Remember Jemele Hill?
Wipe the cobwebs from the darkest corner of your memory banks, and the name may sound vaguely familiar. She was well on her way to becoming a household name just last week, which in our hyper-speed news cycle, is about two or three eons ago. So you’re forgiven if you don’t remember.
ESPN is probably hoping you don’t recall Hill, whose tweets calling Donald Trump a white supremacist prompted condemnation from a White House spokeswoman and a demand from the president himself on social media that the network apologize. The sports network issued a few statements making clear she had run afoul of employee guidelines but stopped short of punishing her, which only fueled the outcry from conservatives.
But it’s actually a shame that Hill is already fading from our collective memories — for her and for ESPN itself. The network has mistaken what looked like adversity for what her controversy actually was: a big, honking opportunity.
At this juncture, parent company Disney’s M.O. is likely to continue studiously avoiding ESPN doing anything political lest eruptions like the Hill tweets perpetuate the problem. Suffering significant subscriber declines, the network can’t afford to lose any more audience, so risking alienating Republican viewers is a no-no.
ESPN is probably hoping the hubbub around Hill dies down, returning her to the semi-obscurity of co-hosting the 6 p.m. edition of “SportsCenter.”
But ESPN won’t leave the doghouse that easily. Far before Hill ever tweeted, ESPN has been piñata among conservative critics for its supposed liberal bias. That’s not going to change even if Hill stays mum on politics for the rest of her life.
So if ESPN’s perception problem remains the same regardless of what she does, why not explore the upside that could come if Hill was actually encouraged to continue to be publicly political?
She could find that Trump begins obsessing over her on social media much the same way he did Megyn Kelly, whose own career got a significant boost from all the attention. Playing the part of his foil would not only help build buzz and ratings for “SportsCenter” and ESPN, but potentially make Hill a very valuable asset even well beyond the network, from a syndicated talk show to a primetime newsmagazine—and all within Disney’s orbit.
Instead of giving Hill a gag order, book her on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” where she can tell a fuller story. Get her more airtime on ESPN. Let her not only issue the occasional political tweet, but encourage her to go there on air. Turn her into a phenomenon.
When it comes to being political, ESPN is damned if it does or doesn’t. So why even bother trying to avoid the unavoidable?
“SportsCenter” may be hermetically sealed to be a politics-free zone, but a lot good that has done ESPN as its core franchise struggles to recapture its former glory. Maybe a little counterintuitive experimentation on air might actually help.
So let Hill get the Megyn Kelly treatment from the president. There’s no shorter short cut available for creating a star in our current crazy media environment than Trump choosing to hate you. Embrace it.