Jemele Hill tweeted that people objecting to Jerry Jones banning anthem protests from NFL players should boycott his sponsors. Per an ESPN statement, Hill violated the network’s ever-evolving and ad hoc social media guidelines. The network suspended her for two weeks for a repeated offense.
Much will be made about the politics, but the truth is Hill’s tweet hit ESPN’s third rail. Be as bold, impactful, and woke as you want. Don’t piss off the NFL.
ESPN views Monday Night Football as imperative to its business model. The NFL exploits this desperation. It’s why ESPN is paying nearly as much for one game per week as Fox and CBS are for Saturday packages combined. It’s why the NFL is quite comfortable clamping down on ESPN programming and commentary, with the network scrambling to oblige.
Before Hill, there was Bill Simmons, suspended and ultimately cast aside after pointed criticism of Roger Goodell. Before Simmons, ESPN nixed cooperation with a PBS documentary about the NFL and concussions at the league’s behest. The network also canceled its foray into dramatic programming with “Playmakers” for the NFL last decade.
Don't ask Dak, Dez & other Cowboys players to protest. A more powerful statement is if you stop watching and buying their merchandise.
— Jemele Hill (@jemelehill) October 9, 2017
Hill’s suspension was about business, not politics. Hill argued she has been addressing social and moral issues, not politics, this whole time. But that won’t stop this from being a political controversy. The sports world is stuck now in the precise culture war Trump wants.
This isn’t “multi-dimensional chess.” Trump’s immediate aims are clear. His base of support is in white identity politics. He has reframed a discussion about race and policing in the United States to more favorable ground, parsing proper respect for patriotic symbolism. He is pitting himself against black villains, whether that’s wealthy black NFL and NBA athletes, a black sports commentator, or black activists rising to support them.
This controversy sucks away air from whatever story Trump wants to deflect from him. The possibilities, with this administration, are endless. It could be any or all of them.
And, yes, this could all be Trump using the power of the presidency to settle his score with the NFL after his disastrous lawsuit that bankrupted the USFL in the 1980s. Trump threatened the NFL’s tax exempt status over the anthem protests on Twitter. At least that appears to be what he did. Teams pay taxes. The league office did away with its tax-exempt status in 2015, deciding whatever benefits it derived weren’t worth having to disclose Roger Goodell’s salary. Trump’s proposed tax framework, one should note, would work out great for NFL teams, owners, and players alike.
As with Trump’s handling of the North Korea strategy, this is aggressive checkers. It’s not apparent what the long-term strategy is. There’s a real risk someone slams down on the board.
Hill is in a no-win spot. Leaving a lucrative job at ESPN would be an unwise career move. After becoming a figure of principles, towing the line would be considered compromising those principles. She was a target for foul vitriol before the recent incidents. Even if she sticks 100 percent to frivolous sports discussion, she will be one from here forward. The President of the United States is calling on ESPN to fire her.
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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 10, 2017
There’s no winning for ESPN either. The network faced right-wing backlash for not punishing Hill over her Trump tweet. Now, ESPN will endure an opposite backlash for punishing Hill over her Jerry Jones tweet. Whether people are watching SC6 or not, the show’s future will now be a national, partisan political issue.
The NFL may face an even more massive headache. The bonds of bland “unity” with ownership may be tested soon. Jerry Jones took the bait and pledged to bench players who protested the anthem. Other owners may follow his lead. Protesting players now face a version of Hill’s dilemma. They can back down to a dictate from ownership and compromise principles they espoused, or they can escalate. What happens if a majority of the Cowboys call Jerry Jones’ bluff and kneel or stay in the locker room?
The sports world and sports media have become embroiled in a bitter, scathing, and chaotic political controversy instigated by Donald Trump to serve his narrow interests. No one wanted it. There are no winners. It distracts from meaningful issues. The potential ramifications are disastrous for all involved.
The rest of the world would like to welcome American sports to 2017.