The nation’s third-largest state is currently engulfed by 17 separate wildfires, with more than a dozen people dead and additional 100 in the hospital. More than 80 percent of Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, is still without electricity after Hurricane Maria devastated the island three weeks ago, and more than a third of the island’s population does not have access to drinking water. But the President of the United States, after throwing paper towels at Puerto Ricans, is tweeting vindictively about a cable television host he dislikes.
ESPN Sportscenter host Jemele Hill, who Trump spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders previously said should be fired for criticizing the president in a Twitter conversation, has been suspended for two weeks for violating ESPN’s social media guidelines for employees.
ESPN did not say exactly which of Hill’s tweets prompted her suspension, but it appears to stem from several tweets after Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones said that players who don’t stand for the national anthem — “disrespects the flag,” in his words — will not be allowed to play.
Before we go any further, here are some things to know about Jerry Jones.
From a 2011 Bleacher Report article titled “Why Jerry Jones is One of the NFL’s Worst GMs”: “Success is measured in wins and trophies and as of late, Dallas has neither.” Under Jones’ leadership, the Cowboys have been a consistently low-performing team. I don’t follow football, but know this is a fact because I dated a Cowboys fan and he was always in a bad mood.
From The Guardian in 2015: “Best case scenario for the Cowboys is that Jones still has all of his critical faculties, but is simply wrong about everything. That’s the best case. That he’s always wrong.”
From CBS Sports last year:
[The Cowboys] been the very definition of mediocre, compiling a record of 162-158 since that third Super Bowl victory.
All the money and all the star power and all the effort and Jerry still has not been able to recapture the magic, 20 years on. The Cowboys finally are beginning to build through the draft again, but that strategy has only taken hold in recent years as Jerry’s son Stephen and top personnel man Will McClay have taken on more power. Jerry had tried and tried and tried to buy his way to another Super Bowl for years before ceding some control over the last few seasons. He was unsuccessful.
And in Rolling Stone in 2014, Jeb Lund declared him the fourth worst owner in sports — all sports, not just the NFL. The only NFL owner Lund deemed worse was Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington team whose name is a racial slur.
So that’s Jerry Jones. Jemele Hill, on the other hand, is revered by Cam’ron, former President Barack Obama and even athletes she’s criticized, such as Kobe Bryant.
One of Hill’s first tweets on the issue lamented that Jones had “create[d] a problem for his players, specifically the black ones. If they don’t kneel, some will see them as sellouts.” In a follow-up, she wrote, “Jerry has turned this into them choosing football over the community they represent and that isn’t right.”
As a reminder, black athletes are kneeling during the anthem as part of a long history of public protest in sports. They are not protesting the flag, or veterans. They are calling attention to ongoing systemic racial injustice in a country that is fundamentally based in a belief in the power of protest, of speaking out, and of being self-correcting. Our system of government is built on amendments — self-corrections. Our Constitution was written to be a living document, to improve with us, as we strive to become a better and more just nation.
As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote in defense of Colin Kaepernick, the first player to refuse to stand for the anthem:
“What should horrify Americans is not Kaepernick’s choice to remain seated during the national anthem, but that nearly 50 years after [Muhammad] Ali was banned from boxing for his stance and Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ raised fists caused public ostracization and numerous death threats, we still need to call attention to the same racial inequities. Failure to fix this problem is what’s really un-American here.”
Including “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a part of sporting events has an interesting and fraught century-long history in this country (see ESPN and The Washington Post for background). In 2015, war hawk Sen. John McCain criticized the Pentagon for funneling money into sports franchises for “paid patriotism.”
But the protest itself is secondary to Hill’s suspension. It’s accurate that the right to free speech is not a right to consequence-free speech, though Sports Illustrated writer Michael McCann noted that ESPN is based in Connecticut, where a state law extends that protection to people in the workplace.
The question is whether she called for a boycott. Her tweets don’t bear out that accusation. She was responding to people asking what could be done in response to Jones’ decree, and she rightly pointed out that fan boycotts would be more powerful than player ones.
“If the rationale behind JJ’s stance is keeping the fanbase happy, make him see that he is underestimated how all of his fanbase feels,” she pointed out, logically.
We’ve seen the power of “Grab Your Wallet” protests over and over, so her tweet pointing out that those who still want to watch Cowboys games (hi, ex-boyfriend) could not patronize the team’s advertisers is, again, based in logic.
The next day, Hill even tweeted explicitly, “Just so we’re clear, I’m not advocating a NFL boycott.”
Detractors of Hill are aplenty, especially on social media, which ESPN overly relies on to guide its content, according to Bryan Curtis’ profile of Hill in The Ringer last month. (“Twitter is now the de facto coordinating producer of ESPN’s daytime lineup,” Curtis wrote.) So it’s hard not to see Hill’s suspension as anything other than indulging angry sports fans who can’t handle a black woman speaking her mind.
But she also has defenders, and they’re not happy either.
And arguably, Hill hasn’t violated ESPN’s standards. As their own ombudsman specified earlier this year, public neutrality is expected of the company’s hard news reporters — not sportscasters.
Also, while Hill sits at home, ESPN is bringing back Hank Williams, Jr., six years after he compared Obama to Hitler.
In her own words, here’s what Hill has said about people who tell her to “stick to sports”:
Also, if you’re going to come at me with the Mike Ditka argument that there has been “no oppression in the last 100 years,” please remember that the Civil Rights Act banning racial discrimination was passed in 1964 (fewer than 100 years ago) and read this piece in The Nation.