SportsCenter Host Is Caught Up In The NFL's Free Speech Debate

Oct 10, 2017
Originally published on October 10, 2017 5:15 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Well, these are certainly politically-charged times for the NFL - for the players, for coaches and also the journalists covering them. Just take Sunday night. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said any player who doesn't stand for the National Anthem will be benched. A day later President Trump saluted Jones on Twitter for that stance, and ESPN "SportsCenter" host Jemele Hill weighed in as well. In a tweet, she suggested fans boycott NFL advertisers. Quote, "if you strongly reject what Jerry Jones said, the key is his advertisers," she wrote. By last night, ESPN had announced they were suspending Jemele Hill for two weeks. And let's talk about this with sports journalism professor Kevin Blackistone, who we should say occasionally appears on ESPN. Kevin, welcome back to the program.

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Thanks, David.

GREENE: So was - was ESPN right to suspend Jemele hill here?

BLACKISTONE: Well, going by their playbook, I think they were, simply because they said that Jemele Hill had violated the social media policy a second time. So she was in essence a recidivist. And this is something they've done to someone else. And Jemele, who I've known for years when she was, you know, covering college sports up in Detroit, admitted in a piece at The Undefeated, which is the racial-social-cultural site at ESPN, just a few weeks ago after her tweet that labeled Donald Trump a white supremacist...

GREENE: Right.

BLACKISTONE: ...Admitted in a piece that she'd gone too far and that while she was emotionally charged by this political environment that we live in, she has to know how to separate herself as an objective journalist from making those commentaries on social media which violate ESPN's social media policy.

GREENE: Yeah. You - I mean, you mentioned her comment calling Trump a white supremacist. And of course, I mean, ESPN has dealt with this before. They fired longtime personality Bill Simmons back in 2015 after he criticized the NFL for handling domestic violence cases. But I just want to get to this - you said that - that she recognizes the importance of objectivity. I mean, is - is there - is there some way for Jemele Hill to host a show like "SportsCenter" and let her personal views get out there? Is that just not - is that impossible?

BLACKISTONE: You know, it's a very difficult thing to do. On the one hand, Jemele has ascended to this very significant position on ESPN as host of a show that has become an iconic show. On the other hand, ESPN is living in the digital age, as with Jemele Hill and all of us, in which they have, I think, encouraged her to be very active in social media, to drive traffic to her show and to drive traffic to ESPN. And then on the other hand, they are very sensitive to the reactions of the public to what its personalities may say in social media space and how that may reflect on the brand of ESPN. So I think it's a very confusing time. ESPN has tried in recent years to get everyone to extend - to understand this tenuous position that everyone is in.

GREENE: Yeah, I mean, it's - it's so tenuous.

BLACKISTONE: Yeah. It is very tenuous.

GREENE: What is fundamentally at stake? I mean, if - if you have this moment when you have, I mean, a president calling for journal - for people to be fired. I mean, it's - and news networks trying to figure out, you know, how to make sure their journalists remain neutral. But - but - but also, you know, Jemele Hill's fans, they want to hear what she has to say. They don't want her silenced.

BLACKISTONE: She does, and they do. And I think they'll have to figure out some way to allow that to happen. What I would prefer is for Jemele, who has been a columnist before she was a "SportsCenter" host, to really unpack a lot of these things in a - in a way that we do as columnists, as she did at The Undefeated when she explained how she may have crossed - how difficult it was not to cross the boundaries when she labeled Donald Trump the white supremacist.

GREENE: Sports commentator Kevin Blackistone, who we should say is also an occasional panelist for ESPN's "Around The Horn." Kevin, thanks, as always. We really appreciate it.

BLACKISTONE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.