President Trump's spokeswoman said in September that it was a “fireable offense” for ESPN's Jemele Hill to call Trump a white supremacist. Hill didn't lose her job — and still hasn't — but she is leaving her high-profile position as co-host of the 6 p.m. “SportsCenter.”
Sports Illustrated's Richard Dietsch reported Friday that this is what Hill wanted, a new role at the Undefeated, the ESPN website devoted to social issues in sports. Hill later said the same in a Twitter message.
The switch will likely give Hill more freedom to express her views; it also gives her a smaller platform on which to do it.
In a way, Trump is getting what he wanted, too — a critical voice off the flagship show of “the worldwide leader in sports.”
Hill has long been one of ESPN's leading social commentators, but the elevation early last year of her and co-host Michael Smith to one of the network's premiere time slots raised Hill's profile significantly. ESPN said that “SC6,” as it called Hill and Smith's show, would be “different from any other ‘SportsCenter’ produced since ESPN's first telecast of its signature news and information program in 1979.”
Different how? ESPN said in a news release that the show would feature “a deliberate and well-paced conversational format in which they discuss sports topics, news, culture and social issues.” Highlights and game-related news and analysis had historically dominated “SportsCenter.”
Hill pushed the bounds of her mandate when she tweeted last September that “Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists.”
Even as White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders suggested that Hill ought to be fired, ESPN declined to even suspend her. Bob Iger, chief executive of Disney, ESPN's parent company, explained the decision when speaking at a conference in October.
“Jemele Hill is an ESPN employee, and she can't separate herself from that when she speaks publicly or when she uses Twitter to express her opinion, and so we do have policies against that,” Iger said. “In this particular case, I did get involved. I felt that we had to take context into account. And context, in that case, included what was going on in America.”
In August, Trump said “many sides” were to blame for violence at a Charlottesville rally, seeming to draw a moral equivalency between torch-wielding white supremacists who chanted “Jews will not replace us” and a group of counterprotesters.
Less than a week after Iger's remarks, ESPN suspended Hill for suggesting on Twitter that fans should boycott Dallas Cowboys advertisers if they object to team owner Jerry Jones's threat to bench any player who refuses to stand for the national anthem.
Hill later told TMZ, “I'll never take back what I said.” But she also said she deserved her suspension because she violated ESPN's social media policy.
Hill seemed to accept her benching as the price of voicing her convictions. Yet it also appeared that Hill would be unable to speak her mind within the confines of “SportsCenter,” which aims for mass appeal and is, for many viewers, an escape from serious news.
Hill's audience at the Undefeated will want to grapple with issues of race and class.
Hill can more readily do her thing outside the “SportsCenter” spotlight. And people, such as Trump, who find Hill a little too honest can more easily ignore her.