A few weeks ago, Jemele Hill, co-host of ESPN’s marquee afternoon SportsCenter, also known as the Six or SC6, made some remarks about president Donald Trump on Twitter. To say it set off a firestorm on social media would be an understatement. In fact, Sarah Huckabee Sanders intimated that Hill should be fired for her tweets/views. ESPN stood by Hill, and didn’t suspend her for her tweets that were red meat for conservative viewers and commentators. The usual accusations were hurled at ESPN. They were too liberal. They were anti-Trump. It was MSESPN catering to one type of viewer while ignoring and insulting another. Earlier in the year, ESPN said it was open to its on-air talent showing their personality. Then after this incident it wasn’t. Last night, Hill called on fans to boycott the Cowboys, Dolphins and their sponsors due to their statements against protests during the national anthem. ESPN responded today by suspending her.
Immediately the question came out, why did ESPN not suspend her before, but suspended her now. Well, let’s just say it’s business. Check out one of her quoted retweets and her response.
This was different. Hill was essentially going after two NFL teams. Even if she said she wasn’t going after the NFL, she was going the NFL. The NFL is an important partner to ESPN, after all ESPN pays the league $1 billion a year for Monday Night Football.
We haven’t even mentioned that the quoted retweet essentially calls for “not patronizing” advertisers who support the Cowboys. Let’s look at those companies.
Dr. Pepper Snapple Group is the naming rights partner of the College Football Playoff. Maybe you’ve watched ESPN on Saturday and seen a few — meaning a ton — of their advertisements. So Hill called for a boycott on a big time partner/sponsor. ESPN/ABC owns the rights to the college football playoff. There’s no way that was going to fly.
ESPN also sells advertisements to some of its most expensive inventory to Ford, PepsiCo, Bank of America, MillerCoors and AT&T. It’s safe to say those people who are in charge of spending millions of dollars on advertising with ESPN aren’t going to be thrilled that one of the biggest personalities on the biggest shows is telling people to boycott the product they are trying to promote. Again, advertisers drive a portion of ESPN revenue, and advertising may have to drive a larger portion of revenue due to the fact ESPN is losing subscription fees.
This was a huge business problem. ESPN doesn’t want to deal with potential advertisers looking to take their money elsewhere. They have to protect their partners. A personality telling viewers to boycott their advertisers is the exact antithesis of good business. That’s where the difference lies.
When Hill criticized Donald Trump, she was walking a fine line. But she wasn’t out there telling people to not buy products from companies that deal with ESPN. She wasn’t saying that people should stop watching the NFL, one of ESPN’s major television partners. She wasn’t affecting the bottom line. Explicitly stating that people should “not patronize” advertisers that work with the Cowboys and Dolphins almost would’ve been fine. Except for the fact that she was shortsighted enough to not realize that those companies also have deep relationships with the organization that she works for. Hill most likely isn’t suspended for her political stance against Jerry Jones or Stephen Ross. She’s probably suspended for her stance against ESPN’s partners and advertisers.
\ESPN needs to figure out the next steps. They already — in my opinion wrongly — have a reputation of being liberal. That narrative is already out of their hands. Now they have to control the new narrative about suspending Hill. Some who lean left will frame this as some type of muzzling of political free speech.
First, there’s no law that says an employer — ESPN — owes Hill that right while on the job, only the government can’t impinge on the first amendment. Second, ESPN should simply tell the truth. Hill’s political stance was not the reason she was suspended. They don’t care who or what she supports. They support her right to express her views. What they don’t support is her calling out business partners and suggesting a boycott while representing the company. That should be a good enough answer for the right and the left — it won’t be I know — and if Hill needs to be able to express her views against business partners on the job, she can find new employment. Because this isn’t about left, right, Trump, Hillary, protests, or Jerry Jones. This was about business. ESPN needs to let that be known at some point.