Last month, SportsCenter anchor Jemele Hill called President Donald Trump a “white supremacist” in a tweet. ESPN released a statement saying Hill’s comments don’t represent the position of the company.
At the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit in Los Angeles, Bob Iger, CEO of ESPN parent Disney (DIS), said he needed to get involved in this instance, and ultimately decided that no action should be taken against Hill.
“I felt that we had to take context into account. Context included what was going on in America. What I felt, what we felt, was that there were a lot of people who were outraged, particularly black people. They felt that the promise that was given to them — liberty and justice for all — during the Civil War or Civil Rights movement — was theirs. What they’ve seen in the last couple of months is the opposite,” he said.
‘We need to take into account what Jemele and ESPN were feeling’
Particularly in the wake of the Charlottesville protests, Iger said it was vital to understand where Hill was coming from, even if he did not condone the message.
“It’s not only disappointing, it’s angered them. I’ve never experienced prejudice, certainly not racism. It’s hard for me to understand what it feels like to experience racism. We need to take into account what Jemele and ESPN were feeling during this time,” said Iger.
But, he noted that Hill needs to remember that she is an ESPN employee and “she can’t separate herself from that when she speaks publicly or uses Twitter.”
The conflict goes beyond Hill, as the tension between Trump and athletes has become a core topic of coverage for the network, says Iger. And, he understands the complicated position that ESPN employees currently find themselves in.
“We have a number of people [at ESPN] who have opinions that go beyond just sports. And we try not to infuse that into the coverage. We have not charged them to be more political or be politically leaning. But people on ESPN comment on them and, in some cases, editorialize on them…It would be silly to assume that if you’re covering sports, it would just be the touchdowns, field goals…it’s more than that,” he said.
‘I’m living the American dream’
Iger is bullish on sports not only because he owns ESPN but because they are the heart of American culture.
“Sports are an integral part of our culture, society and economy. It’s not just in a bubble where people put on uniforms and throw the ball around. It’s bigger than that,” he said.
Iger said that he would love for everyone to stand for the National Anthem, but he respects the right to protest.
“I’m pretty patriotic. I’m living the American dream. I grew up in a middle-class household and now run the Walt Disney company,” he said.
“I believe in the National Anthem and stand up when it’s played. And I think everyone else should. But we have to take into account what’s happening societally… and have a little bit of empathy, even though I prefer that everyone would stand for the National Anthem.”
Melody Hahm is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering entrepreneurship, technology and real estate. Follow her on Twitter @melodyhahm.