Sources Say ESPN Nearly Kept Jemele Hill Off the Air Following Trump Comments

By Sameer Rao Sep 15, 2017

"SportsCenter" co-host Jemele Hill and ESPN tweeted apologies for her tweets on September 11 and 12 criticizing President Donald Trump. The apologies came after Trump administration press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called for Hill to be fired. But anonymous insiders told ThinkProgress yesterday (September 14) that the controversy was much deeper behind the scenes—and it almost cost Hill her spot on the air.

Hill, who is a Black woman, posted the tweets below in response to opponents who jumped into a thread that began with Hill’s criticism of Confederate Flag-defending rap-rock artist and Republican Senate hopeful Kid Rock.

The subsequent apologies expressed remorse not for the content of the tweets—Hill referenced Trump’s response to last month’s violent White supremacist rally in Charlottesville and his earlier calls for the Central Park Five‘s execution—but for any suggestion that they could be interpreted as ESPN’s organizational opinion. 

Sources who are "familiar with the situation" told Think Progress that ESPN originally tried to keep Hill off the air on Wednesday evening (September 13) following Sanders’ remarks. The sources didn’t clarify if the decision was motivated by a desire to reprimand Hill or an attempt to let the controversy blow over, but they said that Hill’s co-host, Michael Smith, refused to do the show without her. Neither Smith nor Hill have confirmed this. 

The sources added that ESPN producers tried to replace Hill and Smith with two other Black on-air hosts, Elle Duncan and Michael Eaves. They also refused to take their colleagues’ place. Duncan and Eaves have not commented on the matter, but Eaves did post the following tweet Wednesday afternoon: 

The insiders say that ESPN relented and invited Hill back after confronting the possibility of replacing her and Smith with White co-hosts.

"SportsCenter’s" senior vice president of news and information Rob King refuted this version of events in a statement to ThinkProgress. “Yesterday was a hard and unusual day, with a number of people interpreting the day without a full picture that happened,” King said. “In the end, ultimately, Michael and Jemele appearing on the show last night and doing the show the way they did is the outcome we always desired.” 

“We never asked any other anchors to do last night’s show. Period,” ESPN spokesman Josh Krulewitz told ThinkProgress after the article was published.

Hill and Smith discussed the controversy, as well as other recurring accusations that they represent ESPN’s supposed liberal bias, in an interview published by The Ringer on Wednesday. "There’s a certain crop of people who’s not trying to see ESPN get more ethnic, more gender-balanced.” Hill said. “As a discredit to all of us, they use words like too ‘liberal’ or too ‘politically correct.’ As if there’s ever been this widespread movement in television to just give Black people and women shows. No, it’s been the exact opposite.”