Hill controversy spotlights ESPN's double standard

Story highlights

  • James Gagliano: Hill is entitled to her personal opinions, expressed on her own time
  • ESPN's response to the controversy, however, shows a double standard, he writes

James A. Gagliano is a CNN law enforcement analyst and a retired FBI supervisory special agent. He also serves as an adjunct assistant professor at St. John's University in Queens, New York. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)No intelligent person can take issue with ESPN sports journalist Jemele Hill expressing her personal opinion, on her own time, via Twitter. We live in America, where freedom of speech is a constitutional right. So, let's stipulate that in a free society a grown woman can and should be afforded the opportunity to speak her mind no matter how offensive or inflammatory her take may be perceived by some. Let's also acknowledge that good and decent folks can come down on opposing sides of a debate about our current President.

James Gagliano
But that's not the main issue in the firestorm Hill ignited with a series of tweets describing the President as a "white supremacist," a "bigot" and "unfit" to hold the office. Once someone calls you a "bigot," or "white supremacist" as Hill did with the President, any protestation or response simply further smears you.
While I don't pretend to know with any certainty the politics of ESPN's management, there does appear to be a troubling history of double standards when dealing with the conduct of their on-air talent. ESPN's obligatory and desultory response to Hill's over-the-top Twitter attack on the President referred tepidly to Hill's words as "inappropriate."
    There has been no official censure or suspension. Termination? Not a chance, though there have been reports that ESPN wanted to take Hill off the air for a night.
    And Hill's expected apology/non-apology missed the mark. On Twitter, she laments how her comments might have impacted her colleagues and employer. She expresses no contrition about her smearing of the President.
    Hill's take on Donald Trump is one that is clearly accepted by many in the field of journalism. So when words go beyond the pale, much of the fourth estate sympathizes with what others see as reckless comments about an unpopular politician or position. That puts a favorable spin on the comments -- that they were "necessary" or should be part of a "broader conversation" which demands national focus and engagement.
    But this allowance does not appear to be evenly applied by ESPN, Hill's employer. The network has received recent criticism for what some see as its liberal slant. Critics attribute the channel's declining ratings to, among other factors, the perceptible infusion of politics into ESPN broadcasts.
    It's an age-old argument: If everyone you surround yourself with at work holds similar views and ideological leanings, you become dangerously susceptible to group think, which stifles creativity and the expression of opposing views.
    One of Hill's former colleagues at ESPN, Curt Schilling, was canned for making what could also be termed "inappropriate" comments about Muslim extremists, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and transgender bathrooms. He did so on his own time as well. Unlike Hill, he was a multiple offender. Also unlike Hill, however, he received a suspension the first time his social media behavior got his employer in hot water -- before being fired for speaking out of turn again.
    Hill, in 2016, even weighed in on the Schilling firing, defending his right not to have his beliefs suppressed, but then defended ESPN's actions, saying that "the values Curt Schilling was trying to promote didn't line up with what ESPN wants to be as a company."
    The question for ESPN now should be: Are Hill's comments who they want to be as a company?
    One could similarly question Tony Kornheiser's comparison of the Tea Party to ISIS back in 2015.
    Or ask questions about statements made by former New York Giant Jason Sehorn, who worked as an on-air analyst for ESPN once his playing days were over. In the wake of the Hill controversy, he has minced no words, accusing ESPN of counseling him to "tone down" his political aspirations. Ever since a speech at the Republican National Convention in 2004, Sehorn has made it clear he is a conservative. He has worked as a college football analyst for ESPNU since 2011.
    And Linda Cohn, an ESPN fixture since 1992, recently ran afoul of the network when they chose to punish her for publicly discussing the network's political bias, just days following Hill's derogatory remarks about President Trump.
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    Still unconvinced that ESPN has infused progressive politics into their broadcasts? Just tune in to any recent panel discussion about Colin Kaepernick and NFL players sitting during the national anthem. I'm an avid watcher, and I've found any robust conversation about the negative aspects of Black Lives Matter or Antifa sorely lacking.
    How about policing in America? As a former law enforcement officer, I think it's curious how many panelists uncritically mirror the position of some outspoken professional athletes who recklessly condemn an honorable profession and smear it as "racist."
    Jemele Hill is entitled to her off-air opinions about the President, just as Curt Schilling, Linda Cohn and Jason Sehorn were entitled to their own opinions on matters unrelated to sports. What's clearly unfair is the uneven handling of political speech at ESPN.