Jemele Hill was on television Wednesday. She made her appointed rounds on her appointed show "The Six" at the appointed hour, like it was no big thing, like the White House press secretary had not just, a few hours earlier, called for her to be fired. She made no reference to the fact that she had been the centerpiece of American conversation for most of the day. She went out and did her show like it was nothing. The only time she even acknowledged obliquely what had been going on around her was at the end of the show, when she and co-host Michael Smith did their regular wrap-up "It Was a Good Day" segment. She smiled and said, "Hey, I had a good day." Amazingly, I actually believed her. It was really quite something to watch.
And seeing her on television was a reminder that Hill was not, and never was, suspended by ESPN. Late Wednesday night, Hill -- who was Topic A on Fox News most of the evening, with DACA and North Korea somewhere around Topic V -- released a statement on Twitter that seemed intent on allowing everyone to move on.
Hill, despite an official representative of the White House saying that she should be fired, is not only going to keep her job, she's not going to miss any work whatsoever. (ESPN released a statement that it had accepted her apology.) This has led to all sorts of discussion, some of it legitimate, some of it disingenuous, about ESPN's disciplinary policies. What gets you suspended? What gets you fired? What exactly is a suspension? A constant refrain from those angry at Hill's comments was "right-wing speech at ESPN is punished, but left-wing speech isn't." Is this true?
Drawing on my own research and the past work of others who cover media, we're going to try to categorize what makes up an ESPN disciplinary action, how it has changed throughout history and whether there's any sort of rhyme or reason to it. What makes up an ESPN suspension? How long do they last? Are they just making this up as they go? Let's try to sort things out.
A few things to remember before I start:
- Often, a "suspension" isn't a suspension at all. It's just a temporary ban on using social media, or even just one specific sort of social media. During Bill Simmons' Twitter ban, he kept posting away on Instagram and no one seemed to mind. This has never quite seemed like much of a suspension to me. Getting paid to stay away from Twitter for a week? Where do I sign up?
- Most ESPN employees are under contract, which means they get paid even when under suspension. Another term for suspension could be "paid vacation."
- ESPN doesn't always publicly acknowledge or announce its disciplinary actions, so there is no definitive database, nor am I suggesting there should be.
OK. Let's go through all the different reasons for ESPN's various actions.
Accused untoward behavior
ESPN is a big company and is going to have some employees who do some bad things that reflect poorly on the corporation and are, thus, disciplined for it. Some examples:
Suspension: Teddy Atlas (one month for getting in a fight with a crew member), Michael Irvin (one week for getting arrested for drug paraphernalia), Britt McHenry (one week for her rant against a parking lot attendant)
There are other examples, but these are difficult to comment upon because it's alleged bad behavior and the matters are mostly handled internally. It's a human resources issue more than anything else.
Criticizing fellow ESPN employees
Suspension: Tony Kornheiser (two weeks for commenting on Hannah Storm's clothes and also tweaking Chris Berman)
ESPN does not like it when the call comes from within the house. It's worth noting, though, that Michelle Beadle went after Stephen A. Smith three years ago, but Smith was the one who was suspended.
General poor taste
Firing: Gregg Easterbrook (for something he wrote for The New Republic about the violence in the film Kill Bill and the Jewish executives who funded it, though he was rehired a few years later)
Suspension: Rob Parker (30 days for calling Robert Griffin III a "cornball brother" for dating white women; ESPN ended up not renewing his contract), Bob Griese (one week for "joking" about a Latino NASCAR driver "eating tacos"), Brian Kinchen (one week for making a "gay" joke during a college football broadcast), Hill (one week for putting a Hitler joke in one of her columns), Stephen A. Smith (one week for arguing that women play a role in causing domestic violence)
Public disregard of boss' orders
Simmons went after Skip Bayless and Mike & Mike (which would also fall under the "criticizing fellow employees" banner). But of course his most high-profile incident came when he was suspended -- and ultimately left the company -- after his comments labeling Roger Goodell a "liar." Understand that such a suspension was never about Goodell: It was about Simmons being specifically told to back off, and not only refusing to do so, but actively saying, "I'm about to not back off" and then publicly disobeying his bosses, for what turned out to be the final time. You can argue that the bosses were being unreasonable, but you can't argue that Simmons was suspended simply for saying what he did about Goodell. People have a right to say these things about public figures, on ESPN and elsewhere. Either way: Simmons and ESPN were going to break up at some point; this was just a preamble.
And here's the point of debate. From what I can find, here are the people who have been disciplined by ESPN for what we might call "political" speech.
Hill: We're still talking about this one. There was no suspension: Just a (seemingly forced) apology.
Keith Law: Suspended from Twitter -- again: a vacation! -- for an evolution-themed Twitter exchange with Curt Schilling.
Schilling: Fired last year for social media posts about transgender individuals and Muslims.
Linda Cohn (not confirmed): Clay Travis, the sports world's Alex Jones, claims that Cohn was "told not to come to work" for a few days after her comments in April that "politics played a part" in ESPN having to lay off hundreds of employees.
ESPN would argue that these could easily go into other categories. I'm not sure I'd agree (Hill had clearly read and was referencing The Atlantic magazine cover story this month debating the notion that the president is the product of white supremacy), but the network might say that Hill calling the president a white supremacist is in "poor taste," just like Schilling's comments were. They also might argue that Law's suspension was not about politics, but about criticizing a fellow ESPN employee.
As you've surely noticed, there doesn't seem to be a rhyme or reason to ESPN's disciplinary policies. Serious issues get minor punishments, minor infractions cause major ramifications. As we saw with the Robert Lee case and the Hill one, ESPN is basing its policies on public opinion and pressure -- or, worse, perceived public pressure -- and it's causing them to sway to and fro. If I worked at ESPN, I'd have no idea what I could say and what I couldn't. I'd just have to hope I don't end up on the wrong side of some sort of Gamergate-like crusade. That doesn't seem like a pleasant place to be, but that's where we are.
It seems the only way to handle the situation is to be like Hill: Put your head down, avoid the noise, do your job and go about having yourself a good day. You can't control any more than that.
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