Column: The intersection of sports and politics is muddled

'Beyond the Lines'

The synergy between sports and entertainment has existed since time immemorial. ESPN paid homage to that notion when it was founded in 1979. The “E” in its name stands for Entertainment, which perhaps not ironically comes before “S,” or Sports.

Sports and politics have likewise had a symbiotic relationship, but since the advent of social media, that relationship has become even more pronounced. And once again, we need to look no further than ESPN to recognize that. SportsCenter hostess Jemele Hill took to twitter last week to issue a series of vitriolic accusations against President Trump, accusing him of, among other things, being “ignorant, offensive, unqualified and unfit to be president, a bigot, an incompetent moron” and most controversial of all, “a white supremacist.”

Hills’ tirade forced ESPN to defend itself against the inevitable attacks that followed, including one from the Twitter-in-Chief himself, Trump, who demanded a retraction. His spokesperson went further, alleging that Hill committed a ‘fireable offense.” By week’s end, Hill hadn’t issued a retraction nor was she fired. ESPN issued a milquetoast statement disavowing her comments and allowed her to continue her role as SportsCenter hostess, although one report suggested they tried to replace her but backed off when they feared it would trigger an internal revolt.

In their statement, the network said, “The comments on Twitter from Jemele Hill regarding the President do not represent the position of ESPN. We have addressed this with Jemele and she recognizes her actions were inappropriate.” That response generated additional criticism, especially from those who believe ESPN promotes a liberal agenda. While ESPN has repeatedly denied that charge, the reality may be murkier in light of the network’s checkered history on freedom of speech.

Last April, former All-Star pitcher Curt Schilling, who was hired post-career by ESPN as a baseball analyst, was fired for sharing a Facebook post about the North Carolina transgender bathroom law. “LET HIM IN! to the restroom with your daughter or else you’re a narrow-minded, judgmental, unloving racist bigot who needs to die,” the post said.

ESPN referred to Schilling’s comments as “unacceptable,” similar to their response following Hill’s rant which used the word “inappropriate.” However, unlike Hill, Schilling was fired. “ESPN is an inclusive company,” the network said at the time. “Curt Schilling has been advised that his conduct was unacceptable and his employment with ESPN has been terminated.”

The seemingly inconsistent responses from ESPN beg the question: “What’s the difference between the statements made by Schilling and those made by Hill?” The answer appears to be fuzzy, at best. Last spring, in response to a politically charged environment, ESPN issued revised political and election guidelines for its employees that, while allowing for political discussion on the network’s platforms, recommended connecting those comments to sports whenever possible. Neither Hill’s nor Schilling’s comments did that.

The new guidelines go on to say, “The presentation should be thoughtful and respectful. We should offer balance or recognize opposing views, as warranted. We should avoid personal attacks and inflammatory rhetoric.” Could either Hill’s or Schilling’s comments be considered “personal attacks” or “inflammatory?” Of course, but as with many journalistic policy questions, the answers are subjective.

Another comparison between Schilling and Hill: Schilling had previously been suspended for a social media post ESPN had also determined to be “unacceptable.” Likewise, Hill had been suspended for invoking Hitler in a column on the Boston Celtics. However, unlike Schilling, Hill wasn’t fired for a second offense.

Oh, and a number of critics also pointed out that Schilling is white and Hill is black, claiming their disparate treatment “proves” the network leans left. Whether you agree or not inevitably depends on which side of the political aisle you inhabit.