“With Jemele Hill at the mike [sic],” Trump tweeted, “it is no wonder ESPN ratings have ‘tanked,’ in fact, tanked so badly it is the talk of the industry!”
Hill was suspended Monday for what ESPN said was a second violation of its social media policy within the past few weeks. After Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told his players that they would be benched if they did not stand for the national anthem, Hill tweeted that NFL fans could choose not to patronize the team’s vendors and advertisers, which would conceivably would affect the network’s bottom line as a broadcast partner that pays to carry NFL games.
She previously ran afoul of network executives and the policy in September when she tweeted that President Trump was a “white supremacist.” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called the remarks “a fireable offense” days later during a press briefing and Trump demanded an apology for the “untruth.”
Hill was warned by management then, but the company said only that her comments did not reflect its position and that she realized they were “inappropriate.” ESPN did not punish her after other anchors threatened not to appear on “SportsCenter” without her. Hill hosts the 6 p.m. hour of the show with Michael Smith.
The network had no comment on Trump’s allegation about ratings, but Nielsen figures for advertisers’ most coveted groups (males 18-34, 18-49 and 25-54) show that, in the third quarter that ended Sept. 24 the network was the leader among all full-time cable networks in total day and prime-time delivery. ESPN digital also averaged more than 84 million unique users monthly.
As he had after last month’s controversy before, Smith declined to host Monday’s “SportsCenter” without Hill, but this time the network had another anchor, Matt Barrie, fill in. Barrie was scheduled to host the show from 7 to 9 p.m. The Wrap reported that Smith’s decision to sit out Monday’s show was a “mutual” one with ESPN, and a spokesman for the network confirmed to The Post that Smith is expected back on set Tuesday. Smith and Hill have worked as co-hosts since 2013, when she joined him on ESPN’s “Numbers Never Lie,” which was re-branded as “His & Hers.”
Over the weekend, Hill made her boycott suggestion.
ESPN’s statement called Hill’s previous tweet, presumably about Trump, “impulsive” and said her subsequent apology for it acknowledged she was “letting her colleagues and the company down.”
This time, its statement was worded more strongly.
“Jemele Hill has been suspended for two weeks for a second violation of our social media guidelines,” it said. “She previously acknowledged letting her colleagues and company down with an impulsive tweet. In the aftermath, all employees were reminded of how individual tweets may reflect negatively on ESPN and that such actions would have consequences. Hence this decision.”
The network in September claimed Hill’s tweets appeared as though she was speaking on behalf of ESPN. But Hill stood by her tweets, which included one that read, “Trump is the most ignorant, offensive president of my lifetime. His rise is a direct result of white supremacy. Period.”
She said in statement afterward that she regretted that her words “painted ESPN in an unfair light.”
In addition to taking on Hill and ESPN for its “politics (and bad programming),” Trump has taken on the NFL as players have demonstrated during the national anthem in recent weeks. Most recently, Vice President Pence attended an Indianapolis Colts game but left after “The Star-Spangled Banner” when players from the San Francisco 49ers knelt during the anthem. Trump indicated that Pence’s departure came at his instruction.
Hill joined ESPN in 2006 as a national columnist and made television appearances on “SportsCenter,” “First Take,” “Around the Horn” and “Outside the Lines.” She has been active covering the intersection of sports and race for ESPN. She hosted a town hall meeting with President Obama in July 2016 to discuss race relations, policing and racial equality.
She began hosting her own hour of “SportsCenter” in February.
ESPN has a history of harsh punishment for staffers who cross the NFL. The network suspended and then fired columnist and TV personality Bill Simmons in 2015 after intense criticism of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Last month, Trump suggested that people boycott the NFL over player protests during the anthem. “If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast,” he wrote on Twitter. “Fire or suspend!”
The president also retweeted another Twitter user’s post with an image of the phrase “Boycott!!” over the NFL logo, and the caption, “You can boycott our anthem, WE CAN BOYCOTT YOU!”
However, when asked by reporters shortly thereafter if he wanted his supporters to boycott NFL games, Trump replied, “No, no, no — I don’t. They can do whatever they want.”
Tuesday morning, the president had another hot take on the NFL, tweeting: