ESPN did practically nothing after one of its top hosts launched a racially inflammatory diatribe against President Trump. But that wasn’t always the plan.
The network’s management initially considered firing Jemele Hill, the co-host of "Sports Center," according to several ESPN staffers speaking on a not-for-attribution basis. Then the brass considered suspending the African-American journalist, but decided against that too, the staffers said.
Next, management asked Hill to apologize. She countered by questioning whether she was being ordered to apologize for the Trump tweets or just asked to apologize. When told it was the latter, she refused, according to these sources.
Finally, ESPN tried to yank Hill from "Sports Center" on Wednesday night. But this effort failed as well, the sources say, as first reported by Think Progress. When her African-American co-host, Michael Smith, refused to do the show without her, and two other black hosts followed suit, the network gave in rather than using white hosts as substitutes. ESPN has denied this account.
The result is that both liberal and conservative employees are confused and resentful over the lack of clear standards at the network. In short, ESPN has escalated the outrage.
What’s also telling is the muted reaction of the mainstream media after Hill unleashed her Twitter storm on Monday night.
"Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has surrounded himself with other white supremacists," Hill wrote. She called him "the most ignorant, offensive president of my lifetime." She also called Trump a "bigot," and "unqualified and unfit to be president." And for good measure: "If he were not white, he never would have been elected."
Yet this incendiary attack on the president was not initially covered by the New York Times or Washington Post. It was not aired by CNN or MSNBC. (Fox News ran several prime-time segments on Tuesday.) It was not until Sarah Huckabee Sanders, from the White House briefing room, called Hill’s actions a “fireable offense” that much of the media swung into action. (A Post reporter asked Sanders the question.)
Now pause for a second, imagine a right-wing commentator making such an incendiary attack on Barack Obama, and ask yourself whether the MSM would wait for a White House response before jumping on the story.
And how did ESPN handle this? With a lame statement saying that Hill’s comments don’t represent the network, and that she’s been talked to and understands her actions were inappropriate.
Inappropriate? Using the wrong fork for salad is inappropriate. Is that the strongest word ESPN could muster for such scathing comments about the president?
There was no disciplinary action and no apology. And Hill doesn’t seem sorry either. She tweeted that she was expressing her "personal beliefs," and that "my regret is that my comments and the public way I made them painted ESPN in an unfair light."
Perhaps it belatedly occurred to Hill that half the people who watch ESPN don’t share her political views and watch her for sports analysis.
Hill, by the way, told The Ringer that some people don’t want ESPN to diversify:
"As a discredit to all of us, they use words like too 'liberal' or too 'politically correct'. As if there’s ever been this widespread movement in television to just give black people and women shows. No, it’s been the exact opposite."
ESPN’s own ombudsman, Jim Brady, has said the network leans too far to the left, quoting one right-leaning staffer as saying: "If you’re a Republican or conservative, you feel the need to talk in whispers. There’s even a fear of putting Fox News on a TV."
In 2015, ESPN protested Trump’s candidacy by moving a celebrity tournament away from his California golf course, saying "diversity and inclusion are core values at ESPN." The network also gave its Arthur Ashe Courage Award to Caitlyn Jenner.
Last year ESPN fired ex-baseball star Curt Schilling, a conservative, for a controversial post supporting a North Carolina law on transgender people and use of public bathrooms. And in the wake of Charlottesville, the network was widely mocked for yanking an Asian-American announcer from a Virginia college football game because his name was Robert Lee.
Maybe ESPN executives don’t care that one of their stars may have alienated millions of viewers with her racial attack on Trump. But this could turn out to be a major-league fumble.
Update: President Trump weighed in today on Twitter, taking a whack at the sports network:
"ESPN is paying a really big price for its politics (and bad programming). People are dumping it in RECORD numbers. Apologize for untruth!"