There is a pervasive narrative in the United States that sports and politics should not mix — that we should leave our entertainment unsullied by the hard work of navigating the often-taxing challenges of living together in society.
That inherently contradictory argument does not stand up to any kind of scrutiny. The birth of sports itself was political in nature — to pretend otherwise is to ignore reality. Nations came to the first Olympic games under flags of truce, and used the competitions to assert political strength over their rivals. Since then, while many have tried to obscure these elements of sports, its cultural history, impact, and relevance cannot be denied.
Debate over the separation of sports and politics reignited in a big way on Sept. 11, when SportsCenter host Jemele Hill tweeted, “Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists.”
Immediately, the internet exploded with people on both sides of the issue, either praising Hill for speaking truth to power or demanding that ESPN immediately terminate her employment.
Largely ignored by the folks who have called for Hill to be fired is that her statement is categorically true, for reasons that have been documented repeatedly since Trump declared his candidacy.
Hill’s honesty should not be dismissed as an important factor in the decision ESPN now faces to either retain or let go of Hill. In a time when false equivalencies dominate public discourse on a number of important topics, it is vital to maintain a commitment to the truth in all aspects of both public and private life.
The argument for Hill’s firing is the same one that was made when Colin Kaepernick first knelt for the national anthem, when many other athletes followed Kaepernick’s lead, when LeBron James wore a shirt reading “I Can’t Breathe” to protest the police murder of Eric Garner, or when then-President Barack Obama was booed at NFL stadiums across the nation during a pre-recorded video of his remembrances of Sept. 11, 2001.
The common thread between these and many similar incidents is that the folks who regularly call for the separation of sports and politics only believe in the separation of sports and a certain brand of politics — namely, progressive politics that advocate for racial, gender, and social justice, among other things.
Other strains of politics — particularly patriotism and nationalism — are perfectly acceptable to this crowd. I am willing to bet that most of those advocating against Hill do not bat an eye when asked to stand and place their hands over their hearts for the national anthem. They cheer when fighter jets fly over football stadiums to showcase military strength.
When former MLB All-Star and ESPN analyst Curt Schilling tweeted a transphobic image in 2016, we heard outrage from the anti-Hill camp — but it was directed at ESPN for firing Schilling, and not at Schilling himself for spreading hate speech.
That is naked politics wrapped in the ever-weakening façade of the conservative free-speech argument, which increasingly confuses freedom from censorship with freedom from being socially ostracized for expressing viewpoints that threaten the humanity of others.
Any claim, then, that outrage about Hill’s tweet is grounded in a deep-seated conviction to keep politics out of sports is hypocritical. The indignation is instead borne out of a profound sense of discomfort with truths that can sometimes be difficult, and a desire to have a space free of those truths.
Now, ESPN must decide what route to take with Hill. It appears, given that the tweet in question is now nearly two weeks old, that they will choose to retain her as an employee. However, they also have not indicated support for Hill in any meaningful way.
After President Donald Trump — in a bizarre move that quickly become the norm — demanded an apology from ESPN via Twitter, the company issued several public statements and ESPN President John Skipper circulated an internal memo regarding the incident.
“ESPN is not a political organization,” the memo stated. “Where sports and politics intersect, no one is told what view they must express. At the same time, ESPN has values. We are committed to inclusion and an environment of tolerance where everyone in a diverse work force has the equal opportunity to succeed. We consider this human, not political. Consequently, we insist that no one be denigrated for who they are including their gender, ethnicity, religious belief, or sexual identity.”
While ESPN is a private company and can create its own internal policy — within reason — its response to Hill’s tweet is less than satisfactory. If ESPN is truly committed to inclusion and tolerance, as they say they are, then they would join Hill in condemning Trump, who has spent the first eight months of his presidency actively encouraging white supremacists across the country.
Calls for Jemele Hill to be fired in the interest of divorcing politics from sports are both futile and misleading. As long as sports continues to be a social institution, it will also continue to be political — and that’s not a bad thing. If there was ever a time to reject political involvement, that time is not now. Athletes and other sports figures have an opportunity to engage with both the history of sports and current events in an important way — to deny them that opportunity would not be in the interest of a progressive public discourse.