ESPN, Smith told Michael McCarthy, is “a sports network. You become successful. You sustain a level of success by giving people what they expect by, figuratively speaking, ‘playing the hits.’ ” That’s a variation of what ESPN said when it suspended Hill, reminding employees that tweets may not “reflect negatively” on the network.
“Do I believe the president should be wasting his time commenting about stuff like that? No,” Smith said. “Do I believe the president has been a bit juvenile in his behavior? Yes, he has. Having said that, it’s one thing to attack what he does; it’s an entirely different matter to attack him. When you attack him, then we are stepping out of our lane. We are a sports network. We have an obligation to wake up every day with the mind-set that we not only speak for ourselves, but we speak on behalf of the brand. It is not a brand that we own. It is a brand that employs us. It has entrusted us to represent it just as much as we care about representing ourselves. So with that in mind, we have to be cognizant of all those things.”
Trump responded to Hill’s tweet with one of his own, attacking ESPN’s sagging ratings: “With Jemele Hill at the mike [sic], it is no wonder ESPN ratings have ‘tanked,’ in fact, tanked so badly it is the talk of the industry!”
After Cowboys owner Jerry Jones promised to bench any player who protested during the anthem, Hill tweeted that the best way to get back at him was to “stop watching and buying their merchandise” and urged those who differed with Jones to “boycott his advertisers,” a suggestion that would threaten her employer, too.
In an essay on The Undefeated, Hill wrote that “the most difficult part for me has been watching ESPN become a punching bag and seeing a dumb narrative kept alive about the company’s political leanings.” Although she wondered “when do my duties to the job end and my rights as a person begin,” she added that Twitter wasn’t the best place to “vent my frustrations.”
For Smith, the emotional urge “to react to something for 15 seconds or 15 minutes” is something that hurts the ESPN brand.
“Yes, the president is going to say what he has to say. Yes, he’s going to venture in our lane to the point where it’s apropos for us to respond. But we also need to be cognizant of the fact it’s incumbent upon us to leave it there and not extend beyond that point. We’re a sports network,” he said.
“As long as we remember those kinds of things, then it’s going to lend itself to us being successful as opposed to us losing our bearings because we get caught up in our emotions, and we do things that ultimately sacrifice the brand and ourselves just to react to something for 15 seconds or 15 minutes. We have to be smarter than that — even if the president doesn’t appear that way sometimes.”
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