I’ve watched the N.F.L. on ESPN for more than 20 years in part because I grew up with the kind of father who pretty much refused to talk to me until I showed interest in the game. One Sunday when I was 12, I parked myself on the couch next to him, and because we were watching Brett Favre, I asked him what an interception was. “When you throw it to the other team,” Dad said. That quarterback would go on to set the N.F.L. record for passing interceptions.
On Monday, ESPN issued a two-week suspension to Jemele Hill, a tough, opinionated black woman who anchors “SportsCenter,” because she violated the network’s social-media guidelines. The night before, the Dallas Cowboys’ owner, Jerry Jones, had said that if any of his players were “disrespectful” of the flag, they wouldn’t play. Hill noted on Twitter that this puts his black players in a bind: “If they don’t kneel, some will see them as sellouts.”
Then she remarked that Cowboys fans could boycott the team’s sponsors if they were dissatisfied with Jones’s position, instead of relying on Cowboys players to protest. Hill clarified that she wasn’t calling for Cowboys fans to boycott the N.F.L., but rather that “an unfair burden” has been put on players. (This wasn’t the first time controversy had arisen about one of Hill’s tweets; last month, she called President Trump a white supremacist.)ESPN’s decision to suspend Hill, whom it pays to express her opinions, suggests that the network might be scared of boycotts and that the Cowboys’ sponsors, as well as the network’s own, are more important than supporting the idea that black people might be people.
Let’s be clear: The N.F.L. players who refuse to stand for the anthem aren’t protesting the flag or the anthem; they’re objecting to the obscenely high number of unarmed black people brutalized and killed by police officers in the United States. When Jerry Jones says that players can’t be “disrespectful,” what he’s really saying is that black people are not supposed to complain that we are routinely killed by the police, even when unarmed. We are supposed to embrace the idea that our lives should not be valued, because floating the opinion that maybe we shouldn’t be killed for no reason might offend advertisers.
It’s also hard to reconcile ESPN’s decision to suspend Jemele Hill for not quite calling for a boycott with the outspokenness that ESPN prizes in anchors who are not black women, who say things much more offensive and only get a slap on the wrist.
Suspending Jemele Hill is the sort of desperate move ESPN undoubtedly hopes might attract more viewers, much like the network’s sudden decision not to allow an Asian-American broadcaster named Robert Lee to call a college-football game last August. ESPN’s subscriber base dropped to 87 million households in September from a high of 100.1 million in 2011, and the network has laid off more than 100 people this year in addition to 300 workers in October 2015.