Back around the time when I started writing for ESPN.com’s Page 2, the website hired a semi-obscure columnist out of Orlando named Jemele Hill.
My first two thoughts:
1. Is it “Jemelle” or “Jemele”?
2. Dang, this woman can write.
Through the years, Jemele has become one of my favorite voices in the world of sports—as well as one of my favorite people. She’s sharp, knowledgable, witty, quick and, most important, empathetic and decent. When she decided to expand into TV, I was skeptical—another strong pen bites the dust. But Jemele is even good on the tube (and that’s not something I say often about people making such a transition). My favorite thing: When Jemele Hill takes a stance on an issue, you better believe she means what she says. She’s authentic—the hallmark of credibility (Oh, and you can follow her on Twitter here and read her ESPN stuff here).
Anyhow, I didn’t want The Quaz to copy Chris Jones’ (magnificent) Five for Writing, so I’ve steered clear of scribes … until now.
Jemele Hill, pride of Michigan State, welcome to The Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Jemele, here’s a question I’ve been itching to ask a fellow journalist, but have never gotten around to. Recently the sports world was abuzz with news and talk and gossip about Jorge Posada refusing to bat ninth in a game against the Red Sox. Endless talk and debate ensued—for days and days and days. People asked my reaction, and I said the same thing repeatedly: I don’t care.
So here’s my question: How do you care? What I mean is, we’re about the same age; have roughly equal years of experience in the business. And I’ve become the most jaded person alive. Yanks-Sox? Meh—they’ll play 100 more times. Huge trade? Meh—there’ll be another. I’m serious—I often don’t give a shit anymore. The athletes are mostly younger than me, the salaries are insane, the managers/coaches tend to be one-dimensional dolts. So how do you keep caring? How do you maintain your passion for sports?
JEMELE HILL: All of us—even the jaded ones like you—still care. We just care differently than before. I’m not connected the same way most sports fans are. I’m trying to understand the perspectives of the people I’m covering, or explain intelligently what I’m seeing from them. Most sports fans only care about their team, their enjoyment, the outcomes, and how they can live through the players, coaches and organizations. Now, I wonder: What are we learning from sports? What are missing about sports? Why do we feel so entitled about our connection to sports in the first place?
I maintain my passion for sports by not absorbing too much of fanatical sports culture. Don’t get me wrong, I like sports fans and I watch a lot of ESPN, as well as read sports blogs and sports sections. I just strive for balance. Reading non-sports books helps me understand a lot about sports. Just as reading sports books helps me understand a lot about life. A lot of people assume being a sports writer means you have to know whether Babe Ruth won his major league debut. Sure, that’s part of our jobs, but we’re mostly there to report, tell stories and provide context.
So I try to be a combination of an amateur psychologist, realist and a sports fan. I cared about Jorge Posada because it said something about a transition we will all experience at some point. How will any of us feel when we’re just not as good at something we felt like we were born to do? However, being real, it was pretty whiny of him. Looking at his batting average, I’m sure there were days this season that the Yankees haven’t felt like paying him, so he can suck it up.
By the way, being passionate about sports also doesn’t mean you have to be incensed about every mistake or misdeed. There’s nothing wrong with putting things in their proper context.
J.P.: I believe you and I were both writing for ESPN.com’s Page 2 when you started doing TV. I think I congratulated you and all that, and I’m sure I meant it. However, when writers go to TV, it baffles me. I get the money, and that’s fine. But where’s the satisfaction? The challenge? I see, say, Rachel Nichols reporting courtside from, oh, Bucks-Warriors and I can’t help but think, “Really? You used to write fantastic in-depth pieces for the Washington Post … and now you’re telling me Stephen Curry has a sprained knee?” So I ask you, what’s the pull of the tube? And is there any ego factor involved—being recognized, etc.
J.H.: Hey, like every print reporter, I used to make fun of TV people. I used to consider them glorified readers and empty, professional story stealers. Until, I had to do what they do.
The shit is hard, period. The teleprompter is the devil. I could completely flesh out a thought in a 1,000-word column, but I might get 40 seconds to do the same on air. I’m totally subconscious about how I look. I seriously have this reoccurring nightmare that I’m going to fall out of my chair on 1st and Ten and bust my ass right on national TV.
Welcome to my nightmare.
So why do I do it? For me, there’s something exhilarating about mastering something that is the total opposite of what you were taught to do. I like the challenge of having to essentially deliver a column in a soundbite. I like being able to bring the things I argue about with my friends every day to television. I know Around The Horn isn’t for everyone [Jeff’s note: That’s me raising my hand], but I love it because it gives me a chance to be silly and funny.
Being on TV has actually made me a better overall reporter. It’s given me more perspective on what athletes face, in trying to find the balance between being themselves and representing their profession. I’ve learned to be a better interviewer because when I do a report for Outside the Lines, I know there isn’t a lot of room for error because you can’t be in the situation where you get back to the edit room, only to discover your interview hasn’t advanced the story.
TV makes you accountable in an entirely different way than it does in print. If it’s in print, a lot of times, what you wrote about an athlete won’t even get back to them. But if you say it on TV, their sisters, mothers, cousins, folks they went to school with are running back to them saying … did you hear what Jemele Hill said about you on 1st and Ten? Or USA Today is writing about it. Or Deadspin is killing you about it. Some of that would happen in print, but you’re talking about a few thousand people knowing you’re an idiot versus several million. It just hits the senses differently. I’m not saying that I hold my tongue, but I just ask myself a lot more questions like, am I being fair? Am I misrepresenting this situation? Is this the right tone? Am I saying something that could offend someone (which I’ve done)? I could be wrong, but it feels as if the stakes are higher in television. I like that.
And I’d be lying if I didn’t say that there aren’t self-serving reasons to do TV. You do make more money and you are a bigger deal. There are times when you feel a part of the cool crowd, like when I tweeted Talib Kweli that I was at his concert and he let me and my friends in backstage, or getting to go the Hangover 2 Hollywood premiere because Ryan Clark of the Steelers, who I’ve done 1st and Ten with, hooked me up with an invite. No way would that stuff happens if I weren’t doing TV.
But if feeding my ego ever becomes the main reason I’m doing television—and trust me you’ll be able to tell—you have my permission to spread the rumor that I never use deodorant.
For the record, I do.
J.P.: I don’t often knock fellow journalists, but over the years I’ve been awfully hard on Skip Bayless. Mainly, I sorta feel like he lacks authenticity in his arguments; like he’s just barking to bark. You work with him and, I’m assuming, consider him a friend. Tell me why I’m wrong or, at least, what I’m missing. And has his brother ever hooked you up with free eats?
J.H.: Here’s what you, and most people don’t understand about Skip: He loves sports. Like, loves it. He is one of the hardest workers and among the most passionate and disciplined people I know. Skip would consider it dishonorable to go on television and argue passionately about something he didn’t believe in his soul. He really does believe everything that comes out of his mouth. Skip prepares for every show like Bill Belichick. He watches everything. I’m sure I could walk into a pre-show meeting and ask Skip if he saw squirrel racing on TV last night, and he’d say that he did. He has never had a half-ass day in his life. This is a man who hasn’t eaten fast food since the Reagan administration! I’ve probably got more body fat in one thigh than he has on his whole body. He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t smoke. He’s amazing. Do we always agree? No. But I respect him because he respects what he’s doing and 1st and Ten is successful because he brings this passion to the job every day.
I consider Skip a friend because every time I’ve screwed up at ESPN, he is always among the first people to call and check on me. Besides, I couldn’t hate him if I wanted to since my mother has a photo of Skip on her mantle.
As for his brother, I’ve never gotten the hook up, but I told Skip the next time I’m in Chicago, I expect to get a table at his brother’s restaurant. I’m a major foodie and am a big fan of Rick Bayless. I’m also into food porn (taking photos of food and posting them on Facebook and Twitter).
J.P.: Of all the paragraphs of yours I’ve read, this might be my favorite: “Sorry, but [Sheryl] Swoopes’s coming-out doesn’t have enough shock value to make us learn anything. Lesbians don’t pose a threat and have a certain appreciation in a male-dominated culture. And sadly, the prevailing stereotypes of female athletes as lesbians will probably reduce Swoopes’s emotional admission to a raunchy, tasteless joke by the end of the week. The only way we’re going to address homophobia in sports is if Peyton Manning, the NFL’s MVP last season, makes a similar disclosure. Or Brett Favre. Or Michael Jordan.” I’ve been equally vocal on the issue of gays in sports, but I sorta feel like you and I are largely alone. Personally, I’m amazed that no active player in any of the four major pro sports has come out. Do you think it’ll happen in our lifetime? During our careers? Ever? And what will it take?
J.H.: This is sort of a two-answer question. I believe we will have a female president and possibly another black before an major, active, professional athlete voluntarily comes out. Key word here: Voluntary. What will most likely happen is that an athlete will be outed by the media in our lifetimes. In fact, I could see that happening within the next three years. Technology and the 24-hour news cycle has changed so much about journalism and now we run past those lines that were once forbidden to cross. I remember when I first became a professional, reporting on a players’ personal life or anything said in the lockerroom was a cardinal sin. Now, we’re writing about players’ affairs, and divorces. An Internet rumor gets started about player A’s wife sleeping with player B and if that team has a bad performance, it’s all of a sudden fair game. So, at some point, a media outlet is going to be sent a photo or a reporter is going to witness something, and someone with a really important title is going to have to decide what to do. My prediction is that they will choose to break the news. Not sure where that will leave us, but as my man Slim Charles said in The Wire, “Game’s the same … it just got more fierce.”
J.P.: You’re from Detroit, attended Michigan State. You grew up in an age when sports were covered, almost exclusively, by crusty white men. Why did you choose this career path? And how hard has it been to get here?
J.H.: I chose this for selfish reasons. I loved sports. I loved writing. And, I loved newspapers, which these days is akin to saying you loved the Betamax. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks at length about how opportunity has more to do with success than anything else. My outlier was being accepted into the Detroit Free Press‘ high school journalism program when I was 15. It changed my life. My first three mentors were Johnette Howard, Rachel Jones (a non-sports journalist who is a dynamic features writer), and Michelle Kaufman. Because I was influenced early by dynamic women—I also count my mother, too—it never occurred to me that writing about sports was something that I wasn’t supposed to do.
Getting exposed too journalism as a teen was a huge leg up. It was like being double-promoted, because I came to Michigan State with clips from a professional newspaper (after the Freep program ended in the summer I took prep scores in the sports department my junior and senior year). I was set on a certain path. I wasn’t the greatest writer or journalist, but I worked hard and I didn’t take things for granted. I grew up on food stamps, and had drug-addicted parents. Either I wasn’t going to be shit, or I was. Thankfully, my parents are both clean and have been for some time, but the greatest lesson they ever taught me was not to be like them.
And so whenever I heard whispers from colleagues that I got a job because I was black, a woman, or the combination, it didn’t affect me because God pulled me through something more powerful than someone else’s interpretation of my life and career.
J.P.: I don’t think anyone’s ever thought of me as “the Jewish columnist,” yet you and I both know there are many readers out there who look at writers like yourself, Jason Whitlock, Mike Freeman, Bill Rhoden and, first and foremost, think of you as “the black columnists.” Hell, when I’ve complimented your work to people I’ve literally heard, “all she does is take the black side on issues.” I’m not sure what the black side is, but I do know this sort of criticism (of you and others) has always irked me. Why do you think people place such an emphasis on the race (when the race isn’t Caucasian) of sports writers? Or am I way off on this?
J.H.: Being labeled a black columnist doesn’t bother me because that’s what I am. I am black. I am a columnist. I write from a black perspective because it’s part of who I am. But the assumption is that writing from a black perspective means writing from a “pro-black” viewpoint, but it should mean you’re just writing from the perspective of someone whose skin color always had a certain relevance. All those columnists you mentioned, we all write from a black perspective. We just don’t have the same opinion.
The only thing that annoys me is when people say I only write about race. Completely untrue. Anyone who looks through my archives on ESPN.com will see that I may only hit race a couple of times over a six-month period. But if I write a column that seems supportive of a black athlete, they lump that into writing about race, which is dumb. It’s for this reason that I’d love to see more white columnists tackle race. To me, that’s what’s wrong with our entire national conversation on race. We—as in people of color—have been put in charge of solving the race problem and educating everyone in the process, when we aren’t the only ones affected by race. We’re not the only ones with an opinion about race. We’re not the only ones who should have to learn about race. I know a lot of white columnists fear jumping into the conversation because, as you know, when you write about race, gender or sexuality, the backlash and conversation is like none other. But we need more than one group advancing the conversation.
J.P.: Give me your greatest moment as a sports writer. Your worst moment as a sports writer.
J.H.: Two great moments immediately come to mind. First: I got a chance to take a picture with Muhammad Ali when I was covering Michigan State. He came to a game and was in the locker room while I interviewed players. We took a picture together—only time I’ve ever asked an athlete for a photo with me—and he kissed me as the camera snapped, the flirt. It’s just surreal when you meet people you only know as a historical icon and next thing you know, you’re in the room with them. I was just trying not to look like a dumbass, but inside, my heart was beating like crazy. The other moment that came to mind happened last summer, when I got to cover the World Cup in South Africa. I spent 38 wonderful days there. I could easily name 30 moments that would always be special to me. From seeing Nelson Mandela in person, to witnessing a different fandom than what we see here in the States, to hearing Chris Jones describe how he bought poison on the streets, to being hit on by a World Cup coach, to drinking beer in my first Shebeen. It was a trip of a lifetime. And it looks like your next question addresses my worst moment …
J.P.: Three years ago ESPN suspended you for writing, “Rooting for the Celtics is like saying Hitler was a victim. It’s like hoping Gorbachev would get to the blinking red button before Reagan.” I’m Jewish, and the great-grandson of a Holocaust victim. I’m not saying it was your best line, but I wasn’t even remotely offended. Wanna know why? Because it’s clear what you were trying to say, and, well, big whoops. I’m wondering three things: A. Were they right to suspend you?; B. What were you thinking when you wrote that line?; C. Are we all just waiting to be offended, so we can jump out and say, “I’m offended!”
J.H.: A) Yes. B) I have gone over that question about 2 billion times. I was thinking a lot of things, none of which make sense right now. I was trying to be funny, mostly. But the biggest regret I have about it is that I was lazy. I didn’t take my time with the column. I was on my way to Bristol and it was supposed to be an off-day column. I was already mentally in Bristol and not focusing on the task in front of me. I cheated the process. I deserved what I got. C) Sometimes, yes. I don’t think so in my case. But if we’re being honest with ourselves, we all love to play the victim card every now and again. We all like to feel as if we’re experiencing some rare struggle that no one else can identify with. It’s the fine print of being a melting pot.
J.P.: I have a theory: People are addicted to sports not because they’re so exciting, but because we’re so bored. In other words, the day-to-day existences of most people are pretty flat. Wake up, brush, poop, eat, work, lunch, more work, home, walk dog, Modern Family, bed. Repeat. Hence, we tend to assume that the lives of others are so much more interesting. Like, oh, to be Derek Jeter … it must be so amazing. Am I totally off here?
J.H.: For me, it’d be Law & Order: SVU, then bed. And am I a terrible human being because I’ve yet to see Modern Family? I want to watch it, but I just haven’t gotten to it yet. Now, I’m starting to feel left out. But getting back to your question, you are on to something. We—as in the average person—put ourselves in athletes’ shoes, imagining how great it would be if we were just as gifted, celebrated and rich. That’s why fans are often devastated when they find out their favorite athlete isn’t perfect, that he’s a bad dad, cheated on his taxes, or cheated on his wife. Athletes, for a lot of fans, are akin to super heroes. They are who you thought your parents were before you realized they were flawed human beings. Maybe a lot of us just need to believe perfection in a human being is possible, even though it isn’t.
But I don’t think fans project these unrealistic expectations onto athletes or sports because they’re bored. They do it because sports is an escape. If you think about it, we have more options than ever to entertain ourselves, so it’s sort of miraculous that we remain this addicted to sports. There’s just something intoxicating about mindlessly committing to a three-hour football game, or poring over your fantasy football roster. I don’t do it because I’m bored. I do it because I don’t have to think.
J.P.: I visited my old college, University of Delaware, yesterday. I walked the campus, cruised Main Street … and I felt pathetic and ancient and sad. I looked in the mirror and said, “Thirty-nine? How did I get here?” How do you feel about aging? About death? Can you deal?
J.H.: OK, this interview just got weird. No, I have those thoughts all the time. I constantly think about something my grandmother said to me, which is that “youth is wasted on the young.” Back when I had a personal blog, I wrote this entry from the viewpoint of what I’d tell my younger self, based on what I’d learn over the years. Mainly it was, keep your credit clean, don’t get that tattoo that you did when you were 18 because you never married that guy, and live abroad. It’s just amazing how much you don’t know when you’re young. And then when you’re older, you have an awesome, don’t-give-a-crap mentality, but none of the same vigor or fearlessness. It’s like having Halle Berry’s face, but Rex Ryan’s body.
I can deal with growing old, but I’m not sure how I’ll handle dealing with the changes that come with growing old. I lost my last living grandparent last year. My mother and parents are fine, but both are battling some health issues. I have some friends who are burying their parents. I realized one day that I’ve been in four weddings, and two of those couples are on their second marriages. I have friends fighting cancer, losing their homes, battling all kinds of adult shit. Stuff like that seemed so far away at one time, but now it’s your life.
You’re right, how did I get here?
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH JEMELE HILL
• Six months of nonstop lice or you’re bit on the arm by a 20-foot king cobra (next to a hospital)?: Lice. I’ve got a low threshold for pain.
• Greatest athletic feat you ever witnessed?: South Africa hosting the World Cup. Think about that country’s history, and how for half of our lives, apartheid existed … and how it was Nelson Mandela’s dream to showcase his country to the world … stunning.
• Celine Dion or John Oates?: Oates. To date, I have never listened to a single Celine Dion song all the way through. I’d like to think this makes me cool.
• Favorite type of soup?: Chicken noodle. But if you want me to be more specific, Mama Avila’s Soup at El Ranchito in Huntington Beach. Best soup I ever had in my life.
• How do you break writer’s block?: I watch The Young & The Restless.
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you remember?: Yes. I was on my way to cover a game at Penn State game and was flying into State College. Only time I’ve ever reached for the vomit bag.
• Athlete who gave you the best interview? Who gave you the hardest time?: Hardest: Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton, or pretty much all of the 1996 Indians team. I was an intern in Cleveland that summer and dealing with those guys—with the exception of Julio Franco and Omar Vizquel—made me hate covering baseball.
Best: Mandy Garcia (Citadel’s first female athlete), Katie Hnida (the kicker at Colorado who accused one of her teammates of raping her), and Rasheed Wallace [Jeff’s note: Uh … what?].
• Spike, Ralph or Potsie?: You are really dating yourself, here. I’ll take Potsie. He’s awkward, but I bet of the three, he’d be the most likely to have your back like Greg Anderson.
• Your favorite Emmanuel Lewis moment:: Watching Michael Jackson carry him around like a Tickle Me Elmo doll. Why did we not think it was strange that Michael Jackson was bouncing another grown man on his hip?
• Better college basketball player: Glen Rice or Mateen Cleaves: Cleaves. Gutsiest player I ever covered. Rice had the prettiest jumper and no need to compare their NBA careers. But Mateen is the second-most important basketball player in MSU’s history behind Magic Johnson. Returned Michigan State to basketball prominence. Two-time Big Ten POY. Brought State its first title since ’79. When I was growing up, the idea that Michigan State would ever be a better basketball program than Michigan was laughable. Mateen made it so.