, though, was in the midst of a very public furor over her criticism Monday of President Trump, which in turn had White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders telling reporters Wednesday that Hill’s comments constituted “a fireable offense.” Friday morning, Trump joined the fray, tweeting that the network was “paying the price” for Hill’s remarks and added, “Apologize for untruth!”
ESPN, which had already distanced itself from Hill’s depiction of Trump as “a white supremacist,” has not fired Hill, but a report claimed that ESPN did try to take Hill off the air Wednesday.
According to ThinkProgress, which Thursday cited “two sources familiar with the situation,” the sports network “reached out to two other black ESPN hosts,” Michael Eaves and Elle Duncan, to take Hill’s place that evening. They declined, and Smith reportedly also refused to do the show without Hill.
Confronted with a situation in which it might have to replace both Hill and Smith with white hosts, ESPN asked her to join him on the air, per ThinkProgress. The pair also hosted Thursday’s 6 p.m. “SportsCenter.”
In an email to The Post, a spokesman for ESPN denied the ThinkProgress report Thursday, saying, “We never asked any other anchors to do last night’s show. Period.”
The spokesman did not offer additional comment but pointed to a statement from ESPN earlier in the day that said, “Jemele has a right to her personal opinions, but not to publicly share them on a platform that implies that she was in any way speaking on behalf of ESPN. She has acknowledged that her tweets crossed that line and has apologized for doing so. We accept her apology.”
On Wednesday evening, several hours after her “SportsCenter” appearance, Hill posted a message on Twitter to, as she put it, “address the elephant in the room.” 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.”
Shortly before that tweet, Hill posted another one in which she shared a photo of herself with some ESPN colleagues, including Eaves. She expressed happiness that her “brothers” from the National Association of Black Journalists “came to check” on her.
“Yesterday was a hard and unusual day, with a number of people interpreting the day without a full picture that happened,” Rob King, a “SportsCenter” executive, said to ThinkProgress on Thursday. “In the end, ultimately, Michael and Jemele appearing on the show last night and doing the show the way they did is the outcome we always desired.”
Saying, “I love Jemele and consider her a friend, and she has many here,” veteran ESPN anchor Bob Ley told Sports Illustrated, “I’m well aware a number of folks will agree with the substance of her comments while others will reject them just as readily. You can love the sinner and hate the sin. It clearly was not a proper use of a company-provided megaphone. There are important responsibilities that come with the many perks, and chief among those these days is realizing your words carry the weight of your platform. You speak for more than yourself.”
The firestorm involving Hill began Monday evening, when she tweeted that the musician Kid Rock, who has been mulling a run for the U.S. Senate, “pandered to racists” by using the Confederate flag. That led to a discussion with other Twitter users in which she said, “Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists.”
“I’m not sure he’s aware,” Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday of Trump, “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.”
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