Jemele Hill

The new ESPN policy to try and get company talent to avoid public political discussion isn’t even two months old, and we’re already seeing some major issues with it that demonstrate just how hard it is to tell people to stick to sports in the current political climate.

The latest comes from New York magazine piece, where Reeves Wiedeman went to ESPN headquarters in Bristol and traveled around with Jemele Hill for a day on Dec. 12, the date of the special U.S. Senate election in Alabama between Democratic candidate Doug Jones and Republican candidate Roy Moore. And the opening part of that piece is particularly interesting:

On the afternoon of the Alabama Senate election, Jemele Hill is sitting in a makeup chair at ESPN headquarters. She’s getting ready for her job as co-host of the 6 p.m. SportsCenter but thinking about politics. “What was Nick Saban’s responsibility?” Hill asks, referring to the head football coach at the University of Alabama, the most famous man in the state, who had offered no opinion on the Senate race. “Considering that one of the candidates has said some ignorant and pointed things about African-Americans, and with [Saban] having mostly black players, did he bear some responsibility to speak up?”

Hill is not the only person to talk about Saban in the context of that election, and she isn’t even offering the strongest opinion out there. Consider Chuck Modiano of The New York Daily News, who earned our hottest take of the week earlier this month for a piece calling Saban “a clueless, gutless, selfish coward” for not endorsing a candidate in that race. Hill isn’t going nearly that far.

Hill also isn’t offering her own specific endorsement of Jones, unlike, say, Turner’s Charles Barkley, who actively campaigned for Jones at his election eve rally (while saying Alabamians were “brainwashed” into supporting Moore) and went on CNN in the wake of Jones’ victory to say “This is a great night for Alabama.” But, consider Hill’s comments in light of the specific guidelines for commentators in that ESPN policy:

+ Commentaries on relevant sports-related issues are appropriate, but we should refrain from overt partisanship or endorsement of particular candidates, politicians or political parties.
+ The presentation should be thoughtful and respectful. We should offer balance or recognize opposing views, as warranted. We should avoid personal attacks and inflammatory rhetoric.
+ Communication with producers and editors must take place prior to commentary on any political or social issues to manage volume and ensure a fair and effective presentation.

It seems unlikely Hill cleared her musings about Saban and politics with an editor or producer, and while Hill doesn’t definitively answer the questions she raises (at least, there’s no answer provided in Wiedeman’s article, which moves on from that subject to cover Hill’s history in sports media, her interactions with ESPN colleagues, President Donald Trump’s complaints about her and more), there’s not a lot of “balance or opposing views” there, and you could make an argument that saying Moore “said some ignorant and pointed things about African-Americans” is partisanship.

Now, of course, Hill didn’t tweet this, and she didn’t discuss it on air (not in these specific terms, at least), but the ESPN policy makes it clear it applies to “any public-facing forum.” So an interview would seemingly count. Hill isn’t one of the “writers, reporters, producers and editors directly involved in “hard” news reporting” banned from commentary on political or social issues altogether, but that policy is pretty restrictive for commentators too. And there’s at the very least an argument that Hill’s comments here violate it. If anything, though, that goes to show the absurdity of this policy, and the ridiculous box ESPN is putting itself and its talent in.

That extends to the approval of this interview in the first place, and that shows the challenges ESPN faces. On the one hand, they want publicity for Hill. They want her to be recognized as an authoritative commentator, and they want other media outlets discussing SportsCenter. And on the whole, this piece presents Hill as a thoughtful commentator and might motivate some readers to tune in and see what she has to say on air.

But a New York piece is highly unlikely to stick to sports in the letter of the law ESPN’s policies seemingly demand, and if Hill thoroughly did stick to sports, there would be no point in this piece or this interview. New York seems unlikely to write about if Hill likes Jordan or LeBron better (you can tune into ESPN’s First Take or FS1’s Undisputed almost any day for that kind of content), or about her thoughts on the triple-option offense.

Much of the selling point behind Hill’s SC6 with Michael Smith in particular is that it’s a conversational show that goes beyond sports highlights or typical player interviews and addresses societal issues. And profiles like this one help promote that, so in that sense, they’re good for ESPN. But at the same time, they illustrate that the company can’t make its talent all abide by the draconian letter of its policies on political and social commentary, and that there wouldn’t be much interest in profiles on their talent if they did.

It’s worth considering the downside here, too. Hill’s thoughts on Saban here aren’t all that hot of a take in the grand scheme of things, especially compared to other commentary on that election, but the “ESPN is super liberal!” critics could probably get a bit of ammunition from “Liberal magazine interviews liberal ESPN host, gets liberal take on Nick Saban and Alabama election.” It’s also worth pondering if that will lead to interview requests from right-wing outlets, which would probably pose problems whether they were approved or denied. It’s certainly not going away from the left-right culture wars ESPN has been stuck in.

Maybe the overarching takeaway here is that every conceivable ESPN action around politics has a big downside. If they didn’t have a social/political commentary policy, they’d get dragged for that, but the one they’ve brought in has taken a lot of criticism for how far it goes. And having that policy then brings up all sorts of questions about its enforcement, and exactly what it covers; are outside media comments like these ones from Hill okay, and why, or why not?

Is every somewhat social or political comment from every ESPN-associated person now subject to intense scrutiny? What about media interviews in general; should ESPN be rejecting requests to interview personalities like Hill on the grounds that those interviewers are unlikely to completely stick to sports? Should ESPN be telling their personalities to dodge political questions (and thus, probably get fewer profiles written about them), or should they embrace occasional detours into the political if it helps promote their personalities and their shows?

There aren’t any easy answers, and any of those approaches carries potential major pitfalls. But, at the very least, this piece is notable for perhaps unintentionally pushing the boundaries of some of these ESPN guidelines, and illustrating just how many questions there still are about them.

[New York]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz is a staff writer for Awful Announcing.

  • Ranger1873

    Hm.

    It’s certainly not going away from the left-right culture wars ESPN has been stuck in inserted itself into .

    Fixed it for you.

    • Christopher Bates

      You do understand that ESPN is a corporation, right? Or, more accurately, a subsidiary of a larger corporation in Disney? And you do understand that THEY understand that they have both liberal and conservative customers, right? Ergo, the corporation would prefer to remain apolitical, per the guidelines they announced that are described in THIS VERY STORY.

      If you want to say that some ESPN personalities have waded into the culture wars, then fine. But there is zero evidence that ESPN’s corporate big-wigs ordered that, and it doesn’t make any sense that they would do so.

  • mdb80

    My issue is the guy is a football coach, jemele hill is a sports tv show host…I don’t care what either one of them thinks about anything.

    for her to say he has some responsibility to speak up because he has black players…like he doesn’t do anything for them lol.

    1)a coach shouldn’t be impacting a players right to vote for who they want.

    2)how many black kids has he given a chance to go to college and get an education for free/perhaps get to the nfl and make millions…that wouldn’t have had that chance otherwise??

    those are the simple two answers.

    • Jason H.

      Saban sharing an opinion doesnt have any impact on who his players vote for. Unless he’s making his players tell him who they voted for and rewarding/punishing accordingly.

      With great power comes great responsibility. Saban abdicates some of that responsibility when it’s inconvenient.

      • mdb80

        I don’t think you read what she said or understand what she is saying.

        she is saying that she wants the players to know they should vote for the liberal because the conservative is racist so she wants saban to try to swing a race like that by coming out for the liberal because he has black players and when the top political correspondent in the country like Hill deems one candidate better she can pressure a coach to either follow her poitics or what she is doing now she is trying to see if she can put pressure on saban perhaps even to get him fired and get a coach she politically aligns with in.

        saban is supposed to look out of the player he shouldn’t influence who they vote for. he should tell them to vote sure because that is important but not every kid has the same values and he shouldn’t force his values on them.

        how would you feel if a week before the election every college coach in america said that if players don’t vote for trump they’ll lose their scholarships? is that their great task to force kids to vote one way? no its not.

        hill should know her place she is bringing down a historically great show and network with her bs.

        • Jason H.

          Referring to Hill as “the top political correspondent in the country” is quite a stretch.

  • Matt Jones

    This is a prime example of how wrong the “it’s impossible to keep politics out of sports” crowd is. Saban was asked, and he said no comment. That should be the end of it. Show’s over. But dipshits like Hill and Barkley just can’t help themselves. It’s completely avoidable.

    • Christopher Bates

      So, if you’re involved in sports in any way, you’re not allowed to have opinions on politics in any way. Is that the rule? Ok, gotcha.

      • Mike

        You’re allowed to have opinions. You’re allowed to express them if you wish or not express them if that’s your choice. Saban is not under any obligation to endorse a candidate.

      • Matt Jones

        That’s not close to what I said. I said mixing politics and sports is avoidable. People like Hill and Barkley have a right to their opinions, but their employers have rights to dictate how they express them publicly. If Saban chooses to avoid politics, he shouldn’t be chastised for it. It seems some are advocating sports figures have an obligation to inject themselves into politics, and that’s simply not true.

        • Marie Barf

          You don’t seem to understand Matt. If you’re a famous sports figure, you HAVE to speak up on “social causes” and inject yourself into the culture wars and you must do it from the left. You have no right whatsoever to keep opinions to yourself or (gasp!) express a right-of-center view on politics, culture, etc.

          • Eric Sloss

            This is very true. They only want you to speak from the left side of the argument. I don’t think I have heard anyone from the right speak from ESPN. It is very one sided as far as the commentators go. I think Bob Ley leans right, but I never heard him give his opinions on things. I still recall a few months when Rachel Nichols did commentary on gun control at the top of The Jump one day. It honestly had nothing at all to do with the NBA at that time. Annoyed me to no end. She has done those sorts of things a few times on the show.

      • nbtx27

        Of course you are allowed, you are not obligated to express them in response to a question.

      • CSMAN22

        Shuv yur politics where rhe sun dint shine, bubb !

    • Robbymack87

      Nah, Saban knows where he coaches and the 71% of the like-appearanced population cares far more about heritage than Nick bleeping Saban

    • nbtx27

      He has absolutely no obligation to comment. The correct decision by Saban.

  • MrBull

    Interesting how members of the media like Hill and Modiano of the Daily News are trying to ‘bring politics into sports’ with their clueless views on Saban and his no comments on the election in Alabama…
    Clearly, Saban chose not express his views publicly – either because he didn’t care to or had more important things to focus on or whatever other reason…
    Bottom line, Saban did not nor is expected to have said anything on the election or state who his choice was…this is something the race baiting and clueless clowns in the media like Hill and Modiano just do not get….
    They made it an issue, because they have no ability to simply talk about sports and sports only since they know nothing about sports!…

  • Jason H.

    “you could make an argument that saying Moore “said some ignorant and pointed things about African-Americans” is partisanship.”

    How is that partisan? Unless the writer is suggesting Republicans say or agree with those things and Democrats dont.

  • Mike

    If by “ambiguities”, you really mean “outright defiance of our guidelines” that you gave in the article, Andrew, then you’ve got it right.

    • nbtx27

      And the brass at ESPN don’t have the b—- to take action. Ridiculous. I don’t care what she says about sports, whether I agree or disagree, that is what she is paid to do, express an opinion. This is not.

  • Mike Lavender

    His job is to coach, not to talk about politics. No matter who he endorsed, someone would find something wrong and it would be a huge distraction that we dont need… Either one of those cocksuckers deserved to win

  • Pierlights804

    Saban has no such obligation/responsibility. It’s wrong-headed to attack him for remaining apolitical. That comment came from someone who nowadays insists on politicizing everything. She (i.e., Miss Hill) hasn’t always been this way. There was a time when she did seem reasonable and objective. There is video of her showing a biography of Clarence Thomas – she was reading it on the plane while she was a beat writer in Detroit. She gave a sincere “mea culpa” when she realized the Duke lacrosse players were wrongly accused of sexual battery. Something has changed. I think she is hooked on the fame AND notoriety that comes with being outspokenly liberal. She loves the applause and probably gets some satisfaction whenever she gets a rise out of those right-wingers who she now seems to think are the biggest sources of evil in the world. She was a martyr when she got suspended. She’ll be martyred again whenever she is finally fired or laid off from that network. Even still, it should be done. We’ve reached the point of no return when it comes to Miss Hill. Her latest comments further proves she can’t keep her mouth shut. That means she can’t follow orders. She has been given a directive to stop discussing politics and she refuses. It’s like she can’t help herself. It’s time for her to go.

  • Linda Hawk

    Sports is the only area where left and right can come together. For Pete’s sake don’t completely destroy that, too. Frankly, darling I don’t give a dam what a football coach’s political views are. Just put on an entertaining football game and make your alumni happy.

  • mrpresident

    I care about sports. I care about politics. I do not care what a sports person thinks about politics.

  • Jon

    What Hill’s demanding of Saban here is similar to what others have been demanding of Taylor Swift, in that because both are famous and have lots of fans, they can’t be allowed not to talk about politics. And of course, the complainers what them to talk about politics in a way that favors the political issues they support.

    Getting angry because you can’t use someone else’s celebrity to push your own political beliefs is incredibly petty and self-centered, especially when it occurs in places like sports or music, where people go to get away from politics.

  • Robbymack87

    so the point of this was to get pageviews by highlighing Hill’s musings in an interview and calling her out for partisanship against Roy Moore? Okey dokey. Hitch your wagon to that buggy I guess

  • BobLee Says

    Everyone in America who does (or might) listen/watch Sports Talk media is well aware of Jamele Hill and “what she does… and will continue to do.” She is “THE most provocative personality in sports media” since Howard Cosell. Sorry Clay Travis but JH is a unanimous #1. Hate her – Love her – Tolerate her … she is what she is… and she knows it. .

    IF ESPN dared “fire her” or significantly suspend her it would only increase her personal “brand”… and her value as a lightning rod. She is going to keep on doing what she does because it benefits her career to do so. … Your move ESPN / Disney.

  • nbtx27

    WTF is wrong with this woman. STFU. No it isn’t Saban’s responsibility to seak up. He is a college football coach, nothing more. It doesn’t matter how he is treated in Alaama, he’s just a coach. Coaches should coach, not be loudmouths like Popovich in SA. We want them to do their job, nothing more. Coach.
    Re Hill, great reason to avoid ESPN at all costs. She is paid for sports, for some reason, she needs to stick to her job. Seems like she is unable to do that. Why is she still employed there?

  • SatirevFlesti

    Saban was right to stay out of it and simply to say “no comment”. Hill is an ignorant, uninteresting, over-promoted, affirmative action hire paid to spout left-wing nonsense. Apparently ESPN now thinks hers is their key demographic. I can’t imagine my sane, sensible person with any brains watches her show.

  • CSMAN22

    When I take a break from political BS to watch sports I will turn you OFF if you stick your lame @$$ politics in my face.

  • John Q

    In this instance, Hill’s thoughts didn’t really bother me. Personally, I think a Nick Saban or Taylor Swift or whoever has zero obligation to take time away from what they’re doing and throw their influence/weight behind political movements. I’d rather they not…imagine, for instance, Saban going all in with something like the pro-life/pro-choice discussion. While he has justification to do so, I see little net gain from Lebron calling Donald Trump a “bum”. But, with it being in Alabama and prominent sports figures like Barkley jumping all in, I get it. I thought she was fair in the questions she asked. I think Andrew covered it well.

    I do have an issue with actions like I heard with Sarah Spain on her evening radio show a few weeks ago. She took Ron Rivera to task for his initial comments on the Richardson deal:

    “I know the allegations are serious,” Rivera said near the start of his regular Monday news conference. “Everybody should be heard and listened to and respected. At the end of the day, who am I to judge? We need to have all the answers. We are still here to play football.”

    Please note, this was before Rivera made his highly questionable decision to use Richardson as a rallying cry. She was incredulous Rivera would say such a thing. “I know he still is technically employed by Richardson, but he surely knows more than he lets on.” Does he? Why is the preference that we rush to judgement, and not let some amount of due process and review occur. Rivera’s (original) response was perfectly reasonable. I don’t know a need for him to jump in further, unless we want to make sure a narrative continues.

    She then talked about Diddy’s desire to buy the team, and urged listeners to call in with their preferences of owners that can come into the NFL and take it to all these old rich white guys.

    NFL owners have certainly frustrated me over the years, but in this day and age of concussions, dearth of QB talent and other emerging issues that appear to be threatening the long term health of the game, why not focus on who can come in and help the sport (whether it’s Diddy, Mark Cuban, Jay Z, Elon Musk or whoever), and not on who can “take it to the rich white guys”. If we take down another couple of Richardsons, that’s great I guess. I’m not sure that results in a better overall product.

    In general, Spain was spouting this all off on ESPN branded prime time radio where Hill was just a little candid in a non-ESPN brand interview. From a business perspective, I get why ESPN lets Spain do what she does (such as the above, and no apparent retribution for her flouting of the social media political guidelines)…she checks a lot of boxes that connect to a profitable demographic the company is struggling to connect. And that’s fine. But, at some point, it’s more MSNBC than it is ESPN, and I don’t think will end well for most involved.

  • Steve R

    Saban is an employee of the University of Alabama. Unlike many college employees, i.e.: Professors, he is showing restraint. Maybe more Professors should emulate the coach.

  • noonan18

    In referencing Hills comments about Sabin, I think Nick is pretty smart to stay as far away from that crap as possible. He gets it. Jemele obviously doesn’t. He is a football coach and not a political expert, so why should he speak up about any candidate. The fact that he has black players is irrelevant. He has white players too on his roster. But I’m sure Jemele doesn’t care much about that.

  • Bill Cord

    According to liberals, if you do not express a comment supporting their point of view you are the bad guy.