ESPN on Monday announced it has suspended 6 p.m. "SportsCenter" co-anchor Jemele Hill for what the network characterized as a "second violation of [its] social media guidelines."
The action came the day after Hill fired off a tweet storm criticizing Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones, who in a post-game press conference Sunday evening had said that any of his players who did not stand for the national anthem would not take the field.
"The whole deal is political and incited by politics," Jones said after Dallas' 35-31 loss to Green Bay. "But let me be real, real clear: The thing that the National Football League needs to do and the Dallas Cowboys are going to do, is stand for the flag. We're going to do that."
Hill responded shortly thereafter, tweeting to her 768,000 followers that Jones' statements had "created a problem for his players, specifically the black ones. If they don't kneel, some will see them as sellouts."
But it was Hills' subsequent tweets that agitated ESPN brass. After suggesting that Cowboys fans could show their support for the players embroiled in the protest controversy by turning their backs on the team ("stop watching and buying their merchandise"), Hill proposed an advertiser boycott. "How about not patronizing the advertisers who support the Cowboys?"
When an ESPN Radio producer tweeted Hill back with a partial list of Cowboys sponsors (AT&T, Bank of America, Dr Pepper Snapple Group, Ford Motor Co., MillerCoors, PepsiCo), the "SportsCenter" co-host made her proposal more explicit. "Change happens when advertisers are impacted. If you feel strongly about [Jones'] statement, boycott his advertisers," she wrote.
Earlier today, before ESPN released a statement confirming that it had suspended Hill for two weeks, she clarified her earlier tweets. "Just so we're clear: I'm not advocating a NFL boycott," she tweeted. "But an unfair burden has been put on players…"
While Hill's call for aggrieved Cowboys fans to boycott the team's on-site sponsors wasn't designed to implicate any of ESPN's on-air partners, the brands that are among the most visible at AT&T Stadium also happen to buy an awful lot of inventory on ESPN. For example, Dr Pepper is a particularly unfortunate brand for any ESPN talent to target, no matter how indirectly, as the beverage manufacturer not only advertises in "Monday Night Football," but is one of the lead backers of ESPN's annual College Football Championship event.
Again, as much as Hill may have been advocating for fans to not purchase a Pepsi or a bag of Tostitos or a Coors Light or a Dr Pepper while attending a Cowboys game, ESPN simply does too much business with these brands to allow one of its on-air representatives to suggest that fans should act against the interests of said brands. Since football season began, AT&T has aired as many as 86 ads in various ESPN programming, Dr Pepper has ponied up for 82 spots and Coors Light threw down for 75.
ESPN naturally didn't address any of the sticky sponsorship issues Hill's tweets may have dredged up, saying in a statement only that she had acknowledged a month ago that her "impulsive" social-media outburst about President Donald Trump (she characterized him as a "white supremacist") had been detrimental to "her colleagues and [the] company. In the aftermath, all employees were reminded of how individual tweets may reflect negatively on ESPN and that such actions would have consequences. Hence this decision."
Hill's "SportsCenter" co-star, Michael Smith, is expected to sit out the two weeks she is sidelined from the show. (Update: Hill's "SportsCenter" co-star, Michael Smith, sat out Monday night's show, but ESPN sources said Tuesday that he would be back on the air for the next telecast. During the NFL season, Hill and Smith's show moves to ESPN2 in order to make way for the flagship's "Monday Night Countdown.")
ESPN has a history of benching talent who flout the rules or otherwise rock the boat; among the staffers who in recent years have been sent to the locker room for various infractions of in-house policy include Dan LeBatard, Keith Law, Stephen A. Smith, Tony Kornheiser and, most notoriously, Grantland founder and digital maven Bill Simmons. In September 2014, Simmons was suspended for going off on an expletive-packed rant about NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, calling the league boss a "liar," among other things. He then all but dared ESPN to discipline him. Six months later, his 14-year tenure at ESPN was over.
The latest uproar in the weekend soap opera that is the 2017 NFL season came on the heels of VP Mike Pence's seemingly staged walk-out from Sunday's 49ers-Colts game. The Veep said he left the stadium shortly after watching a number of San Francisco players taking a knee during the anthem.
The president has blasted players who have elected not to stand for the anthem, a crusade he initiated into a month ago, when he told a crowd at an Alabama political rally that anyone in the NFL who disrespected the flag should be fired.
"Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when someone disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he's fired! He's fired!" Trump said during the rally Alabama Senator Luther Strange. The crowd responded with cheers and an impromptu chant of "USA! USA!"