ESPN Supports Diverse Voices If It Can Control What They Say

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Yesterday, Jemele Hill, co-host of the flagship 6 p.m. edition of SportsCenter, tweeted a very obvious and uncontroversial observation about forms of protest. As part of a broader discussion about Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’s threats to punish any player who takes part in racial injustice protests during the national anthem at Cowboys games, she observed that football fans who wished to express their displeasure with Jones could do so more effectively by boycotting brands that advertise with the Cowboys than by merely declining to watch Cowboys games on TV.

This is like saying that the ocean is wetter than the desert. No actual human being who has paid the least bit of attention to the media or entertainment industries over the past few years would find it so much as counterintuitive, much less offensive. (Note, if you will, that this is just a smarter version of the course of action Donald Trump and right-wing chuds like Clay Travis have been prescribing for NFL fans who disapprove of the anthem protests. “Boycotts are effective” is not exactly a partisan take.) For this, apparently because some of the companies that would be impacted by such a boycott do business with ESPN, Hill has been placed on a two-week suspension.


(Needless to say, the choice to suspend Hill for this, on the basis that it freaked out the brands that do business with ESPN, only confirms the obvious and uncontroversial point she was making in the first place: Media companies are scared of advertiser boycotts!)

This is the second time in a month that Hill has used her personal Twitter account to share a factually defensible observation about the world, and the second time in a month that her bosses at ESPN have responded by arbitrarily defining that observation as troublesome and meriting of public discipline. Back in September, she tweeted that Donald Trump is a white supremacist, has surrounded himself with other white-supremacists, and is unfit for the job he now holds—empirically upstanding judgments she shares with a healthy majority of Americans (as well as, if the reporting is to be trusted, no small portion of Trump’s cabinet)—and was made to apologize for it. Each time, what she has crashed into is the dismal limit of ESPN’s much-touted commitment to diversity.


Here’s a fun quote from company president John Skipper, from the advertising upfronts back in May of 2016:

We’re highly focused on new and diverse voices and changing the way we look in order to reflect how fans look now.


I mean of course this was bullshit—you could do worse than “bullshit” as a single-word description of any media president’s job—but what’s worse than the way this was bullshit is the way in which it has turned out to be true. The word to key in on, here, is: look. ESPN wants to be seen as prizing diversity; it wants to look more diverse. It has prized diversity as a matter of appearance. What ESPN is less interested in is the kind of diversity of perspective and opinion an investment in the purely optical kind of diversity necessarily will produce.

A woman has experienced the world—news, sports, politics, life—differently from a man. A person of color has experienced the world differently from a white one. A gay person has experienced the world differently from a straight one. A working-class person has experienced the world differently from a trust-fund kid. Their perspectives will be different. They will have different thoughts about the news of the day, and different things to say about it. In a culture—a sports culture in particular—still overwhelmingly defined by and geared toward the tastes and prerogatives of a narrow range of straight white men, some of the thoughts and opinions from outside that narrow range inevitably, necessarily, will challenge the familiar ways of thinking about and talking about things, if not by the mere fact of their presence, then certainly by their actual content.


You might say, “Good! That is what makes diversity valuable in and of itself: It incorporates perspectives and ideas and modes of expression that unsettle the status quo and force the culture into reckoning with itself, and that is actively healthful and good.” More to the point, you might say that only a fucking idiot would not expect this to happen. By definition, a deliberate turn toward diversity is a turn toward something new, and something new kind of inevitably will, y’know, be new: It will roil the old things. Some of the old things will not like it. Like for example, the inhuman corporate machines that make their money off the way things already are.

ESPN, itself one of the inhuman corporate machines that makes its money off the way things already are, has no interest in that kind of diversity. In fact, as it now has demonstrated, it regards that kind of diversity—real diversity, the things people from different backgrounds will think and say because they have experienced the world differently from the familiar white dudes who have defined that company’s existence and therefore have a different perspective on it—as a threat.


All ESPN ever wanted was to have some black faces, brown faces, women’s faces, different kinds of faces open their mouths and let ESPN speak through them, so that it could congratulate itself for granting them the privilege. But behind those faces are real, actual, whole people, the mere fact of whom is inescapably radical and challenging in an environment as homogenous and corporatized as the industry ESPN dominates. See what happened when one of them gave voice to an idea, not even a particularly radical one, that ran even glancingly up against its interests and those of its corporate partners—up against the way things already are. It silenced her. It pulled her off the air altogether.

The flagship SportsCenter will air in Jemele Hill’s absence, of course. The machine can always find another face. It can look however it wants. But it only speaks with one voice.