On September 11, 2017, ESPN employee and SportsCenter anchor Jemele Hill tweeted that “Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself with other white supremacists.” The tweet sparked a divisive reaction nationwide that included responses from White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Trump. Sanders called the tweet “outrageous” and a “fireable offense.” A short while later, Trump took to Twitter to provide his perspective: “ESPN is paying a really big price for its politics (and bad programming). People are dumping it in RECORD numbers. Apologize for untruth!”
The White House was not finished calling for dissenters to lose their jobs. At an Alabama rally on September 22, 2017, Trump turned his attention to the “national anthem” protests begun by Colin Kaepernick last year. Condemning players who took a knee during the anthem, Trump implored NFL owners to “get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he’s fired.” Demanding that fans boycott NFL games to stop the protests, he tweeted that players were “disrespecting of our Flag & Country” and that the “league should back the U.S.” For the second time in two weeks, Trump threatened an economic backlash for action that he views as antithetical to his regime.
While it is not uncommon to see journalists or athletes publicize their disapproval of a sitting president, it is far less common for presidents to directly respond. Accusing ESPN and the NFL of violating mainstream political views, Trump gave the companies one way to avoid boycotts and the wrath of his base. The companies had to fire Hill and the protesters for stepping out of line ideologically. In threatening drastic economic consequences to quell dissenting voices, Trump embraced a new strategy: using presidential rhetoric to force retribution through corporate entities.
Political and Economic “Redemption” through Scapegoating
By suggesting that ESPN and the NFL should fire their employees, Trump offers a path to political “purification” or “redemption” through scapegoating. In rhetorical terms, scapegoating is a two-step process: 1) the ritualistic “sacrifice” of a person or group and 2) the purification and eventual “redemption” of some larger entity. As rhetorician Kenneth Burke put it, scapegoating is “the use of a sacrificial receptacle for the ritual unburdening on one’s sins.” Rhetorical scholar James Jasinski elaborates that when a person is made to feel “guilty” for violating the social order, that person will try to redeem themselves “to ‘cure’ the social order—to cleanse it of guilt and achieve the state of social redemption.” By giving corporations like ESPN and the NFL ready-made scapegoats and calling for the scapegoat’s firing, Trump provides a means for corporation to achieve political and economic redemption.
In the logic of Trump’s narrative, Hill and the kneeling players poison the political ideology of their companies as a whole. In keeping said players on the payroll, then, ESPN and the NFL are “paying a really big price” by alienating viewers who may identify as conservative. His call for the companies to “apologize for untruth!” provides motivation to enact the sacrificial firing of their dissenters. Otherwise, Trump promises, they will pay in the form of viewers, and subsequently, financial security.
Trump also provides a path to purification and redemption—a means for these companies to “cure the social order.” Trump suggested that any NFL owner who complied with this request would immediately become “the most popular person in this country,” and achieve redemption with regard to his politics and the public’s perception. With regard to ESPN, Trump insinuates that if ESPN fires Hill, they will no longer be paying this big price. They will be purified and no longer at financial risk. In each case, Trump makes the offending protesters objects of potential sacrifice for the companies they are associated with. Trump suggests that these companies must fire their employees or the livelihood of their business will be in jeopardy.
The Implications of Presidential Rhetoric in the Sports World
By requesting that these companies turn their employees into scapegoats, Trump demonstrates the capacity to force political conformity and establish a culture of fear toward presidential dissent. In cases where he cannot directly take action, he can use his rhetoric to attempt to force retribution through other entities. His rhetoric has a sort of extended potential and even an extra-institutional quality. In these two particular cases, Trump is essentially using his rhetoric to blackmail ESPN and the NFL. Regardless of whether or not these companies do incur financial hardship, Trump has created a culture of fear regarding how private employees express themselves politically.
ESPN and the NFL have both recognized Trump’s rhetoric and responded. ESPN reportedly sought to remove Hill from her position on SportsCenter but found the potential for backlash from other employees to be too great. The NFL responded in less than twenty-four hours when NFL commissioner Rodger Goodell issued a statement that Trump was deliberately trying to divide the NFL community and culture. Goodell called the comments “divisive” and showing “a lack of respect” for the NFL and its players. Protests reached an all time high on September 24th when NFL players and owners locked arms, knelt, and stayed in the locker room during the national anthem at the beginning of their NFL games. Though these responses ignored Trump’s rhetoric of scapegoating, it is telling that the companies saw it as necessary to respond. The president’s megaphone exacerbated the situation and perpetuated the public divide.
From the moment Trump recognizes a controversy, his rhetoric becomes consequential and divisive. Fans become inclined to either side with Trump or to side with the protesters, and ESPN and the NFL are immediately placed in a paradoxical situation: if they comply with Trump they will lose viewers who oppose Trump’s ideology, but if they disregard Trump they will lose viewers who share Trump’s ideology. Countering Trump, Al Sharpton responded in support of Hill by arguing that firing her would represent a violation of the First Amendment. He suggested that ESPN would “face the wrath of a lot of us” and a potential boycott. No matter what ESPN and the NFL choose to do, they could incur financial backlash due to the nature of division stoked by Trump.
While Hill and the NFL protesters remain on the job, then, it is certain that Trump’s call for scapegoats represents a deviation from the norm in “presidential decorum.” It is abnormal for a president to use major corporations as leverage against athletes and journalists. At its worst, the strategy works to directly limit free speech. At a minimum, it places companies in a position that forces a political stance and threatens them economically. As citizens, we should consider ways to temper these attempts to threaten private citizens with the economic and cultural weight of the nation’s highest office.