A Conversation with ESPN’s Jemele Hill

By Gabriela Knutson

How the successful sports journalists combine sports journalism, racial issues, and politics.

Photo courtesy of Gabriela Knutson.

Photo courtesy of Gabriela Knutson.

ESPN’s Undefeated host Jemele Hill hated herself for being the one to say it. At a convention for the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) a few years ago, she told a young African American man to get rid of his braids if a news director told him they were a distraction.

On Tuesday, April 3rd, the Delta Zeta Chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc at Syracuse University, hosted Jemele Hill in their annual speaker forum Truth Be Told.

“There was nothing wrong with his hair. Nothing,” Hill said, but added that sometimes you have to succumb to your company. “If a news director said it, and you’re trying to get on [the air], you’re going to have to change it.”  

Since she has been in the sports reporting industry for more than 20 years, Hill says she now has leverage to keep her own braids, but a young man with only one or two years of experience does not have that power. “There is no room in media, especially for people of color, to make mistakes,” Hill said.

Hill has an outstanding sports reporting repertoire under her belt. She began her career at Michigan State University, where she majored in journalism and wrote about the university’s football and basketball games for the Detroit Free Press. During this time, she also covered the 2004 Summer Olympics and the NBA Playoffs.

“I was a real journalism nerd, and I still am.” Hill credits her college experience for giving her a great foundation for journalism.  

In 2006, Hill began her debut at ESPN as a national columnist for their online website ESPN.com, as well as beginning to make regular appearances on television, including SportsCenter and other ESPN programs.

“When I was first at ESPN, a higher up told me that the moment you leave your house, you represent ESPN,” Hill said.

In her early days at ESPN, Hill learned that a career in media requires sacrificing parts of yourself for the first few years. Nowadays, she is proud to be able to discuss other social issues and create conversations about the African-American issues that she thinks are important to have. Now, she has leverage. Hill has begun to use her prominent voice to stand up for black rights.

In September of 2017, Hill gained national attention when she called President Donald Trump a “white supremacist”, and that he was “the most ignorant, offensive president of my lifetime.”

Shortly after, President Trump and his press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said her remarks were a “fireable offense.” At SU, Hill looked back at this moment last year and chuckled.

“My first thought was, he [President Donald Trump] spelled my name right. I was really impressed with that,” Hill said.  

Through these tweets, the sports anchor has become a prominent figure in Trump’s attacks on black sports figures, but she is not worried.

“If you’re a journalist and if someone at City Hall wants you fired, that’s a good thing,” she said. "If that’s their reaction, then you know you’ve done your job.”

Hill believes that Donald Trump’s presidency has fueled messages of intolerance and hate towards women, people of color, and minorities.

“It seems like he is supporting the message of America is not great, because we are here,” says Hill, mentioning that she feels marginalized and under attack, as if she doesn’t belong. “People are not afraid to express opinions that 5 or 6 years ago were off-putting or disrespectful.”

But Hill believes there is hope during this time under the Trump administration, because it has emboldened people to fight for change.

“Now, I sense and see an activation level that is inspiring. There are a lot of people activating,” Hill said. “Now we have a wave of athletes that want to be vocal, want to be leaders, the conversations has changed.”

Audience-member Malcolm-Ali Davis said Jemele Hill is an inspiration to others; she is inspiring journalists to use their platform for standing up for injustices against people of color. He was also impressed by the way she is pushing back against the idea that you have to completely separate yourself and your experiences from your work.

The anchor cannot separate politics from sports. She says she is terrified, traumatized, and struggles with being black in this country every single day. But that has only made her, and many other people in sports and sports journalism, more ferocious to fight back.

Her main advice to aspiring sports journalists is to choose the issues they want to fight for wisely.

“Know which ones are important to you, and say you know what, I’m going to go all in on this one. That’s how you’ll be more effective,” Hill said. “You need to be focused on one thing to really make a difference.”

Gabriela Knutson is a junior studying broadcast and digital journalism and geography at Syracuse University.