Monday night on Twitter, ESPN SportsCenter host Jemele Hill called Donald Trump “a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself with other white supremacists.” Because of this, ESPN has publicly reprimanded her and the White House has taken the unprecedented step of calling for her to be fired – a clear assault on the First Amendment. 1 2
What Hill said wasn’t a partisan statement, it is an inescapable truth that has been acknowledged and written about extensively by countless other journalists. Trump is a man that pals around with avowed White Nationalists, even employing them in the White House. A man who outright refuses to condemn the actions of neo-nazis in Charlottesville and has retweeted graphics from White nationalists accounts. A man whose real estate company was sued multiple times by the Department of Justice for refusing to rent to Black people.
ESPN has shown that above all else that they desperately want to “stick to sports” and keep hard truths out of sight. But this is naive. Politics have always been in sports: from Jesse Owens to Jackie Robinson to John Carlos and Tommie Smith to the US and Soviet boycotts of the Olympics. This has been particularly true about race because sports in this country disproportionately rely on the labor of young black men. Labor that often leaves them disfigured, in chronic pain, or with life altering brain injuries.
ESPN’s efforts to silence Jemele Hill for making a political statement are also extremely hypocritical. This year, they re-hired Hank Williams, Jr., to sing their Monday Night Football theme song.3 Williams’ return comes six years after ESPN fired him from the job for comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler.4 Williams has also written songs like “If the South woulda won,” glorifying the Confederacy and waxing poetic about a return to lynchings. How is it possible that a man like Hank Williams Jr, who sings about “taking back Miami” from immigrants, is not politically problematic, but a Black woman pointing out clear and present white supremacy is?
Race is an issue that ESPN has never been comfortable with and it shows with their tone deaf coverage of Colin Kaepernick, their ridiculous decision to remove Asian broadcaster Robert Lee from the UVA football game, and now their silencing of Jemele Hill.5
Since Trump’s election, many news outlets have embraced their status as arbiters of truth in the face of Trump’s reliance on “alternative facts” to cultivate a climate of fear. But not ESPN. Instead, they have doubled down on normalizing the type of environment that brought Trump to power. In recent weeks, “the Worldwide Leader in Sports” pushed the false narrative that the NFL’s declining ratings are due to players protesting police violence in their communities, regurgitated NFL owner’s talking points about why Colin Kaepernick is still unemployed, and even ran a fantasy football segment after Charlottesville that looked like a pre-Civil War slave auction.6
But this not a time for craven attempts to “stick to sports” or be “neutral” because “unity” doesn’t work when one group is denying another’s right to exist. The need for Black voices in journalism that take on racism and openly talk about it is more urgent than ever.
Until justice is real,
— Brandi, Rashad, Arisha, Evan, Jade, Anika, Corina, the rest of the Color Of Change team.
1. “Black Public Figures Are Being Silenced for Calling Out White Supremacy,” The Root, 13 September 2017. https://act.colorofchange.org/go/8848?t=9&akid=7899%2E1756002%2EW18gJ2
2. “ESPN Host Committed ‘Fireable Offense’ With Trump ‘White Supremacist’ Tweet: White House Aide,” Huffington Post, 13 September 2017. http://act.colorofchange.org/go/8849?t=11&akid=7899%2E1756002%2EW18gJ2
3. “ESPN is bringing back Hank Williams Jr. to ‘Monday Night Football,’ for some reason,” SB Nation, 5 June 2017. https://act.colorofchange.org/go/8850?t=13&akid=7899%2E1756002%2EW18gJ2
4. “ESPN Permanently Drops Football Pregame Song,” New York Times, 6 October 2011. http://act.colorofchange.org/go/8851?t=15&akid=7899%2E1756002%2EW18gJ2
5. “ESPN Pulls Announcer Robert Lee From Virginia Game Because of His Name,” New York Times, 23 August 2017. https://act.colorofchange.org/go/8852?t=17&akid=7899%2E1756002%2EW18gJ2
6. “ESPN apologizes for fantasy football segment compared to slave auction,” CNN, 15 August 2015. http://act.colorofchange.org/go/8853?t=19&akid=7899%2E1756002%2EW18gJ2