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  • SI's media column details the backstory behind many media members changing their Twitter avatars to support ESPN's famed anchor and breaks down the best and worst of Week 2's NFL coverage.
By Richard Deitsch
September 17, 2017

If you are a sports fan on Twitter, you might have already seen it: Over the last 72 hours a number of prominent African-American sports journalists have changed their avatars to the face of Jemele Hill. It is, they say, their way of showing support for the ESPN commentator and her First Amendment rights.

CSN New England Celtics reporter A. Sherrod Blakely, the Chair of the National Association of Black Journalists Sports Task Force, said that a member of the Sports Task Force suggested it to him last Wednesday shortly after he co-authored a statement released by NABJ in support of Hill's First Amendment rights on "on all matters of discussion, within and outside the world of sports." (For the backstory involving Hill, click here and here.)

Blakely saw the idea of an avatar change as an extension of support for Hill, and he informed his members that he was making the avatar change on his own Twitter page. “As some of our Sports Task Force members showed with the avatar change to her likeness or screen shots and/or comments on social media, there were a multitude of ways to show support for Jemele Hill and her First Amendment rights which was the message we were hoping to convey,” Blakely said.

I reached out to some of the journalists who changed their avatar, asking them to explain why. (Others journalists who have changed their Twitter avatar to Hill—and that has crossed over beyond just African-American sports writers —include Kareem Copeland of the Associated Press, NBA.com Editorial Director Gregory Lee. Jr. and New York Times best-selling author Jeff Pearlman.)​

David Aldridge, Turner Sports:
Jemele is a friend whom I support, both as a journalist and as an American citizen who’s entitled to express her opinion—just as ESPN is within its rights to establish and enforce its work rules as a private company.

Mike Freeman, Bleacher Report:
Really, to answer the question, you have to go down the Trump list. He launched a Muslim ban. He attacked Muslim Gold Star parents. He claimed an Indiana judge was Mexican and couldn't preside over his case. The Nixon Justice Department sued his company twice for not renting to blacks. He both-sided Nazis. He wouldn't denounce David Duke. He was the champion of birtherism. I mean, go down the list. Not to mention the covers of the New Yorker and The Economist portrayed Trump as a white supremacist. These are all facts. They are all facts that can, and have, led many Americans and journalists to draw a conclusion about Trump. Jemele simply stated an opinion steeped in facts. How she would get into even a hint of trouble is stunning to me. It's indicative of how women in our business are held to a double standard and black women, well, holy shit.So I changed my avi because we are a country deeply rooted in symbolism. And to me she is a symbol of simple truth telling and honor. And I hope she doesn't change one bit.

Clarence Hill, Jr., Cowboys writer, Fort Worth Star Telegram:
In an era where athletes are being encouraged to be socially conscious and use their platform to call out injustice, we can’t ask the media to stick to sports. Jemele Hill has been an important voice on social issues at ESPN. The company has promoted as such on panel discussions, forums and town hall meetings. She is committed. She is passionate about telling the truth in the face of hate on a daily basis. She should be supported and covered by ESPN colleagues and fellow journalists. On a daily basis.​

Kwani Lunis, social media coordinator, CSN New England:
The reason why I changed my Twitter avi to Jemele Hill's photo is because obviously #IstandWithJemele. My follow up tweet after posting a photo of me and Ms. Hill mentioned that people would consider my support of her as a political statement. This is not the case. I support Ms. Hill as a journalist and a role model, but that doesn’t mean I have to have the same views of her. The reality is this situation has nothing to do with politics. Yes, the President of United States was the forefront of the situation to the point where it was addressed during a White House press briefing. But Ms. Hill calling out the President had nothing to do with who he is as a President but rather who he is as a person. I actually just talked about this on my podcast, “The Official Review," I believe that the role of a journalist, whether it be in sports, business, politics, etc., is to share facts for their audience to digest and eventually form their own opinions. In this instance, Hill calling President Trump out was because as a black woman she felt as though the people he surrounded himself with, formed relationships with, and the rhetoric threatened her very existence which translates into what we know as ‘white supremacy.’ The ‘stick to sports mantra’ is played out and as we can see from the Colin Kapernick’s story or even the Banana Boat brothers’ speech during the ESPYs, sports and politics are going to overlap whether we like it or not. Ms. Hill took a subject unrelated to sports and right exercised her right to freedom of speech.

Jeff Pearlman, writer, Bleacher Report:
Honestly, I was horrified by the way ESPN left one of its top employees (a genuinely good person who works her ass off) out to dry. Back when I was coming up at The Tennessean, my editors made clear that they might be angry with you, they might be frustrated with you—but they’d never not have your back in a public dispute or outcry. They would defend you, stand up for you, stand up for your name.

Here, ESPN clearly gathered its worst PR people in a huddle and said, “We need to handle this and separate ourselves from her.” That REALLY pissed me off.

One more thing: It’s easy for some to dismiss a movement when only one group participates. If the lone people standing up for LGBT rights are members of the LGBT community, critics can say, “It’s just a bunch of whiners.” Same here. I can picture people saying, “Enough with the whining from black journalists.” Well, I’m not African-American. I’m a white Jewish guy—and I’m genuinely furious about this.

Oh, last point—and the most important point. I spent two years researching a USFL book. That means a lot of Trump. And, politics aside, Jemele is right: Trump is as vile and disgusting as she wrote. There was nothing in her Tweets that rang untrue.

Getty Images

Jason Mastrodonato, Boston Herald:
I noticed on Saturday that a couple journalists had done it, and while I had been meaning to comment on the story regarding Jemele (I’ve been commenting on important, non-sports related stories over the last 12 months or so, and thankfully work for a newspaper that, despite having right-leaning columnists on the political side, has a top-down belief that its reporters should be allowed to share their opinions), I hadn’t yet. The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of silently showing support by changing my profile picture.

I tried to be brief in my explanation to you here. I tried to keep it strictly philosophical instead of political, but it’s impossible not to mix it all. And that sums up exactly why these times we live in are so difficult, particularly for those of us in the public eye, and why I’m so infuriated that the highest office in the land would try to get a woman fired for stating what is so obvious and often admitted by people in the administration—that there are white supremacists in the White House. These issues are too important. It’s too difficult for us to watch sports all day—a dream job, for most of us—and pretend like nothing else is happening in the world around us. There’s too much going on. And it’s my belief that it’s completely irresponsible and dangerous for us to stay quiet in these times.

Silence is what the administration wants. It’s what any authoritative administration wants. Not to get all old-timey here, but there’s a quote that’s fresh in my mind from Shakespeare in Henry VI. A bunch of tyrants are considering their actions once they overthrow the government and take power. “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” Dick the Butcher says. Take out the people who can check your power. That’s how you get more power.

Journalists have taken over a special role in society right now. I think it’ll eventually fade, and we’ll go back to just being journalists, quietly doing our jobs with only a byline and the occasional face time on TV (depending on your job) to take us away from our keyboards. But right now, we are in the rare position of being able to check those in power. And many of us feel like we have to, even if that just means using our audience to share important stories. I don’t know Jemele, but to me she’s always been a role model. Few women get as far as she has, to the point where ESPN is carving out space to make sure her voice gets heard. Her words are powerful, thoughtful, honest and most importantly, fair.

One thing that journalists understand and prioritize is fairness. Even those of us who end up in a position where we’re transitioning from reporter to columnist, and thus are encouraged to take sides with our opinions, understand the importance of being fair. It's the priority always. If you look at Jemele’s comments, I don’t see any cheap shots here. What she said was fair. When you (Donald Trump) hire Steve Bannon to be your chief strategist and spend nearly a year making policy heavily influenced by that person, you are assuming responsibility for his beliefs and values. This is not a person (Bannon) who has tried to hide his feelings on white supremacy. It takes just a few seconds to find the Breitbart headlines that celebrate Richard Spencer, another person who is openly a white supremacist, or find the chain of stories he and his company tagged under “black crime.” He’s endorsed a book that repeatedly uses the n-word. The list goes on. It’s not like Bannon has tried to hide his feelings. He’s made them perfectly clear. I still don’t understand people who get offended when Bannon or Trump is called a white supremacist, because I’m pretty sure Bannon, nor Trump, doesn't take any offense to the title. They seem more than willing to embrace it via their actions, and often times their words.

Having worked in several corporate environments, I understand that sometimes you feel obligated to keep your mouth shut. I’m glad Jemele doesn’t. I’m glad her colleagues stood up for her when, if what I’m reading is true, ESPN was going to take her off the air. I’m glad we’re having this discussion because it’s important. Jemele is doing what’s right in a time when she has to, when clearly it isn’t easy, and when doing what’s right could cause her to lose her job (which would be ridiculous, by the way) and will surely cause even more angry/hateful people to attack her more ferociously.

Marcus Thompson, The Athletic:
I did it as part of the NABJ Sports Task Force's stance in support of her. But beyond our belief that she did nothing wrong, Jemele is my friend. And in all my years knowing her, I can vouch that the explosion of her career has proven to be a benefit to journalists of color, especially women, because she has made sure her success translates to an advantage for others. It would be shady if she went through this and didn't feel beloved.

THE NOISE REPORT

(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)

1. Here are 11 NFL media thoughts/reported items for Week 2 of the NFL season:

• CBS Sports Network NFL analyst Amy Trask discussing the firing of Bengals offensive coordinator Ken Zampese was literally the opposite of the bloviating mess we get too often on NFL pregame shows. This is how I wish every NFL pregame analyst did it:

Great idea from a quartet of ESPN producers (Features Unit Coordinating Producer Gregg Jewell; Coordinating Producer Matt Garrett; Sunday NFL Countdown producer Chad Minutillo and associate producer Gavin Cote) on a feature that ran during Sunday NFL Countdown on Patriots fans who left last year’s Super Bowl early. (Props to the Patriots fans—Matt Moran, Tim Ruffini and Joel and Zak Kornbliet—to put themselves out there on every NFL fan’s nightmare.) Cote said the story was conceived at an NFL features idea meeting last June after the group had read about celebrities leaving the game early. The producers believed there had to be some diehard Patriots fans who had left as well. That started Cote and reporter Jeff Darlington on the trail of finding them.

“We encountered tremendous difficulty finding subjects for this piece,” Cote said. “In June, Jeff and I put feelers out with a lot of contacts in the New England area, including bureau producers and Boston-based writers Field Yates, Mike Reiss and asked them to keep an ear out for any stories they might hear of. From there I uncovered a short article in a Houston newspaper from the night of the Super Bowl that interviewed fans from both sides who were tailgating in the parking lot. It included a short quote from Tim Ruffini saying he had left the game. From there I contacted Tim who informed us he attended the game with Matt Moran. After hearing their story we determined they would be great subjects—now we just needed to find a few more. A month went by coming up empty in various searches. We still really wanted to do the story and determined if we could get Mark Wahlberg on board (who left the game early because of his son falling sick), then we would have a big enough name to tie with our other two fans. Another month went by trying to work out a time with Mark’s incredibly busy production schedule, but unfortunately we just weren’t able to make anything work for various reasons.”

Cote continued.

“We turned to messages boards and even tipped our hand on Twitter. Still, nothing. We had always slated for this piece to air for the Week 2 Sunday NFL Countdown, but now we had reached September 3 and had only two characters and decided we were going to unfortunately shelve the piece. That’s when we heard from Mike Reiss. In late August/early September, Mike had recently attended a Shiva in the Boston area and, while there, ended up in a conversation with a couple of Patriots fans (Joel and Zak Kornbliet). They told him how they had attended the game, but left early. Mike then relayed the information to Jeff and I and, last Wednesday, the piece was back on, now with four subjects with incredibly interesting Super Bowl stories. We did interviews and shoots with each subject over a four-day span and then worked with an animation company this week to tell their story since there was a lack of photo or video documentation. So essentially after 2.5 months for a piece that was cancelled 10 days ago, at the 11th hour, we produced a piece we were all very proud of.”

• Line of the day from CBS broadcaster Ian Eagle during his fourth quarter call of the Jets-Raiders: “[Thomas] Hennessy will snap it, which actually sounds like a pretty good idea right now."

• Michael Vick came on Fox NFL Sunday to analyze Eagles-Chiefs, a segment where I learned as much about Vick’s NFL 40 time (4.3) as I did Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz. That of course fits in with what happens too often on network pregame shows: self-referential mentions of former pro greatness and bro-laughter on steroids. Vick did give viewers one small item of note: Alex Smith helping Patrick Mahommes during training camp. Of course, that’s not really news. Vick is still very new at this. If he’s serious about staying in this long-term, he needs producers to put him in spots to succeed, and he needs to tell us as viewers things we do not already know.

• I watched the first 10 minutes of the Patriots-Saints to get a sense of Tony Romo’s work in Week 2.  I didn’t see any transcendent stuff—Romo did perform some magic in the second quarter after I turned the game off—but even my limited viewing showed how prepared Romo was with his discussion of the Saints’ corners and how a quarterback attacks a defense. One trap Romo must be careful to avoid—the easy cliché. On Tom Brady at the start of his broadcast, Romo said, “He’s a special one. They don’t make many like him.”

• Really liked Romo’s description on Rob Gronkowski’s 53-yard touchdown against the Saints with 5:29 left in the first quarter. First, Romo gave the play a couple of seconds to breath immediately after the touchdown—always smart.  Then his description was solid. “Just a backyard play,” he said of Tom Brady’s improvisation. “He [linebacker Alex Anzalone] played him good. I mean, who has to cover for nine seconds like that? That’s not a real actual route.”

• I thought NFL producer Drew Kaliski did an excellent job Sunday putting new analyst Phil Simms in positions to succeed, specifically an end of the show segment when host James Brown asked Simms to answer questions in short form followed by the rest of the group commenting and mocking Simms’ take. Over the last couple of years, Simms was far better on Showtime Inside The NFL than he was as an analyst, and this format seems to fit his personality well. Asked by Brown if he ever made amends with his longtime coach Bill Parcells, Simms said, “He thought my first name began with an F and not a P.”

• ESPN producer Tim Corrigan said he thought Beth Mowins and Rex Ryan were good together calling last week’s Broncos-Chargers Monday Night Football game. “Beth did what every great play by play person does—she documented the action, told stories, asked questions, engaged her analyst and did so with confidence and a steady hand on the game,” he said. “This was the first game Rex ever called and he found a comfortable rhythm: when to analyze versus give opinion, when to project forward, when to lay out and how to handle replays all with his unique personality. It’s tough to come in and do this once, but he definitely has the ability.”

I’ve written previously that I thought Ryan really showed his inexperience during the game broadcast; he was not particularly insightful for viewers. That is often the case for rookie game analysts. He was much better Sunday on NFL Countdown where he had some room to go long when talking about defense.

• Fox Sports PR sent over a note late Sunday that passed along the company allowed markets to stay with bonus coverage of Dallas-Denver past 8 p.m. ET. By contract, the viewers who started with the Seahawks-Niners and Redskins-Rams should have been out by 8 p.m., but Fox says it waved that until NBC's kickoff at 8:30pm ET. Also, I liked seeing Fox let viewers know (via host Curt Menefee) that the Falcons-Packers game was airing on NBC at 8:30 PM. Viewers first there. Well done.

• The national viewership won’t be out for a couple of days, but I’ll be curious to see if Fox benefits from the delay in the Cowboys-Broncos game. The later the 4:25 p.m. ET game goes, the better the rating, traditionally. The question will be whether views stuck around after the delay.

• Props to NBC Sunday Night Football chief audio engineer Wendel Stevens for getting the theme of "Roundball Rock" cued up for a replay of the Falcons's first touchdown celebration

2. Episode 137 of the Sports Illustrated Media podcast features Evan Osnos, a staff writer for the New Yorker, whose latest piece from the Sept. 18, 2017 Issue is the titled “The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea.”

In this podcast, Osnos discusses his reporting inside Pyongyang; how he was able to get permission from the North Korean government to travel for his reporting; the real and perceived tension between North Korea and the United States; how Americans should view the North Korean diplomats who work in New York City; how forthcoming his North Korean minders were to him; whether he worked under the assumption that he was being filmed and his phone was tapped; how much anxiety he had on the assignment; how to report on U.S. intelligence’s data on the progress of North Korea’s weapons development; what North Koreans thought of Donald Trump; meeting children at the Pyongyang Orphans’ Secondary School; what it was like to wake up in Pyongyang to a Donald Trump tweet on North Korea; how far he was able to extend outside the capital; whether Kim Jong-Un knew he was there; what his first 48 hours were like in North Korea, and much more.

The second half of the podcast features a conversation with ESPN national baseball writer and Nación ESPN co-host Marly Rivera, and Sports Illustrated soccer and Latino sports editor Luis Miguel Echegaray. The topics include ESPN’s Sergio Dipp and Jemele Hill. On Dipp, Rivera and Echegaray discuss their reactions as Latino journalists to Dipp’s work on Monday Night Football and the social media coverage afterward; how Latinos in the sports media are portrayed and the challenge of working in a second language on television. On Hill, Rivera and Echegaray discuss her Twitter comments on Donald Trump; ESPN management’s reaction to those comments; and the climate for journalists of color in the sports media.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunesGoogle Play and Stitcher.​

3. After 25 years and 331 road shows in other locales, College GameDay is finally playing Broadway.

ESPN announced Thursday that its iconic traveling college football show will air from Times Square in New York City on Sept. 23.

The New York City-based show will be College GameDay’s 81st location. Along with the traditional preview of college football biggest games that week, ESPN said they will highlight college football’s New York history, which is robust given the great Fordham and Army teams of the 1930s and 1940s. Though an area where SEC is more likely to be associated with the Securities and Exchange Commission, New York has a ton of alumni from college football powers.

ESPN said the main set will be located between West 43rd and 44th Streets, parallel with 7th Ave. For those watching on TV, the backdrop will face West 44th street.

4. Non sports pieces of the week:

From Alice Gregory of The New Yorker: How do you live after unintentionally causing a death?

• Via The Marshall Project: After 20 years in prison for murder, she was ready to start a PhD at Harvard. Then the administration found out.

• Via Washington Post writer John Woodrow Cox: Almost two dozen kids are shot every day in the U.S. This 4-year-old was one of them.

• Heartbreaking piece written on LinkedIn: “Is your daughter okay?” 

From actress Amber Tamblyn: I’m Done With Not Being Believed.

• Via The Washington Post: Ending DACA will change thousands of lives. Here’s how it already upended one.

• By Lauren Markham of Pacific Standard Magazine: The Girl Gangs of El Salvador.

• From Frank Viviano of National Geographic Magazine: This Tiny Country Feeds the World.

The Trials of a Muslim Cop. By Rachel Aviv of the New Yorker.

• From The Atlantic: The David Carr Generation speaks

Sports pieces of the week:

• Via Tim Rohan of The MMQB: I Wore a Colin Kaepernick Jersey to an NFL Game.

• Via Graham Couch of the Lansing State Journal: Twenty-two years ago, my dad surprised me with MSU season tickets. A month after his death, the memories flooded in.

• From Rembert Browne, writing for Bleacher Report: I wrote a profile of Colin Kaepernick. I wrote an essay about America. 

• The Athletic SF columnist Marcus Thompson went to San Quentin with Bob Myers and the Warriors.

• Excellent work from the L.A. Times writer Zach Helfand: LenDale White and what happened after fourth-and-two.

• From Chris Jones of the New York Times Magazine: Can Baseball Turn a 27-Year-Old Into the Perfect Manager?

• Baseball fans: If you've never heard of Eddie Waitkus, it is an amazing story.

• This from The New Yorker’s Ian Crouch is excellent on ESPN.

From Fansided: Craig Hodges, Colin Kaepernick and the dangers of speaking out.

5. Sports Time Ohio’s broadcast of the Cleveland Indians’ 22nd straight win last Thursday drew a 20.44 rating locally between 7:00-10:45pm ET. That rating is the best for any locally-produced Indians game since August 14, 2001. MLB’s Illena Pena said that the game was the highest for an individual market in over a decade.

5a. The NFL Network had a big night last Thursday, drawing 8.1 million viewers for Houston-Cincinnati. That was up 32% over last year’s average for NFL Network-only games last season.

5b. Fox Sports vs. ESPN public relations wars continue to heat up publicly.

ESPN’s top-rated game was ABC’s Saturday Night Football featuring Clemson at Louisville. That drew a 3.3 overnight rating.

5c. Teddy Atlas was not pleased about the decision in the fight between Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin.

5d. Tremendous call by SEC on CBS voice Brad Nessler on Florida’s game-winning touchdown. “A Hall Mary, that is full of grace for the Gators.”

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