ESPN's Jemele Hill (left) and Michael Smith.

Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports

Tomase: ESPN should encourage Jemele Hill to say whatever she damn well wants

John Tomase
September 15, 2017 - 12:53 pm
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Talk about a missed opportunity. Jemele Hill, host of ESPN's flagship 6 p.m. SportsCenter, took to the airwaves opposite co-host Michael Smith on Wednesday night and proceeded to discuss the red-hot Cleveland Indians.

It was a generic segment on a show that has struggled in the ratings, and it failed to capitalize on the reason curious viewers would've been compelled to tune in, because earlier that day, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders had rather shockingly called for Hill to be fired.

It all stemmed from Hill labeling president Donald Trump a white supremacist in a Twitter back-and-forth that drew predictably snowflaky caterwauling from the right-wing aggrievement machine.

Fox and Co. trotted out the usual suspects -- parking lot harpy Britt McKenry, old friend Curt Schilling, whatever Clay Travis is -- to denounce Hill and decry ESPN's liberal bias.

ESPN chose the path of gutless ambiguity, as colleague Alex Reimer notes, neither censuring Hill nor supporting her in the kind of craven response that desperately attempts to offend no one and thus ends up pissing off everyone.

"The comments on Twitter from Jemele Hill regarding the President do not represent the position of ESPN," the network's statement read. "We have addressed this with Jemele and she recognizes her actions were inappropriate."

One report claimed ESPN tried to pull Hill from the air and replace her with former NESN personality Elle Duncan, though the network denied it. But here's a crazy thought -- maybe ESPN should've not only let Hill stand by her comments, but given her the floor to address them directly into a camera.

The lines between sports, politics and culture have been blurring for some time now, thanks to Colin Kaepernick, the Big Schill, Adam Jones, Tom Brady, and Floyd Mayweather, to name a few.

Hill's opinion on Trump isn't exactly unique, particularly since he stubbornly continues to equate the white supremacists in Charlottesville to the forces united in opposition. Only one side murdered anyone or chanted "Jews will not replace us" on that particular day.

When Hill says that Trump has surrounded himself with white supremacists, she's not exactly wrong. Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, Jeff Sessions, Kris Kobach, Steven Miller, Mike Flynn -- all have well-known histories of stoking racial animus, and the Trump campaign effectively exploited white grievance all the way to the White House. To deny this is to stare directly into an eclipse and then be shocked when you're blind.

(This is probably a good time to remind our readers that a certain New York City real estate mogul once spent five years questioning -- erroneously, and without a shred of evidence -- whether President Obama was a Muslim. Calling Trump a white supremacist might be too strong a figure of speech by a few degrees, but birtherism is indefensible.)

ESPN should embrace that its correspondents have opinions that wouldn't survive the corporate sanitization chambers. If that means letting Sage Steele castigate Kaepernick or Hill sound off on Trump, so be it. Late at night, after the kids are asleep, maybe you could even make room for Schilling to rail about "liberal racism," whatever that means. Actually, check that -- a Hill vs. Schill segment might draw a few eyeballs.

The network is hemorrhaging viewers, however, and afraid to alienate the ones it has left. This is a fundamentally flawed approach to 21st century television, with forces well beyond politics causing cord cutters to ditch their cable packages. The idea that people are fleeing ESPN because of a left-wing bias ignores the difficult realities impacting various forms of infotainment.

And if ESPN is liberally biased? So what. Give viewers a passionate point of view and they'll respond. Keep giving them milquetoast highlights and inoffensive commentary, and they'll flip the channel, maybe for good.

Jemele Hill feels strongly about our president. She's not alone. Instead of muzzling her, ESPN should get out of her way and see what happens.

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