ESPN is Lost and so are We

ESPN ignited a controversy this past week with it’s handling of a situation involving Jemele Hill, a black woman who co-anchors the SportsCenter desk (The Six for it’s 6 pm slot) for the company along with Michael Smith, a black man. Ordinarily these definers might seem strange but we live in strange times. They are important because racism still exists and is bolstered by our current political climate.

Hill drew the ire of many folks, seemingly including her employer ESPN, with a series of tweets about our current President, Donald J. Trump. Not only do I invite you to read these tweets I beg you to read the entire threads because within these threads lie our collective truth.

In response to Hill’s tweets, ESPN, for some inexplicable reason, felt obliged to publicly reprimand Hill and disassociate itself from her tweets.

It’s difficult to imagine ESPN doing anything more completely and utterly designed to flame the fires of a non controversy than this statement. In response to ESPN’s statement, Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called for Hill’s firing. Trump himself would later demand an apology via twitter.

“I think that is one of the more outrageous comments that anyone could make,” Sanders said. “It is certainly something that I think would be a fireable offense by ESPN.” Sanders was hit with an ethics complaint for her comments.

Think about that for a moment.

A sitting president used the power of his office to call for a private company, ESPN, to fire one of his very public critics. This is the essence of totalitarianism. It doesn’t get more insidious. It doesn’t get more terrifying.

Hill didn’t say anything that controversial. These views have been expressed repeatedly since this nation elected our 45th president back in November of 2016. That Trump at the very least flirts with white supremacy isn’t particularly surprising either since his father had ties to the Klu Klux Klan, and they were both sued by the federal government for racial discrimination in housing back in the 70s.

In fact, Trump is so cozy with his relationship with white supremacy he immediately instilled Steve Bannon, driving force behind the website Breitbart, where white supremacy is peddled along with fanciful conspiracy theories, as his Chief Political Strategist. Eric Hananoki at Media Matters has an excellent breakdown and timeline of Trump’s long ties with white supremacy.

Why would Trump go after a black woman like Hill? This is a rhetorical question. The list of those who state truthfully and openly that our current president is a white supremacist and has surrounded himself with white supremacy is long and diverse.

For example, at the Miss America contest broadcast last week, a number of contestants, including Miss Texas Morgana Wood, called him out for his refusal to denounce white supremacy. 

It bears noting that just last week a bipartisan group of Congressional members overwhelmingly passed a measure requiring President Trump to denounce the white supremacists he has embraced (emphasis ours). They did this because our President has refused to condemn the rising tide of domestic terrorism and hate crimes by those who espouse white supremacy beliefs.

Yes Trump chose Hill, a black woman well known for her criticism of him, and with a wide platform to do it, to publicly and openly call for a firing. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and farts like a duck folks it’s probably a duck.

ESPN had one last chance to try and get this right yet failed miserably. In response to this attack, not only on the first amendment but on the very fabric of our national ideals, surely ESPN stood by the rights of its employee and defended free speech and democracy? No, it did not.

Via the website Deadspin (strangely ESPN did not tweet this via the ESPN PR account)

Here is the apology ESPN forced Hill to make.

Even more ominously, the ESPN saga didn’t end there as reports, including this one by ThinkProgress journalist Lindsey Gibbs, soon came out that ESPN tried to keep Hill off the air and only through solidarity with her co-host Smith and other black journalists, was ESPN convinced to allow Hill to return and go on the air that same night.

As if all this weren’t enough, James Brady, ESPN “Public Editor,” a man whose name and position was unfamiliar to me until he wrote this piece about la controverse, sounded off and came out looking ignorant for it too. In it, he makes a number of curious comments, and some astounding statements.

Throughout his post, Brady maintains that Hill’s comments are detrimental to the company, in fact, he seems to place the entire decline of the company’s subscription base at Hill’s feet. As if ESPN’s decline didn’t come about by bad business decisions, and overextending itself in broadcast rights when viewership changes in consumption were clearly on the horizon.

Cord cutters are a large percentage of ESPN’s subscriber losses but ratings for ESPN”s show remain strong. SportsCenter has never been and is not designed to carry the weight of ESPN’s empire yet Brady puts it all on Hill. He capped off his ill advised and poorly sourced column by bringing up an apology Hill issued almost 10 years ago amid an incident for which she received a week’s suspension.

Brady doubled down on his rhetoric via twitter (@ESPNPublicED) and in fact suggested it was the media’s fault for making Trump look like a white supremacist. He later walked back this position, as Aaron Rupar of ThinkProgress writes, but became so helplessly entangled within the web of his own bias that he retreated and has not been heard from since. 

Malcolm X once said a man who stands for nothing will fall for anything. The freedoms to speak the truth, to seek redress for centuries of oppression, and to hold our nation’s leaders accountable are among the most fundamental rights we own. ESPN abandoned those ideals in a search for validation that will never come.

ESPN has lost its way because it doesn’t stand for these principals. It doesn’t stand for it’s employees. It doesn’t stand for freedom of speech. It doesn’t know who or what it is so it tries to be everything to everybody. It lacks a discernible identity so it does dumb things like this. It hired a public editor to write about things he doesn’t understand in a way that evidences his biases. 

In that respect ESPN is much like the group it caved to. Much like ESPN Public Editor James Brady, a man who characterizes Trump’s white supremacy, and those well known and reported alliances, as opinion and not fact. A who praises Hill with one hand while writing that her voice will lose business for her employer, an opinion no where grounded in the fact he treats it as. ESPN is like the minions who screamed at ESPN over Hill’s comments while trolling her mentions with racist and sexist commentary.

Likability and labels (to borrow a term from Brady) has become our standard and on that broken weighted scale we place our most venerated and trusted ideals to weigh, measure and mete.

Freedom of speech. Life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. All the ideals that America professes to believe in. For those who stand for nothing except the power of their own white privilege, and the people that they like, these rights are inalienable and fundamental. For everyone else, they are commodities to be bought, bartered, exchanged and denied.

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