VCU’s Dwyer: Hard not to see a conflict of interest in ESPN’s suspension of SportsCenter host Jemele Hill

Brendan Dwyer, Ph.D.
Brendan Dwyer, Ph.D.

ESPN on Monday suspended SportsCenter host Jemele Hill for two weeks for a “second violation of our social media guidelines,” after she suggested via Twitter that NFL fans could boycott advertisers of the Dallas Cowboys after the team’s owner, Jerry Jones, said he would bench any players who kneeled during the national anthem.

Hill’s suspension follows a previous controversy, in which she tweeted that President Donald Trump is a white supremacist, prompting the White House to call for her firing.

Brendan Dwyer, Ph.D., director of research and distance learning at the Center for Sport Leadership in the School of Education at Virginia Commonwealth University, is an expert on the business of sport, and has taught sport marketing, business, analytics and law, as well as sport sociology, foundations of coaching, and issues in intercollegiate athletics.

Dwyer shared his thoughts about the situation, saying it is a difficult one for everyone involved.

“I think ESPN was put in a tough situation after Hill’s previous tweets about President Trump. This obviously led to increased scrutiny of her tweets going forward. To me, the three tweets on Sunday and Monday were less egregious but hit ESPN where it hurts most: the NFL and advertisers. The company is falling back on a personal conduct and social media policy, and I see it as serving two purposes: (1) it solidifies ESPN’s relationship with the NFL for which there is a $15.2 billion deal through 2021, and (2) it signals to other potentially outspoken ESPN employees that this policy has teeth. It is hard for me not to see the conflict of interest in ESPN’s actions. The NFL is big business for them.

Athletes have a platform to exercise free speech given the popularity of sports in our culture, and that will not change.

“From a broader perspective, spectator sports have been a site for political protest since the 1960s, and the conduct of our current president has incited further behavior among professional athletes. Athletes have a platform to exercise free speech given the popularity of sports in our culture, and that will not change. It is easy to take shots at the NFL and talk about declining attendance and television ratings, but the sport remains enormously popular. During the last week of September, it occupied four of the top 10 primetime network television spots according to Nielsen.

“For fans, it is difficult. We often watch or attend sporting events to escape political discourse that currently dominates our media. However, I believe as long as the current administration continues to engage and attack athletes, owners, and sports media through Twitter, the protests will continue. The frustrating part for many is it doesn’t appear the two sides are even arguing over the same thing anymore. To my knowledge, NFL players seek to bring awareness of injustice and police brutality. The President, however, does not like the protests and has [portrayed] their actions [as being] about the military. However, it is hard for anyone to have a rational conversation about it whether that is on Twitter, Facebook, or face-to-face because people are arguing passionately for or against different issues.”