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ESPN Suspends Host Jemele Hill Over Controversial Tweet


The sports broadcaster ESPN has suspended a high-profile host. It's the latest proof that political tensions are bubbling over onto the playing field and social media. NPR's David Folkenflik reports.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Here's what ESPN host Jemele Hill said in an essay posted at the news website The Root last month.


JEMELE HILL: Athletes have a lot to say, and they're going to say it. So my challenge to the stick to sports crowd is, what do you want me to do?

FOLKENFLIK: Along with Michael Smith, she leads SportsCenter Six. Both are African-American, and both have been encouraged by ESPN's executives to speak their minds beyond the field. Hill has spoken out on sexual assault by athletes, on restrictive NCAA rules and, in this case, on the reaction of University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh to his son's disclosure of his sexual orientation.


HILL: Now, I know we should be past the point of giving cookies to people for being decent human beings and just accepting people for who and what they are, but it sends a powerful message that a coach with Harbaugh's profile chose to be loving and encouraging.

FOLKENFLIK: For months, professional athletes inspired by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick have kneeled during the national anthem to protest police violence against African-Americans. Hill waded into those waters, too, sparked by the president's attacks on those players and his previous pattern of racially incendiary remarks. Last month, she tweeted, quote, "President Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself with other white supremacists." The episode sparked an uproar. The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, denounced her from the White House press briefing room.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: I'm not sure if he's aware, but I think that's one of the more outrageous comments that anyone could make, and certainly something that I think is a fireable offense by ESPN.

FOLKENFLIK: ESPN briefly froze, deciding she had violated its social media policy but that she wouldn't be punished. This weekend, Cowboy owner Jerry Jones said that players should not kneel, and yesterday Hill tweeted that fans angry at Jones should consider boycotting the team's advertisers. That made unwanted headlines all over again for ESPN.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: ESPN has suspended host and commentator Jemele Hill for two weeks after she tweeted about boycotting NFL advertisers.

FOLKENFLIK: ESPN is a business partner of the NFL, and they share many of the same advertisers. The network said Hill had violated its social media policy a second time. Trump tweeted, quote, "with Jemele Hill at the mic it is no wonder ESPN ratings have tanked." The tension has caused divisions inside the network. Some journalists worry ESPN must acknowledge the concerns of younger and more diverse audiences if it wants to appeal to them. Others cited the danger ESPN will alienate viewers by allowing its personalities to speak so freely off the air. Here's what Hill told The Root in early September.


HILL: Ask yourself, what are you going to be saying 20 years from now when you look back on what you said now because now is the courageous moment to have an opinion about it.

FOLKENFLIK: Earlier this afternoon, the NFL released a statement saying it believed everyone should stand during the national anthem. The league said the issue was too divisive. David Folkenflik, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S "APOGEE (RJD2 REMIX)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.