On Friday morning, the president of the United States brought his considerable idiocy to bear on the chief preoccupation of his White House tenure: people on cable TV who say things that hurt his feelings. “ESPN is paying a really big price for its politics (and bad programming),” Donald Trump wrote on Twitter. “People are dumping it in RECORD numbers. Apologize for untruth!”
This particular conniption, which came 40 minutes after Trump vomited out speculation about an attack in London, was noteworthy less for its preening ignorance than its choice of target. Earlier this week, SportsCenter anchor Jemele Hill tweeted that Trump is a white supremacist and “an unfit, bigoted, incompetent moron.” On Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that Hill’s comments—which professional troll Clay Travis amplified into a national outrage—were a “fireable offense.” Trump’s appropriation of that outrage is at once depressing and unsurprising. What’s more remarkable is that ESPN’s behavior has been just as dumb as the president’s. The Worldwide Leader’s mealy-mouthed reprimand of Hill and alleged attempt to persuade a black colleague to take her place on the air reveal the network doesn’t understand what it’s dealing with. There is no appeasing the likes of Travis and Trump, and ESPN needs to stop acting as if there are good arguments on both sides of this particular debate.
ESPN’s recent PR strategy calls to mind Homer Simpson’s plan to escape the inky depths of the Springfield Tar Pits: “First, I’ll just reach in and pull my legs out. Now, I’ll pull my arms out with my face.” Last month, Travis reported that ESPN had pulled an announcer named Robert Lee—no relation to the Confederate general—from his assignment to call a University of Virginia football game in the aftermath of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. In a memo explaining that decision, ESPN president John Skipper wrote that “there was a question as to whether—in these divisive times—Robert’s assignment might create a distraction, or even worse, expose him to social hectoring and trolling.”
This attempt to protect Lee and/or the network from hectoring and trolling, naturally, brought on an enormous amount of hectoring and trolling, with Travis and more sensible types accusing ESPN of comically obtuse political correctness. And fair enough: It was stupid to remove Robert Lee from this particular college football telecast, although it would be more accurate to characterize this as a case of silly corporate overcautiousness rather than promotion of a liberal ethos.
Travis, whose prose stylings and on-camera persona evoke Spuds MacKenzie humping an All Lives Matter poster, claims to have no political agenda. He says he just wants ESPN—which he calls MSESPN, in a “clever” nod to its supposed left-wing politics—to be consistent in its policing of political opinions. ESPN’s excessive liberalism, Travis and Ben Shapiro and now the commander in chief have said, has caused its sagging ratings. Forget cord-cutting and the broader decline of television viewership. If ESPN hadn’t given Caitlyn Jenner an award, and if it hadn’t fired Curt Schilling for comparing Muslims (all of them) to Nazi-era Germans and characterizing transgender people as subhuman, then the network’s subscriptions and Nielsen numbers would be soaring.
That argument is so clearly wrong that it has to be disingenuous. For Travis, though, bashing ESPN is good for business. No matter what moves ESPN makes, he will continue to mock and assail the network. Consider his response to ESPN’s initial statement about Hill’s tweets, in which the sports giant said, “The comments on Twitter from Jemele Hill regarding the President do not represent the position of ESPN.” As the Daily Beast’s Robert Silverman noted, “Travis twisted ESPN’s statement to his advantage,” claiming it indicated that the network actually approved of Hill’s message. This despite the fact that, as Silverman explained, “Travis wrote after Curt Schilling was fired by ESPN, ‘The idea that corporations should somehow be connected to the opinions of their individual employees’ on social media is ‘manifestly ridiculous.’ ”
Rather than call out Travis’ opportunism and defend Hill after Sarah Huckabee Sanders called for her ouster, ESPN concocted a statement that both defended the SportsCenter anchor and hung her out to dry. “Jemele has a right to her personal opinions,” the network’s second statement began—free speech is good!—“but not to publicly share them on a platform that implies that she was in any way speaking on behalf of ESPN”—saying controversial things out loud is bad! “She has acknowledged that her tweets crossed that line and has apologized for doing so. We accept her apology.” Can we all be friends again?
ESPN has not yet figured out that it’s impossible to placate all possible constituencies when one of those constituencies lives in a state of perpetual pique. Travis and his fellow traveler Donald Trump were going to figure out a way to be angry no matter what ESPN said or did. The decline of cable also represents a much graver danger to ESPN’s business model than whatever vanishingly small number of viewers might take it upon themselves to boycott SportsCenter because one of its hosts thinks Trump is a moron. Given those two facts, it would’ve made a lot more sense for ESPN to say that Jemele Hill speaks for herself and no one else, that the network supports her right to do so, and … that’s about it. Instead, ESPN called Hill out publicly and reportedly would’ve slotted another anchor into SportsCenter on Wednesday if one of her co-workers had agreed to fill her seat.
The Worldwide Leader’s actions in both the Lee and Hill episodes stem from fear of recrimination from the right. It’s a fear that’s motivated any number of this country’s august institutions. Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that pooh-bahs at Harvard overturned the admission of Michelle Jones, who’d become a scholar of American history while serving a 20-plus-year prison stint for killing her young child. A pair of American studies professors at Harvard flagged Jones’ file for the school’s higher-ups. The Times quotes one as saying, “[F]rankly, we knew that anyone could just punch her crime into Google, and Fox News would probably say that P.C. liberal Harvard gave 200 grand of funding to a child murderer, who also happened to be a minority. I mean, c’mon.”
C’mon, indeed. If Harvard didn’t want to admit Michelle Jones, Harvard shouldn’t have admitted Michelle Jones. Basing that admissions decision on the supposition that Fox News might transform her story into its outrage of the week is perverse. Here’s a thought on what Harvard could’ve done if Tucker Carlson ranted about a child murderer on campus: ignored him. ESPN would be wise to take the same approach. Reactionaries are going to shout themselves hoarse no matter what concessions are made. The scramble to avoid being that week’s target, then, is pointless and futile. The only winning move is not to play.
Hill, for her part, seems to have a much better understanding of Travis’ project than her bosses do. “I feel like he’s playing a character,” she told the Ringer’s Bryan Curtis in an excellent profile published this week. “I would just like to know if he can generate any kind of traffic without ESPN’s name in his mouth.” Thanks to ESPN’s own actions, it’ll be a very long time before he’ll have to figure that out.