Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx are putting the spotlight on the diverse journeys of Black women across sports—from the veteran athletes, to up-and-coming stars, coaches, executives and more—in the series, Elle-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports.
Unbothered is not just the name of Jemele Hill’s award-winning podcast—it’s the essence of who she is.
From the outside looking in, Hill seemed to be living a sports journalist’s dream in 2018. She was young, successful, and Black, a woman holding her own in a male-dominated world as anchor of ESPN’s highest-rated show, SportsCenter.
“Most people aren’t aware that I had a successful journalism career before coming to ESPN. It was not some place that I dreamed of working,” she says. “I was a writer at heart; being a sportswriter for Sports Illustrated was the pinnacle of jobs for me. The TV thing just kind of happened.”
With her casual style, she became a trusted voice inside the boys club with a “don’t try me” attitude. News that Hill was leaving the network, to go nowhere in particular, was shocking for her audience. Some reacted with What did they do? For those familiar with her journalistic style, the reaction was probably more, What did she say? It was neither, but rather a decision that Hill came to on her own. Why?
“Well, it’s never one moment,” she says. “It’s always a collection of moments. I had done my time. There was nothing else that I wanted to do at ESPN, it was time to close that chapter. Striking out on your own seems scary; why wouldn’t it be? The way I looked at it is, I’m not going to work harder for ESPN than I would for myself. Always bet on you.”
Being true to herself is something Hill learned early in life as a young Black girl growing up in the forgotten city of Detroit. She inherited a resilience that she carries with her wherever she goes. Her ability to hold her roots tight resonates with her viewers, her authenticity being the key to her success. She stays transparent and grounded no matter how big her celebrity may get. In other words, Hill “keeps it 100.”
Whether she’s working on SportsCenter; receiving viral tweets from the President of the United States; hosting her own award-winning podcast, Unbothered; running her own production company, Lodge Freeway Media; or preparing to host her own show on CNN+ to discuss current events, pop culture, sports, and anything in between; Hill never comes across as bigger than the viewers she is serving. She works to make her voice their voice.
“I like to say I come from the real hood, not the rap hood. Detroit is built into the fabric of who I am,” Hill says. “It feels like we invented the idea of making a way out of no way. It’s meaningful that I grew up the way that I did, with parents who were recovering drug addicts. We all can relate to a level of struggle. I was always drawn to journalism. There is a phrase we like to repeat: Your job is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. The entire premise behind journalism is being the watchdog of society, holding the powers that be accountable. It was important to be heard; there are a lot of people, especially Black people, who don’t have that opportunity.”
Being Black, a woman and a journalist is a tricky landscape filled with potholes of criticism, judgements and labels. It requires one to master a delicate balance of who they are, and who they are perceived to represent, each time they speak. As a Black female journalist, Hill sees herself as a voice (not a spokesperson), for no one but herself. She believes that while shared experiences are the connective tissue among Black people, Black people are not a monolith. That’s why it’s important to her to use her platform with intention and purpose.
“I never want to position myself as if I’m higher than anybody. We are shoulder-to-shoulder,” she says. “That is why I’ve been able to have a different layer of context with the things that I choose to put my voice behind. I’ll never look at it as a burden, but a necessary responsibility. I never say anything just to create a reaction, but to be a successful journalist, you have to have a mindset of disruption. That’s my mindset.”
While Hill is aware of her position, she wants it to be clear that it is hers alone; and it’s about finding her own steps, taking her own path to get to a place of personal freedom and never dimming her light. Her career has been as disruptive and varied as Hill herself, but she seems to take it in stride, now confident in the space she has defined for herself.
“The one thing that I really enjoy about this part of my career is that I have a job that I want, not a job I need,” Hill says. “I’ve earned the right to speak my mind, and that is not going to change. I refuse to enter into a relationship with anybody if I feel like that ability will ever be compromised.”
As far as Hill’s future goes, she will continue to shine her light brightly as she navigates the ever-changing path in life, finding new milestones to discover and conquer. One thing is certain—no matter whom or what she is up against, she will always be the favorite because she is the hardknock girl from Detroit that remains unbothered.
Senita Brooks is a contributor for Empower Onyx, a diverse multi-channel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sports for Black women and girls.