Jemele Hill Knows What You Really Want to Call Her

Jemele Hill. (Rich Polk/BET/Getty Images for BET)

Are you a sports fanatic? It’s okay. Neither am I. Truly the only thing I know about ESPN is it’s a channel featuring 24 hours of sport shows complete with CNN-like graphics that swirl in and out and flash like an Atlantic City tableau (that, and nine out of ten men you meet have ESPN push notifications on their phones which make more alarming sounds than Amber alerts for lost children).

But stick with me here for a second, because something interesting is happening and we non-sports people should know about it. The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis recently profiled Jemele Hill, the SportsCenter SC6 co-host whom White House spokesdeer-in-headlights Sarah Huckabee Sanders publicly said should be fired after Hill described President Donald Trump and his supporters as white supremacists.

Yes, this is accurate. It is a statement of fact. Trump literally defended white supremacists who murdered a woman and beat a black man with poles as “good people.” He’s iffy on whether non-white people should stay in the country in which they’ve spent their entire lives. He doesn’t think Muslims should be allowed to visit. His staff couldn’t be bothered to correctly name in a press release a black congressman he met with.

Sanders is not alone in calling for Hill’s firing, though it’s undeniably outrageous for the government to call for the firing of a private citizen expressing an opinion. It’s especially notable that so much of the vitriol aimed at Hill is coming from a base that squawks endlessly about freedom of speech and their right to not be politically correct. Hill’s speech, of course, is not free to them. And why is that?

As Hill tells Curtis:

“There’s a certain crop of people who’s not trying to see ESPN get more ethnic, more gender-balanced …” Hill said. “As a discredit to all of us, they use words like too ‘liberal’ or too ‘politically correct.’ As if there’s ever been this widespread movement in television to just give black people and women shows. No, it’s been the exact opposite.”

She continued: “That term is funny: ‘social justice warriors.’ What are they talking about? … Whenever I hear that, I’m like, I know what you really want to call me.”

It’s no secret that ESPN is floundering. (See, for background, these two Bloomberg articles.) Much like newspapers, ESPN can’t seem to figure out how to adapt their cable product to a new era comfortable at viewing its highlights online and thus balks at paying for 6,000 channels just to watch two. ESPN is an easy target for conservatives looking for a win.

If ESPN continues its downward spiral, Hill’s detractors will get to point and say, “See what happens when you’re liberal?!” As one sportswriter friend of mine put it, it’s like picking eight nonagenarians in hospice care, deeming them emblematic of the conservatives, then when they die, shouting, “Look what happens when you’re conservative!”

As Curtis notes, ratings for Hill’s iteration of the 6 p.m. SportsCenter show are lower than they were last year, “but ESPN says the show’s audience is now young and more diverse.” Take it from print media: younger and more diverse is imperative if you want to survive the dying off of your older subscribers. (Sorry to be blunt, but this situation calls for some Real Talk.)

And yet, ESPN has decided Jemele Hill is not the hill they want to die on. They apologized for her tweets — which, for the record, weren’t sent out of the blue, but tweeted at others as part of a back-and-forth conversation. Hill wasn’t trying to become a public, political figure. She was making a good-faith attempt to have a discussion.

ESPN’s apology claimed Hill regretted the tweets, but she hasn’t deleted them, so we know who in this configuration has a backbone and who is being propped up by some papier-mached paper towel tubes (and, according to Lindsay Gibbs of ThinkProgress, ESPN tried to replace her with another black colleague during a broadcast this week until both the host and her co-anchor, Michael Smith, balked).

Curtis reports that ESPN’s Mike Greenberg warned Hill “that tangling with the nastiest critics is to risk — here’s a 2017 word — ’normalizing’ the hate.” That’s easy enough for Greenberg to say, as a white man. The hate women and black people and black women experience on the internet is normal. That doesn’t mean it’s good, or right. But it’s there, constantly, and to allow it to persist often feels like ignoring festering gangrene that’s threatening to take over your entire body.

Curtis describes how Trump’s presidency has forced black figures — TV hosts, athletes, musicians — into a position of public advocacy without their consent:

The effect that Trump’s election had on Hill and Smith is perhaps best described like this: It made two black hosts into actors in a national psychodrama before they uttered a word. And it made it inevitable that when Hill said exactly what was on her mind, her critics would hold that up as proof of what they thought about Hill all along.

“This election was about taking the country back from people like us, right?” Smith said. “And now, it’s like, ‘Dammit, I got to come home and watch these two?!’”

That’s depicted well in one tweet from Clay Travis, apparently the Breitbart of the sports writing world, a former Al Gore staffer who now seems intent on building a brand by currying favor with white racists. Curtis beautifully describes the tweet as a “burp of protest” in retaliation for hosting Gina Prince-Bythewood, director of Love & Basketball.

Yes, God forbid, your cable television safe space is marred by the presence of a “chick in a feminist t-shirt.” God forbid a (white) “dude” comes home and has to think about what his black peers think about constantly. God forbid your world is marginally less comfortable until the next commercial break.

We do this to black celebrities — and even semi-celebrities — constantly. Athletes, actors, musicians. “Stick to sports,” we snarl. Why? Why aren’t they allowed to have opinions about the world they occupy, the country they live in? To express them in conversation on Twitter, a public platform overflowing with opinions? What about enjoying the depth of their talent gives you the right to demand they not stray outside of it?

In any case, in Curtis’ piece, Hill gets the last word. “I would just like to know if he can generate any kind of traffic without ESPN’s name in his mouth,” she says of Travis.

Hill got her job after an arduous childhood with a traumatized, drug-addicted mother and a lot of hard work in an industry that rejected her repeatedly. If ESPN is smart and wants to stave off its current malaise, it’ll wise up and throw the full force of their weight behind a woman who commands this reaction when she’s out in the world:

At this year’s NBA All-Star Weekend, Hill and her boyfriend — a Michigan State alum whose identity she asked me to protect — were walking down Bourbon Street in New Orleans. The rapper Cam’ron was standing on a balcony above them. Cam’ron flashed six fingers, a nod to SC6, and invited them up. Cam’ron asked Hill when she and Smith were going to do a parody of Paid in Full.

Barack Obama is a Hill super-fan. In 2015, when Hill and her boyfriend arrived at the White House’s holiday media party, Obama exclaimed, “Finally, someone I know!” He and Hill fell into such a deep conversation that Hill’s boyfriend wondered if she was flirting with the president. Kobe Bryant, whom Hill once lambasted for his comments about Trayvon Martin, now calls her “Sports Oprah.”

Hill’s co-host Smith has perhaps the best advice for ESPN:

“If we struggle in any area with SportsCenter, it’s because we’re still trying to be all things to all people,” Smith said. “We’re trying to keep that person that’s just not gonna be kept, no matter how hard we try, in 2017. And we gotta let go of that. We gotta just be Michael and Jemele.”

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