On September 11, 2017, Jemele Hill tweeted, “Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounding himself w/ other white supremacists.” And, even though the 99-character pronouncement came a few weeks after Trump referred to a group of white nationalist protesters as “very fine people,” pearls were firmly clutched. A vocal faction of conservatives, including the president and his then-press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, called on ESPN to fire Hill. They publicly censured her instead, calling Hill’s actions “inappropriate” and strong-arming the SC6 co-host into issuing a half-hearted apology to the Worldwide Leader.
Five months—and one tweet criticizing Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones—later, and she was out at SportsCenter, relegated to a less front-facing role at The Undefeated, the company’s website covering sports and race; eight months after that, Hill was out at ESPN completely after 12 years of service.
But Hill’s reach has only grown since. The 44-year-old currently works as a staff writer for The Atlantic; hosts a pair of podcasts; is producing a docuseries on Colin Kaepernick for Disney; and is launching a new late-night talk show, Cari & Jemele: Stick to Sports, on VICE TV. The show, which will premiere on Wednesday, Aug. 19 with a very special guest (LeBron James), sees former ESPN anchors Hill and Cari Champion speak their mind on sports, politics and culture.
In a wide-ranging talk with The Daily Beast, Hill opened up about her new show, ESPN ouster, and why her recent tweet—“If you vote for Trump, you are a racist. You have no wiggle room.”—really got under the right-wing media’s skin.
Congrats on the show. What will set Stick to Sports apart from all the other sports shows on TV?
I think one of the main things is you have two Black women who are driving a show with their opinions. The dynamic you usually see is women in the position where they’re teeing up other people to give their opinions and we’re driving the show with our opinions. We’re also talking about a very special time in America for Black women. Black women have become, from a political standpoint, essentially the backbone of the Democratic Party. We’re on the verge of a Black woman possibly being named a vice presidential candidate. Black women are also the most educated group in the country in terms of the number of advanced degrees they have. This is a time where you’re seeing a lot of Black women come into their own and seize their own power. We’re part of that movement and represent that.
We’re seeing it right now with the WNBA’s stand against Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler—and it’s a stand that I don’t think is getting enough national media coverage.
Yeah. And that’s the other reason why this talk show is so special: despite the contributions, and Black women historically being the conscience of America, we also have been an invisible minority—both inside the mainstream and within our own community. In the Black community, and understandably so, the bigger fight has always been against institutional racism, but within our community we still have to deal with sexism, misogyny and other issues that we’re not really given the space to talk about because of the all-encompassing fight against racism. Black women’s unique struggle not even being recognized by the feminist movement, and then to be silenced sometimes within our own community, we have to fight harder to be heard. We can’t speak for all Black women, of course, but what we’re hoping is just by the symbolism of us being there, we’re able to show that there is a space for Black women to be heard in this country.
How do you feel about the coverage—or lack thereof—of the WNBA? It does seem to speak volumes about the way people in this country view Black women athletes.
Part of the reason why we see them be so willing to put themselves on the front lines of the social justice movement is because they’re used to fighting for respect; they’re used to fighting for their own visibility, and to be taken seriously. So it’s nothing for them to take on a Kelly Loeffler. They’ve had to deal with a Kelly Loeffler their entire careers. And even beyond that, as I’ve reminded people, before Colin Kaepernick took a knee, the Minnesota Lynx protested and spoke out against what happened with Philando Castile, and the Minneapolis Police walked off their posts at their game. You have Maya Moore, who’s one of the most decorated basketball players of all-time, stop her career at the height of it to free an innocent man from prison. Them being in battle mode fighting for what’s right is just in their DNA. And for Black women overall, that’s always been our fight. From Harriet Tubman to Sojourner Truth to Shirley Chisholm, that’s always been the responsibility that we’ve had to shoulder—to put ourselves on the line for the greater good. The question then becomes: Who’s doing that for us? Unfortunately, the WNBA isn’t receiving the support it deserves—but people have to stop comparing it to the NBA, which got a very big head start.
Your show’s title Stick to Sports does sound like a nod to Laura Ingraham’s infamous “shut up and dribble” remark to LeBron James—which seemed to be purely seated in racism, because the idea that sports are divorced from politics is ludicrous. It’s like…Do you know who Jesse Owens is?
It’s not that people want people to “stick to sports,” it’s that they want them to “stick to sports” when it’s something they don’t agree with. There’s a long history and a pattern of Black athletes—and Black people, period—being told to shut up and accept whatever it is they’re given. Even though most of us have lived here our whole lives, we’re the ones who get told to “go back to Africa,” or “if you don’t like it, leave.” It’s something that Cari and I encountered a lot when we were at ESPN, because that’s when it felt like the height of the “stick to sports” movement, and that’s because people like her, myself and others were being more vocal about some of the issues that were happening in sports, particularly around racism and misogyny. Whenever you bring up those topics, it is uncomfortable for a lot of people. They have this false idea that sports and the real world happen in two different places, when sports is just a microcosm or a reflection of what’s happening in society.
There were a lot of people who said they supported Muhammad Ali but in the same breath would say “stick to sports.” The reason was because Muhammad Ali proved time and time again that he was on the right side of history. For some reason, when Colin Kaepernick took a knee, people remained undecided about the side of history that he was on—which was clearly short-sighted on their part, because he was always right. Because there was no public momentum or approval behind what he did, people found it easier to say things like “stick to sports.” It’s an insult to people, period. If you’re paying taxes in this country, you have a right to voice your criticisms of your own government. That’s pretty much the foundation of American freedom. For there to be this mindset where, because you have a high-profile position and you’re Black that you should just be grateful, it’s a real insult to our collective intelligence.
Right. It seems like a lot of these right-wingers telling Black athletes to “stick to sports” or “shut up and dribble” desire, say, Michael Jordan in his heyday. They want Black athletes to stay in their athletic lane and not speak up.
People do not mind being entertained by Black people but they don’t want to be reminded of the Black lives that bleed for their entertainment. It’s just that simple.
Speaking of Jordan—as a lowly Knicks fan I used to watch Jordan cook the Knicks at the Garden. Do you think the Knicks can ever be fixed?
As long as James Dolan is the owner? No, I do not. I don’t know if he’s ever going to get out of the way enough to let the franchise be successful. You can replace coaches and GMs and all, but if the top leadership remains the same it’s hard to get the real culture change you need. To think about the team they were for most of my childhood to what they’ve become now, it’s really sad. The Lakers went through a down period and they’re right back in the game. It feels like a lot of NBA players look at the Knicks as irrelevant.
It seems like Dolan’s become even more unhinged in the Trump era. We know he was a Trump pal and supporter, but when you talk about ejecting Charles Oakley and Spike Lee from the Garden and being the only NBA team to not issue a statement on the murder of George Floyd, it’s taken on a whole new level of terrible.
It was disappointing that the Knicks couldn’t do something that was the bare minimum and seemed pretty basic to do. Because how hard is it to look at what happened to George Floyd and collectively agree that that was wrong? It’s things like that where if you’re a player and you see that it’s killing your recruiting. That’s something that I’m sure rubbed a lot of players the wrong way, and that made them question the type of owner that James Dolan is.
You mentioned ESPN’s “stick to sports” policy, and do you feel vindicated when it comes to your statements about Trump given what’s transpired these past few years? I recently interviewed Reza Aslan who had his CNN show canceled because he tweeted that Trump was “a piece of shit,” and his tweets happened in early 2017—around the same time yours did. There seemed to be this strange “you have to respect the office” mentality in the early going that has since evaporated.
[Laughs] Well, it’s one of those things where I take no pleasure or joy in saying, “I told you so.” I don’t want to say “I told you so” because if there’s anything I really wish I was wrong about it was that. We don’t deserve to be led by a racist president and so I wish I wasn’t right about it. But all the signs were there and I think people were trying to apply regular norms to the White House, as if this was just another president in office that people disagreed with. It’s one thing to disagree on policy or guidelines or laws, but we’re talking about someone where the core of who they are is to reject marginalized people, make them feel as if they don’t belong in this country, they don’t need to be heard, and they don’t deserve to be treated equally. That’s not political—it’s right and wrong. There is no way that any of us should be OK with a president who speaks the way he does about people in this country—and not only speaks about them that way but puts policy behind his ignorant views. When I said that about him it was from the position of being a person who felt like they didn’t belong. I’ve lived here my whole life and poured as much of myself into trying to make this country a better place than anybody else has, and I don’t deserve to have a president that looks at me as less-than.