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ESPN's Jemele Hill On Race, Football And That Tweet About Trump

Members of the Houston Texans kneel during the national anthem before the game at CenturyLink Field on Oct. 29, 2017 in Seattle.
Jonathan Ferrey
Getty Images
Members of the Houston Texans kneel during the national anthem before the game at CenturyLink Field on Oct. 29, 2017 in Seattle.

One of the biggest stories in a year of big stories was the intersection of sports, race and politics, and it's looking like that story won't go away in 2018.

And at several key moments one of the people who seemed right in the middle of this story was ESPN's Jemele Hill.

Back in February, ESPN relaunched the evening edition of its flagship sports news show, SportsCenter, with Jemele Hill and Michael Smith as its new anchors.

The subtext was hard to miss: The dominant force in the sports media world was promoting two young, popular black personalities, known for their chemistry and candor, in hopes they might bolster sinking ratings by attracting a younger, hipper and, yes, browner audience.

And then all hell broke loose, as the sports world became one of the most contentious battlegrounds around race and politics. Professional athletes whose teams had won championships said they would skip the traditional White House meet-and-greet out of distaste for President Trump's rhetoric around race. And then came the massive controversy around the NFL, the national anthem, Colin Kaepernick and black players taking a knee to protest racial inequality and police violence.

ESPN's coverage came in for particular scrutiny: Was the network promoting a liberal agenda by covering the ongoing protests? Couldn't its anchors and commentators just stick to sports?

It was against that backdrop, and following the violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., that Hill fired off a barrage of tweets that landed her in serious trouble. In one, she called the President of the United States a "white supremacist."

A White House spokeswoman called for Hill to be fired and, later, President Trump lambasted her on Twitter. (There was plenty ofrancor among Hill's ESPN colleaguesregarding the network's decision not to punish her.)

About a month later, after the owner of the Dallas Cowboys threatened to bench players who protested during the national anthem, Hill took to Twitter again. She suggested that people who disagreed with the owner could stop patronizing businesses that advertised with the Cowboys.

ESPN suspended Hill for two weeks for violating its social media policy — a move that turned out to be as controversial and polarizing as anything else in 2017.

I talked with Jemele Hill last month about becoming a flashpoint in the culture wars, about the flimsy partition between racial politics and sports in this country and about where all this is headed in 2018. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

We want talk to about the biggest stories in sports and race in 2017, but I guess we kinda got to start with you. Because you've had a very interesting year.

To say the least.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, went on TV and said that you should be fired for your comments [on Twitter]. Where were you when you heard that? What were you thinking?

I was actually at work. We were putting the show together. And I have a couple of friends that cover politics, and one of them was in the White House briefing room. And she texted me. It was like, "You will not believe what just happened." And she told me. And I was, like, "What!?!"

And so I go to Twitter and it's everywhere. But my first reaction is still is my reaction — I thought it was kind of cool! I mean, I know that's going to sound bizarre to people. Look, when I came up in journalism I had the pleasure to be a lot around a lot of great journalists and people that I respect [who] take down public officials. And I've seen some of my friends who have had public officials call for them to be fired because they were upset about their reporting. For journalists, it's kind of a badge of honor, you know what I'm saying?

That tweet — calling Donald Trump a "white supremacist" — do you feel that statement is justified?

I think time and place are everything. And I don't think that that's necessarily an opinion to be shared on Twitter. I mean the odd thing about the reaction is — naive as this may sound — it kind of surprised me just because I wasn't the first person to say it. It wasn't like, "Oh my God, nobody is saying this!" I think it was because of who I am and that I represent ESPN and the SportsCenter brand.

That being said, people have to realize the timing of that. I was coming off of Charlottesville. Obviously, a lot of people in this country, not just me, were very emotional about witnessing a bunch of Nazi sympathizers and self-branded white supremacists taking over an American city. That's just something I don't think I ever would have imagined that I would have seen in my lifetime. That's something my mother grew up with, you know, as a child of the '60s living in Detroit and witnessing racial strife. That's not to say that I didn't know racism existed before Charlottesville, but I think it was just jarring to see it play out so physically and so obviously, I was emotional from that.

But there's a reason why they tell you, you know, when you're on Twitter and your emotions are running high — that's probably not the time to be on Twitter. So between that and just some other troubling incidents that I don't necessarily need to regurgitate because if you hit Google, you know they're there ... and you know, I just called it what it is.

I'm curious about where the line is for you now. Because at Code Switch we obviously tweet about race in America all the time, and we have to be careful in how we talk about race and electoral politics, for example, because they are so incredibly racialized, and at NPR we're not supposed be partisan. ...

That's why I've never tried to make it about parties — and for me it never has been. Because for me it's just right and wrong. That's it. I don't care what party you're with or what your political affiliation is. Even in legislation and policy-making, it's about, does this make sense or not? And so, for me, it wasn't an issue of attacking Republicans. It was issue of feeling that something was wrong, feeling that wrong is happening and reacting as a citizen of this country. And I think that's what makes this time so unique and so different and so sensitive for a lot of us who are in charge of delivering the news — and especially for me because I'm not a political reporter. Clearly. I'm in sports, all right? And it's being brought right to the doorstep of sports all the time. And so, I think what can be a struggle for us is: Where does the job end and where do we begin?

One of the things that's been really fascinating to watch over the last year is the repeated suggestion that there be a hard partition between sports and politics and that sports is a respite, and separate from the world of politics. But if you think about a sports story like theOakland Raiders moving to Las Vegas, for example, that story is about ... municipal politics. I'm curious as to how you think SportsCenter and ESPN should go about navigating these spaces that have always been political but are now very explicitly so.

The only thing different about it now is things are more divided in our country in general. That's the thing that makes it hard. Because even if you can even just do flat reporting about, say, Colin Kaepernick taking a knee, you're going to get wildly emotional reactions, and we're just reporting the news. We're not even weighing in, we're just telling you it happened!

Or telling you why he's doing it, which is our journalistic responsibility, to explain it in context. And so, people still get mad, and it's like, "All right, but it is just the news." It's the biggest story in sports of the year — you can even argue the last two years. And we would be journalistically irresponsible if we did not discuss it. And what I often do, I just remind them that politics has been everywhere in sports for so long that you've just come to accept it and didn't even realize it. Again, using the Raiders as an example: Any time a team gets a stadium built, those are built largely with taxpayer dollars. It has to be voted on, which makes it political, all right? And even the association with the NFL and the military. Flyovers are political. The anthem is political. The NFL was paid by the militaryto showcase certain military things. I'm not making a commentary on it, but that's part of the the story, too. It's funny how people pick and choose when they're OK with politics being in sports depending on how they feel about said politics.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the really unique position the NFL is in. Baseball has a television fanbase that is overwhelmingly whiteand its players are overwhelmingly white, although there is a sizable Latino contingent. The NBA is mostly black players and its viewership is mostly brown and skews younger. But the NFL, which is the biggest league by leaps and bounds, has a TV audience that is at once very white — I was actually surprised when I looked at the numbers — and has a median viewer age that is a little bit higher, in the low 50s. So you have this older, white audience while the player base is around 70-percent black. There's this unspoken, underlying demographic tension and it seems like watching the protests this fall and the reaction to them, that a lot of this conflict was probably overdue. I'm curious how you think the controversy around these protests will resolve themselves.

I don't think they will. I don't know if that toothpaste is going back in the tube. You pointed out that automatic tension just given who the base of the fans are versus who the players are versus the structure of the NFL, from who is the ownership and even the way that players are paid.

Because the NFL doesn't guarantee contracts.

Right. The fact that the contracts are not guaranteed. So you have a lot of elements there. I would liken it to college football, too, because I think it's the same dynamic. The difference is, because the schools and the coaches and the teams have the leverage of having their scholarship and being in control, then the conformity is there because it has to be. [The players] want to get to the NFL. They want to showcase themselves, and so, by and large they go along with whatever the program is.

And in the NFL it's the same. Even though players are getting paid, they're are also in a sport that has the dynamic of them being disposable. You're hired to be fired. You're there to be replaced.

Throughout the history of sports, when it comes to sports and race, we've seen this routinely. It's that whenever black athletes [move] outside the box of going beyond just being the entertainment of society, it is met with tremendous blowback. Tremendous. It's all good when you're catching touchdown passes or when you score 30 points a game. But the moment you start talking about some issues of substance or start demanding that your audience do something, then it becomes a different situation.

Now the owners and the fans know that whatever values they imagined [they shared with these players] are not so. They're critically thinking about things: "We don't want that. We just want them to play. We just want them to score. And we just want them to entertain us."

And you know, that's why I think Colin it doesn't have a job. I don't say this to be casual about the issue because it's very serious, but had Colin Kaepernick put his hands on a woman, he'd be back in the league. Because that's a tale of redemption that can be sold. LikeJosh Gordon: "No, no, no! He doesn't use drugs anymore, because he said it!"

You can't do that with Kaepernick, because we're talking about how he is as a person and as a man. He's not to all of a sudden tomorrow going to say, "You know what? Come to think of it, Philando Castile got what he deserved." That's not going happen. So he's exposed that he's not a conformist. And while he is a team player — with the 49ers, he got the highest leadership award that you can give a player, and that was from his teammates — he has certain beliefs that are intrinsic to the person he is and he's not given those up. So they can't "redeem" Colin Kaepernick. They can't sell that story.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.
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