Reimer: Jemele Hill is now ESPN's sacrificial lamb

Alex Reimer
October 10, 2017 - 1:11 pm

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

For eight months, Jemele Hill served as the face of ESPN’s new flagship edition of “SportsCenter.” But now the polarizing anchor occupies a new role within the WorldWide Leader.  Sacrificial lamb.  

ESPN suspended Hill Monday for two weeks after she tweeted her opinion on how irate Cowboys fans should respond to Jerry Jones’ edict ordering players to stand for the national anthem. Instead of advocating for the team’s prominent black players to kneel, such as Dak Prescott or Dez Bryant, Hill suggested fans take matters into their own hands. 

“How about not patronizing the advertisers who support the Cowboys? You can watch and do that, right?,” she asked.

Later, when a user tweeted a number of the Cowboys’ sponsors at Hill, she said if people “feel strongly about JJ's statement, boycott his advertisers.”

Hill wasn’t ordering anybody to do anything, and even said as much. She disagrees with the notion that players should be expected to protest and was offering a divergent viewpoint. In other words, she was “embracing debate” and presenting diversity, two things ESPN claims to champion. 

In a statement, ESPN said Hill was reprimanded for a “second violation” of the company’s social media policy. In September, she faced immense backlash for calling Donald Trump a “white supremacist” on Twitter. The White House even called for her firing. 

President Donald Trump attacked Hill again Tuesday. “With Jemele Hill at the mike, it is no wonder ESPN ratings have "tanked," in fact, tanked so badly it is the talk of the industry!,” the commander-in-chief tweeted.

The posted ESPN social media guidelines don’t mention anything about the NFL’s sponsors or advertisers. It’s arguable Hill violated the policy with her Trump tweets, since they could've been construed as "overtly partisan." But there’s no doubt she stayed within the lines here. But it doesn’t matter, because two powerful exterior forces are working against her: ESPN’s desire to appease its NFL overlords, and unappeasable critics

ESPN, which pays the NFL $15.2 billion to broadcast “Monday Night Football,” is in the business of protecting its most valuable asset. The network has altered programming in the past at the league’s request, including the cancellation of “Playmakers” in 2004. The NFL didn’t like the way the provocative drama series portrayed professional football. 

Even insinuating that people should harm the NFL financially may have caused ire at Park Avenue. Or it had the chance to, which is probably good enough for ESPN to take action. 

But that’s an old story. The latest development, and perhaps what sent network execs over the edge, is ESPN’s apparent obsession with placating its detractors. Clay Travis and deposed ex-staffers Jason Whitlock and Britt McHenry have turned railing against ESPN’s alleged liberal bias into a cottage industry. They’ve become the Internet’s foremost right-wing media critics, landing plenty of guest spots on Tucker Carlson along the way.

Hill has been a target for years, and some of the criticism is fair. The ratings for “SC6” are lousy and she did once compare Celtics fans to Nazis. But the vitriol directed towards her runs deeper than that. Much like 2015 ESPY award winner Caitlyn Jenner, she symbolizes the supposed flamboyant liberalism that’s taken over ESPN, and frankly, Corporate America as a whole. She’s a pawn in the culture war that Trump continues to intensify. 

The Disney-owned ESPN, already facing declining ratings and revenue, is frightened of alienating half of this deeply polarized country. So in a desperate act of futility, it’s trying to please its antagonists. On Monday night, Hill sat at home while Hank Williams Jr., who once compared Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler, played the theme to the network’s signature property. That’s all you need to know. 

Suspending Hill now seems to be a makeup call for September, when ESPN publicly admonished her instead of offering formal discipline. But what ESPN doesn’t understand is, trolls like Travis and others will never be satisfied. Their relevance depends on railing against the network. Travis was taunting ESPN Tuesday, saying he keeps “murdering” them “every day.”

Hill has been sacrificed for fruitless pandering. It's an enraging act of cowardice. 

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