Don’t Stick to Sports: Jemele Hill, ESPN and Our Perverted Media Culture

Politics Features Jemele Hill
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Don’t Stick to Sports: Jemele Hill, ESPN and Our Perverted Media Culture

ESPN has taken a lot of heat from conservatives lately. The cable giant altered its content to inject more politics and culture into some of its coverage, and they largely skew liberal. Not because of some nefarious plot to indoctrinate all of us sports-loving Americans into Obama’s FEMA Jade Helm Internment Camps, but because the conglomerate wants to make money, and the most coveted demographic for advertisers skews liberal. If 70% of millennials read Infowars every day, ESPN would lead with stories about how Adam Silver and Roger Goodell are lizard people sent here from the GLOBALIST palace on Mars in order to merge the NBA and NFL into one ubersport, all while interning the rest of us sports-loving Americans into Obama’s FEMA Jade Helm Internment Camps.

If you’re wondering what this is all about, Shane Ryan wrote a great summary yesterday at Paste about the White House calling for Sportscenter anchor Jemele Hill’s firing over these tweets.

Because we live in a society where many demand equal representation of their ideas everywhere while simultaneously rejecting the notion that we live in an unequal system, we get dumbfuckery like this published on a blog that exists solely to make conservatives think that their beloved sports are trapped under a liberal siege:

Another prominent employee who also requested anonymity stated, “If I'd said Obama got elected because he was black is there any way I'd still be employed here? No chance. But Jemele can say Trump got elected because of white racists and no one does anything? They protect the people they agree with politically. They give them better jobs, more money, everyone can see it.”

Yes, anonymous ESPN employee, Obama's blackness and Trump's whiteness are exactly the same thing. Case closed. Time to go home folks. The experts are on the job. Column over.

Come the fuck on people. Can we at least have some of this discussion in reality before we all retreat back to our ideological blogospheres where trollfarmers pat us on the back, wipe our tears away and tell us that we're special? I realize that there is some irony in that statement given how consistently far left Paste is, but my Hillary Clinton-supporting existence amongst a sea of socialists is proof that diversity of (liberal) thought is a goal here at Paste politics. As we have become less trusting of the mainstream media over the last few decades thanks to their efforts aiding and abetting the consolidation of power, thousands of outlets like Paste have sprung up, filling the ideological gaps that the market is demanding. However, the problem with a capitalistic media model is that it delivers what you want, not what you need to know, and we are now living in the logical conclusion of that media environment.

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Sports and politics have always been linked. Perhaps the most beloved athlete in this country's history—Muhammad Ali—was as much of an activist as he was a boxer. He gave up his heavyweight title to stand for what he believed in, and there is absolutely no question that the same outlets currently deriding Colin Kaepernick would have ripped Ali for boycotting the Vietnam War. Social progress is only appreciated in the rose-tinted rearview mirror, and those blocking the highway in front of you trying to highlight injustice are just troublemakers. Progress is messy, and it's hard to see how much of our cultural advances in the 20th and 21st centuries would have been accomplished if not for the aid of sports providing a common area for all of us to meet.

I have a theory that the decrease in global warfare over the past century is influenced by the increase in the global popularity of sports. Sports are an acceptable venue for our tribal squabbles, and they are essentially a simulation of war. As I write this, my beloved Colorado Rockies are playing the hated Arizona Diamondbacks, and I am emotionally invested in the Rockies for no other reason than the fact that I grew up in Colorado. It is this tribal connection that makes the “stick to sports!” trope so stupid.

You want your athletes to stick to sports and solely exist as an android acting out your athletic desires? Then after you’re done telling Kaepernick to shut up about anything non-football related, in order to remain ideologically consistent, you must also demand that J.J. Watt return the $30 million he raised for Hurricane Harvey victims. After all, that natural disaster had absolutely nothing to do with sports, and therefore it is outside Watt’s purview of acceptable things to talk about.

Oh, so you don’t want J.J. Watt to give the money back? But you still want Kaepernick to stand up and shut up? Hmmm, it’s almost like your gripe isn’t “stick to sports,” but “stick to sports…unless it’s something I agree with, then you’re cool.” If that’s still your position, then you may as well tell J.J. Watt that you don’t see him as a human being, just a vehicle to accomplish everything that you failed to do in life.

Apologies for busting down the fourth wall there, but covering the hypocrisy of the Trump Era is starting to break my brain. You don’t have to agree with Kaepernick, and you have every right to voice your opposition to his political stance. That’s a sign of a healthy democracy. But when you make the case that people like Kaepernick don’t even have the right to speak up, you veer off the path of democracy and into authoritarianism. You’re not anti-fascist, you’re anti-their fascism. Which brings us back to Jemele Hill.

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She’s 100% right. There is absolutely no chance that any dark-skinned man or woman could have been elected president doing and saying the things that Donald Trump did. It’s laughable to suggest otherwise. Anyone calling for Hill’s head over a few tweets pretty much proves her point.

ESPN’s response was feckless, but to be fair to them, they put themselves in an impossible spot with their explicit pivot to sports, culture and politics in Hill’s 6 PM spot—and it’s hard to conjure up any response from ESPN that wouldn’t have received a hearty backlash.

Conservative ESPN employees should understandably feel alienated. Thanks to the mismanagement of the Linda Cohn ordeal (where they suspended the Sportscenter legend over a mild public rebuke to their pivot to politics), when you contrast that saga against Jemele Hill’s non-suspension, it looks like your employer is picking political sides. But the two cases are very different (Hill was commenting on politics, which is partially why she was hired to SC6, and Cohn was simply saying the sports giant shouldn’t be commenting on politics), and a media company as massive as ESPN cannot have one cohesive ideology. I’m reminded of what Charlie Ebersol, the son of NBC legend Dick Ebersol, told me when I asked him if he could ever envision a competitor to the NFL.

I think you’re going to see another one soon. Every 15 years, somebody seems to come along with enough money—the USFL in the early 80s, the XFL in the early 2000s—I think we’re probably due in the next couple of years. I know Tom Brady’s agent right now is trying to launch his own version of a league. At the end of the day, the NFL is so big that it becomes difficult to really create a product that all of its fans want. And also, it’s so mainstream that somebody who comes along with an appropriate counter-cultural movement I think will have a lot of success.

Hill was brought on with Michael Smith to provide youthful viewpoints in the coveted 6 PM Sportscenter slot, and with the directive to inject some politics into the show, it was always going to skew left because of who it was targeted at. It’s indisputable that young people are predominantly liberal. Conservatives need to either come up with a better way to convince us or deal with capitalism using that fact to try to make money. I can’t believe that I have to make this clear, but that’s where we are now: ESPN is a business—not a wing of the DNC—and not every ESPN show has the political lean of the 6 PM Sportscenter. The vast majority of programming on the network does actually stick to sports.

Demanding that Jemele Hill remain silent in the face of the events in Charlottesville is just another version of “stick to sports!” The fact of the matter is that there are a bunch of white people in this country who have no problem rooting for black success stories—where players elevate themselves out of poverty and into our television sets—but the moment they want to use this platform to help those still stuck in poverty, the “stick to sports!” crowd comes out with pitchforks and (tiki) torches.

I get the underlying premise of “stick to sports!” I deal with anxiety, and one way I’ve figured out how to release it is to channel it into sports—using them as a distraction from my day to day stresses. But that’s a privilege that I—a white man—have that say, an expecting mother watching Tyreek Hill does not. His assault on his pregnant girlfriend can never be removed from my memory, so for someone with the ability to experience that horror, watching Hill play is anything but a comfort. This is what the “stick to sports!” white dudebros either don’t get, or refuse to understand: inequality doesn’t leave itself at the door. Just because the game on the field is a meritocracy doesn’t mean the structure around it is. Sports are only an escape for those who are least afflicted by society’s ills—which is all the more proof that they serve as something of a discussion space for our cultural squabbles.

Ask yourself this: if you earned a platform that reached millions, would you use it to help people you care about? If so, why do you demand that others don’t? Something happened to American manhood post-WWII, and many of us literally can’t deal with dissent now (that, or I’m committing the sin of looking in the rose-tinted rearview mirror). I’ve been a sports junkie forever, and throughout the thousands of sporting events I have attended, I have met every race, creed and color. Sports allow us to talk with people we otherwise wouldn’t, and once you speak with someone face to face, you realize how often we all agree.

Except we don’t speak face to face. Our stratified media environment creates roving mobs challenging each other to battles in the Twitterdome. We spend most of our time inside echo chambers, so the moment we are confronted with a differing opinion, our instinct is to challenge the other person instead of ourselves. To quote the great Katie Nolan, “what matters to you?”

Literal tons of digital ink will be spilled over whether Jemele Hill was right or not (or more correctly, to what degree she was correct), but none of it is geared towards solving any real problem. The blogosphere has devolved into a bunch of outlets that simply farm people’s rage for clicks, and an African-American woman calling a white man a white supremacist is literal gold to the right-wing media. The White House followed that same media’s lead—publicly calling for Hill to be fired—and like always in these debates, we ended up right back where we started. Instead of considering the merits of Hill’s assertion that Trump would not be president if he were white, we’re arguing whether one of the largest conglomerates on Earth—a company that broadcasts in over 200 countries—has a liberal agenda, as defined by the narrow rubric of American politics.

You want athletes and commentators to stick to sports? How about you only talk about your day job, and see how much you like being put in someone else’s box?

Stick to spreadsheets.
Stick to waiting tables.
Stick to tech support.
Stick to driving trucks.
Stick to customer service.

Doesn’t sound so great in reverse, does it?

Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.

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