Jemele Hill at OZY Fest: I Plan to Leave ESPN and Won't Kiss Political Ass

Jemele Hill at OZY Fest: I Plan to Leave ESPN and Won't Kiss Political Ass

Why you should care

Because Jemele Hill 2.0 could be even more powerful.

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Jemele Hill will no longer stick to just sports. After 12 years at ESPN, the Detroit native — who appeared on OZY Fest’s main stage on Sunday — announced in front of a packed crowd that she’s making plans to leave the world of sports for life behind the camera, where she will focus on stories about race and gender.

Earlier this year, Hill moved from her role as host of the 6 p.m. SportsCenter on ESPN specifically to take on the issues of race and gender in sports at the company’s Undefeated platform. That move followed from a pair of controversial moments for Hill on Twitter, one in which she called President Donald Trump a white supremacist, and another in which she suggested the best way to have NFL owners hear fan voices on social issues was to boycott advertisers. That latter outburst netted Hill a suspension.

“Even before everything happened, I was already in the mindset of wondering what was next,” she says. She had planned to wait out her contract. But her suspension and the backlash “have made me think about it sooner and [to] plot out what the next 10–15 years of my life would be.”

As much as I’d like to tell you about Golden State’s latest game or tell you about why Jacksonville can win the Super Bowl, some days I just didn’t give a shit …

Jemele Hill

Hill and her college roommate recently started a production company last August. The next iteration of her career? Creating content behind the camera. “As much as I’d like to tell you about Golden State’s latest game or tell you about why Jacksonville can win the Super Bowl, some days I just didn’t give a shit because of everything else that was happening in this country.”

Hill sees an opportunity to give voice to underserved people, particularly women of color. Because Black women have “always had to take the back seat to everything, the fight in our community is about dismantling institutional racism” and ”we still have to deal with sexual violence and misogyny.” The problem though is that these issues are “never on the agenda because institutionalized racism are items 1-10.” She aims to change that.

Hill’s controversial tweets and subsequent suspension drew criticism from fans who insist ESPN carries a liberal bias and spends too much time on political and social issues. Hill regularly points out that calling for social justice or racial equality shouldn’t be a “political” topic but a human one. But Hill no longer has to worry about balancing the line between sports and politics, one that some would argue doesn’t exist in the first place.

“It must be nice,” Hill quipped. “There’s many a day I wish I could punch a button and just say, ‘I’m not going to be Black today. I’m not going to be a woman today.’” But she knows that’s a luxury she doesn’t have; she also says the sports crowd can’t understand that “it’s never just been about sports. Jackie Robinson integrated baseball 20 years before the civil rights act passed.”

Explicating the intersection of sports and race in particular drove Hill to national prominence going back to her time at the Detroit Free Press. After moving to ESPN as a columnist in 2006, Hill often tackled thorny issues in sports involving race, gender and politics.

Her star truly turned on the show His and Hers, which she co-hosted with Michael Smith. It resonated thanks to the duo’s chemistry, but also owing to their unique perspective and unabashed approach to topics not normally discussed on ESPN. That show ultimately led to her and Smith heading SportsCenter, an experiment that ended in just a year.

In 2018, Hill was named journalist of the year by the National Association of Black Journalists for her work at ESPN. “While there’s a part of me that’s excited about what the next 10–15 years of my life will look like, it’s sad for me,” Hill said about leaving sports behind. “I’ve only had two jobs outside of sports media. I ran a snack counter for the YMCA … and I delivered phone books in college.”

And would Hill ever run for office herself? She admits being approached but says she doesn’t plan to throw her hat in the ring. Politicians, she said, “kiss a little too much ass. That’s not my strong suit.”

Hill holds easily the largest megaphone for a woman of color in sports journalism. The tide of female opinion leaders has risen in the last few years with women like Mina Kimes, Katie Nolan, Kate Fagan and others taking up the mantle from Hill, Michelle Beadle and others.

Though her ESPN contract isn’t up for another two years, Hill says she may leave before then. “So much can happen, so many different factors. … I haven’t made a bad career decision yet, and I’ll know when the right opportunity comes my way because it’ll really have to be special to really leave the sweet spot I’m at now at ESPN.”

Though the precise track of Hill’s future remains a question, at the very least, she will soon be rid of people on Twitter telling her to stick to sports.

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