Keith Strudler: Apologize For What?

Oct 11, 2017

Here’s the thing about apologies. They’re not always genuine. A lot of times we apologize for reasons other than complete remorse. Like say you have kids, and you tell one kid he can’t play with his tablet until he apologizes for putting his dirty soccer cleats on his brother’s lap the whole car ride home from the game. That’s an apology of convenience, and bad parenting.  But regardless, apologies aren’t always truly authentic, but perhaps also self-serving.

Such may be the case for Jemele Hill, the ESPN sports television host that’s now serving a two-week suspension for what the network deemed inappropriate comments on social media. More to the point, she had been put on notice for similar behavior a couple of weeks ago. So this suspension came with ample warning, even if not universal accord. See, last month Hill tweeted out that Trump “is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/other white supremacists.” That raised the ire of the President himself, who – both personally and through his staff –said that Jemele Hill should be fired. Leave aside the absurdity of the President of the free world worrying about who works at a sports network.

While ESPN didn't technically penalize Hill for her comments about the President, it did react. With that, Hill apologized. Many suggested she didn’t need to, but given the public and corporate nature of her position, where her voice is also that of the world’s most vital sports media enterprise, that wasn't a viable option.  That calm lasted all but a few weeks, when just this week Hill tweeted about the ongoing controversy with the NFL, the national anthem, and increasingly Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. Jones has publicly stated that Cowboys that don't stand for the anthem won't be playing in the game. In response, Hill tweeted that people who disagreed with Jerry Jones should boycott companies that sponsor the Cowboys. In other words, hit Jones in the pocket book, where it matters. Such pressure tactics, if that's indeed what this is, aren't unusual in the landscape of sports. Only they typically come from activists, not broadcasters. And particularly not broadcasters who host featured shows on the network that has a multi-billion dollar contract broadcasting that very sports property you’re railing against. So say what you'd like about the suspension, but don't confuse Jemele Hill with Martha Burke, the activist who took on the Master’s golf tournament and their sponsors for the club’s arcane gender practices.

There's a lot of movement around the national anthem and sports. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has finally taken a more aggressive position, asking all players to stand for the anthem and perhaps find other ways to express their political angst. This is similar to the NBA, despite its assumed role as perhaps the most progressive of the major male professional sports leagues. Of course, comparing the NBA to the NFL is like comparing a castle to a subdivision. There's fewer players, and they almost exclusively inhabit the highest stratosphere of marketability and wealth. So NBA athletes can be more strategic while also having more opportunities for impact outside of those three minutes of patriotic song. If LeBron James wants to take a stand, he has endless opportunity to do so. That's less the case for an offense of lineman in Kansas City.

The issue here around Jemele Hill isn’t an about whether players should stand or sit. The issue here is what’s the role of sports broadcasters in narrating their professional and political landscape. There's been an argument about whether athletes and broadcasters should, as they say, stick to sports. Let's be honest, I've done this commentary for like 15 years, and I'm not sure I've ever truly talked about sports. So there is ample precedent for sports to veer into social issues. The question for Jemele Hill, and ESPN, is about mission. It’s not that Jemele Hill wants to talk about social justice with an edge of advocacy. It’s that she wants to do so while also hosting a sports program on a network that highly benefits from maintaining status quo. While advocacy might work in the stratified landscape of political media, it’s less effective on a sports network that essentially plays to the middle. So it’s not that Jemele Hill was wrong in her perspective. Her platform, on the other hand, not so much.

I could go on about how Hill’s use of twitter as a blunt tool of persuasion is both ineffective and counterproductive. Personally, I’d be more convinced by a well-constructed argument against the Cowboys owner than a handful of characters on a mobile device. It’s beneath the President, and to be honest, it doesn’t help Jemele Hill either.

I’m guessing in a couple of weeks, Hill will apologize again, and we’ll all move on. Now whether that apology is genuine – that’s another issue.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

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