Dave Zirin is sports editor at the Nation.
My name is Dave Zirin. I’m a sportswriter. And I think Donald Trump is a white supremacist.
The evidence for this hasn’t exactly been faint to the eye. It’s not just the president’s reticence to criticize torch-wielding Nazis wearing MAGA hats. It’s the man’s public life, a 40-year stretch that has spanned from being sued over racial discrimination, to creating a political base by denying the first black president’s citizenship and legitimacy, to the histories of his most trusted advisers, to the pardoning of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, to having his economic council disband because the CEOs thought he was too soft on Nazis. Not exactly subtle.
My colleague at ESPN Jemele Hill recently observed as much on Twitter, calling Trump “a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists.”
That she was attacked on social media for saying so is not surprising. She is one of the most prominent media figures in sports. She is also a black woman in a medium that celebrates black bodies but privileges white, male voices. This alone provokes a reaction. And on ordinary days, Hill is a magnet for every racist, sexist sewer-dweller on social media. She also — to their joy and often rage — has a reputation of giving it right back. Hill was once a working-class kid from Detroit, and her strength wounds their fragility. She deals with racists every day whose Twitter bios pledge their allegiance to Trump and this time, Hill clapped back.
After an outcry from predictable quarters — Fox News treated her tweets with panic and fury more properly suited to a declaration of war — ESPN issued a public reprimand, which didn’t quiet the controversy but exponentially fanned the flames. It was irksome, but not shocking: Hill is co-anchor of ESPN’s jewel, the 6 p.m. production of “SportsCenter,” and was attempting to follow vaguely defined social media policies that encourage ESPN’s personalities to express themselves and build their individual brands but only within certain ill-defined limits. ESPN’s wrist slap, which has now included Hill issuing an apology for putting the network in an “unfair light” but not the comment itself, opened the door to something far more troubling. On Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked about the comments in a news conference, and Sanders, speaking for the White House, called for Hill to be fired.
It was one of many moments when we have been reminded that this presidency is far from normal.
Yet the optics were stunning even by Trumpian standards. No such demand for termination was made for David Remnick, the distinguished (and white) editor of the New Yorker, after the magazine published a far more damning cover in the wake of the Charlottesville unrest, featuring Trump blowing wind in the sails of a Klansman’s hood. In addition, the silence from conservatives who typically wring their hands over the power of “big government” was, with little exception, deafening when the White House came for Hill. These hypocrisies prove Hill’s point about who feels empowered, who is protected and who is on the chopping block in this era.
But it also wasn’t the first time the Trump administration has decided to interfere in the occupational life of a private citizen: In a March speech, Trump boasted about free agent quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s inability to find work after the onetime San Francisco 49er spent the last NFL season protesting racist police violence during playing of the national anthem. Speaking in the third person, Trump said: “It was reported that NFL owners don’t want to pick him up because they don’t want to get a nasty tweet from Donald Trump. Do you believe that?” I do.
The effort to silence these particular voices has a connection beyond Trump’s thin skin or the seething anger that he seems to reserve for black and female critics. Sports has become a central space over the past several years where the realities of racism are discussed with an overwhelmingly white audience. From the “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts worn by LeBron James and many other NBA players after the police killing of Eric Garner, to the WNBA protests in the summer of 2016 after the police killing of Alton Sterling, to the actions of Kaepernick and the similar protests they’ve inspired, this hyper-commercialized, brought-to-you-by-Nike SportsWorld has become a major hub of cultural resistance to white supremacy.
This change in the landscape is intimately tied to ESPN’s choice of Hill and her onetime podcast partner Michael Smith to be the faces of “SportsCenter.” It was ESPN reacting to a new zeitgeist as sure as the election of Trump can be read as a reaction against that same emerging consciousness.
That is why defending Hill is not just about standing with an individual in the face of a shocking statement by a press secretary. It’s about standing up for an emerging way of critically examining the world, a method facing government interference and suppression.
That’s tyrannical, and if conservatives stood on political principle instead of racial grievance and white identity politics, they would say the same. Defending Hill is not just about defending the substance of her comments or even her “right” to make them; it’s about defending anyone from the government’s efforts to use its awesome power to silence dissent. It’s also about defending the rights of people in the sports world to not merely be bodies or faces but fully formed human beings. Hill is one of many figures in the sports world who is willing to stand up against racism, but now she’s also up against a president’s efforts to chill that discussion to appease the most disturbing elements of his base, as well as his own psyche. If ESPN eventually caves to Trump’s pressure, it will be party to shutting down not only a vital cultural voice, but a growing consciousness among athletes, commenters and viewers about racial inequality in America, at the behest of an administration more comfortable building walls than bridges.