The nadir of ESPN’s failure with politics came in September 2017, when Jemele Hill, lucratively paid and newly minted co-host of a network family jewel, the 6 p.m. “SportsCenter,” responded to a Twitter troll by calling President Trump a “white supremacist.”
The White House jumped in, demanding Hill be fired.
It was fresh meat for critics to present ESPN as a left-leaning network. Hill clearly violated ESPN’s social media policy by going into politics and making it personal.
Even with those two strikes — it didn’t matter if Hill’s words were correct or not — then-ESPN president John Skipper had the rules on his side.
Under the same policy, he had once disciplined Bill Simmons for making fun of “First Take.” In the Hill-Trump case, Skipper made a statement by doing nothing.
It was noticed by employees and reported on every website imaginable. It further branded ESPN a left-wing outfit.
Skipper is long gone, replaced by Jimmy Pitaro. Pitaro again made it clear this week he never wants a Hill-Trump incident again.
“Without question our data tells us our fans do not want us to cover politics,” Pitaro said in an interview this week with the LA Times. “My job is to provide clarity. I really believe that some of our talent was confused on what was expected of them. If you fast-forward to today, I don’t believe they are confused.”
Pitaro declined to be interviewed for this column. ESPN passed on providing the precise data Pitaro referenced. But what is clear is, the Hill situation today would not be given a no-look pass.
While it is popular to make ESPN’s political question a black-white issue, it is more gray, and the real color at the top of the decision-making is green.
The issue at hand has many sides, and the reason it is so divisive is that ESPN employees and viewers can look at the same subject and see something entirely different.
For Pitaro, it is better business for ESPN to not be perceived as favoring one party or the other. Pitaro has shut down ESPN personalities’ political activity on social media. Basically, if you want the Disney check, follow the rules.
After Pitaro’s comments, Jay Crawford, longtime “SportsCenter” and “First Take” host, tweeted the thoughts of a mostly silent group inside Bristol.
“I ALWAYS avoided political commentary during my 15 yrs w/ ESPN,” said Crawford, who was let go at ESPN during the latest layoffs. “2 things shocked me. 1) So many of my colleagues couldn’t help themselves from weighing in on political matters. 2) That it took so long for a brilliant company like Disney to figure out it was horrible for business.”
Under Skipper, in the halls of Bristol, some on-air personalities discussed that it may be advantageous to be liberal and outspoken on social media to further their careers, according to sources. Republicans mostly kept their views to themselves.
While on-air ESPN mostly spoke about sports when it intersected with politics, the perception of it being a left-leaning network made it onto places like Fox News and Breitbart.
What Pitaro is doing is eliminating any gas on the Twitter and the blogosphere fire. So Keith Olbermann — who wrote a book called “Trump is F*cking Crazy” — can still be a “SportsCenter” host, but his social media feed has been focused on rescuing dogs instead of criticizing the president.
Under Pitaro’s leadership, it seems less likely ESPN would make a statement, as it did in 2015, to give Caitlyn Jenner the Arthur Ashe Award at the ESPYs.
Skipper opened doors that had been closed, giving minorities and women a larger platform. On what some might decide are political issues — like Ray Rice’s domestic violence and Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling — there were analysts with not-fully-heard-before points of view.
It was Skipper’s move with Hill and Michael Smith, though, that was the center of the right-wing media’s focus, who condescendingly referred to the show as “WokeCenter.”
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Hill and Smith, two African Americans, were given the 6 p.m. “SportsCenter” and allowed to somewhat make it their own. The ratings struggled.
The show was ill-conceived from the beginning because it asked an audience used to tuning into the traditional “SportsCenter” for decades to embrace an updated, opinion-based program.
It was format, execution and just a year on the air more than race or politics that ultimately killed the setup. The show wasn’t discussing health care or abortion. It was talking sports from a different angle.
Hill and Smith received matching four-year, $10 million contracts. Hill left in the middle of hers and is now at The Atlantic and has a Spotify podcast, while Smith has been sentenced to ESPN gold-plated purgatory, rarely seen or heard.
But who better to give the last word on the subject of ESPN and politics than Hill, the most polarizing person on the subject during this era?
“Those social media rules, which I clearly violated, were always in place,” Hill told The Post. “There were certain rules and guidelines that we were told to follow before Jimmy Pitaro got there. We all were aware of them. It may be a situation that rules that were on the books are just being emphasized more. This idea that ESPN is that different, I think, is a false narrative.”
Maybe so. But what is different is Hill is gone and Smith, for all intent and purposes, is as well. That’s all you need to know.