Jemele Hill, other former Black ESPN stars, do it their way

In many ways, the story of journalist Jemele Hill is a simple one.

She was a star at ESPN; one of the smartest and most well-rounded journalists the network ever employed. She anchored “SportsCenter” and wrote for "The Undefeated." She took on President Donald Trump in 2017, was chastised by ESPN,departed in 2018, and now co-hosts “Cari & Jemele: Stick To Sports” with her close friend Cari Champion on Vice TV.

(Spoiler alert: They do not stick to sports.)

The show’s title mocks Fox’s Laura Ingraham who once told LeBron James to “shut up and dribble.” Vice says it’s the first time two Black women have ever hosted a primetime television show.

Hill is also friends with Michael Smith. They co-hosted "His & Hers" and “SportsCenter” and Smith, like Hill and Champion, went out on his own as well. He’s hosting the show “Brother from Another” with his longtime friend and journalist Michael Holley, author of six New York Times best-selling books. The show airs on NBC’s Peacock Channel.

Jemele Hill, who left ESPN in 2018, now co-hosts a show with her close friend Cari Champion on Vice TV. (Photo: Micaiah Carter, AP)

Hill, Champion and Smith lost the protective armor of ESPN, but they gained storytelling autonomy, and each believes that in the post-George Floyd universe, Black people telling their own stories, in their own way, is among the greatest of currencies.

“I don’t know if we’ve ever been in as good a position to tell Black stories as we are now,” said Hill, who also writes for The Atlantic. “It’s never been better.”

“This is time when Black women want to reclaim our power,” said Champion. “I know people hear that but it’s a real thing.”

"One thing I know," said Smith, "is you write your own story."

Hill, Champion and Smith are living variants of the axiom “those who tell the stories rule the world.” Except in this case, they are telling their stories, often Black-centric stories, from a Black point of view, without fear of a network hierarchy instructing them to tone it down or watch what they say.

Hill and Smith's two shows were smart, entertaining, and unapologetically Black. In many ways, they were pioneers. In many ways now, they are pioneers again.

Michael Smith and Jemele Hill speak during the 49th NAACP Image Awards at Pasadena Civic Auditorium on January 15, 2018 in Pasadena, California. (Photo: Maury Phillips, Getty Images for NAACP)

Yes, it’s all simple. But of course in this era of Trump, and the accompanying racial upheaval that stirs in the same tempest as racial reckoning, the story gets more complicated. The story of race is always more complicated.

It was October when Hill, just after returning from vacation, received a disturbing phone call from her manager. The FBI called. An envelope containing a powdery, white substance was addressed to Hill, and mailed to her previous home address.

The intent, Hill believes, was to convince her the envelope contained Anthrax, a bacteria that’s potentially deadly when inhaled. Hill said tests showed the substance wasn’t Anthrax.

Hill said that the threats against her increased in 2017 after she called Trump a white supremacist, before it became a common occurrence, leading to former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders calling for Hill’s firing from ESPN. The network didn’t back Hill and called her tweet “inappropriate.”

Despite Hill’s toughness, the threat shook her. “After criticizing Trump, it was the first time I ever had to think about my physical security,” Hill said. “It’s also the rhetoric. I’ve been called (racial slurs) hundreds of times. (Expletive) hundreds of times. I think as a journalist, you realize you may have to deal with some of these things, but people also go after my family. My family didn’t sign up for this.”

She pauses.

“But if you think threats are going to stop me…nope.”

Another attempt to intimidate Hill didn't work, either. When Hill was still at ESPN, and watching a basketball game featuring her alma mater, Michigan State, she was contacted by ESPN’s security arm, who told her a credible threat was phoned into a local police department. Their advice to Hill was leave the game immediately. She did.

“I’m shocked by the level of racism,” said Champion. “I obviously know it’s there, but it’s still stunning to see and hear so much of it.”

The threats weren’t bumbling malevolence; they were delivered with tactical precision and meant to intimidate Hill. This is the environment of some 21st-century Black storytellers. They don’t just face pushback. Some occasionally face threats to their existence.

“Trump has called the media ‘the enemy of the people,’” Hill said. “So it shouldn’t be a surprise that some of his followers treat the media like we are the enemy of the people. And if you’re Black, some of them see us as a particularly special threat.”

The attempt to intimidate Hill hasn’t just failed, she’s as fearless as ever, and Vice offers her the freedom to be, well, herself. This was not necessarily the case at ESPN.

“We want them to be themselves,” said Morgan Hertzan, the executive vice president and general manager of Vice TV. “They are two smart, bold women not just trying to break glass ceilings, but are also excellent at what they do.”

It’s not a coincidence that a group of Black sports journalists are pushing a new storytelling frontier. Colin Kaepernick became one of the focal points of the social justice movement, and Trump attacked the quarterback, and eventually called protesting players sons of bitches.

Now, Hill, Champion and Smith are creating a media ecosystem that values their voice. There’s no more waiting.

“What changed for all us, I think, was a desire to be accepted into a system that didn’t always value us,” said Hill. “What changed was us. We got tired of waiting. We got tired of asking."

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