James Andrew Miller: Jemele Hill Waves Goodbye to ESPN and Hello to "Places Where Discomfort Is OK"

Jemele Hill - 2016 ESPN Party - Getty - H 2017
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In her first interview on her high-profile exit from the Disney-owned network, Hill explains why politics makes sports people nervous, the dressing-down she got from management over anti-Trump tweets and her new role as a "Roman candle" writer for 'The Atlantic'.

As of Sept. 14, Jemele Hill is officially free of ESPN — and yes, ESPN is now free of Jemele Hill. Even though Hill, the often outspoken anchor and reporter, had more than two years left on her contract and management dangled a couple of arguably unrealistic opportunities that would allow her to stay, both parties basically acknowledged that their past together prohibited a future.

The more than $5 million buyout Hill is due will be paid in a series of tranches this year and next — suggesting savvy tax planning on her part or a “be careful what you say” warning from her former employer. Nevertheless, true to her DNA, Hill isn’t pulling any punches.

“It just kind of became obvious to me that the relationship — as good and as fruitful and as beneficial as it was — had really run its course,” Hill, 42, says now.

It wasn’t about leaving because things got difficult, Hill tells me. “I’ve been through difficult swings in my career. It was about the fact that I can’t commit to something that I know isn’t right for me, that I know isn’t going to bring out the best in me and that I know is going to be kind of a waste of time.”

Hill joined Disney-owned ESPN in 2006 as a columnist for ESPN.com after reporting stints at the Raleigh News & Observer, the Detroit Free Press and The Orlando Sentinel. She began appearing on The Sports Reporters, Outside the Lines, First Take and SportsCenter, ultimately becoming co-anchor (along with Michael Smith) of that venerable show’s 6 p.m. edition.

ESPN executives gave Hill and Smith that plum promotion after they displayed great chemistry and offered bold opinions on other ESPN shows. Executives believed the pair could be the answer to declining viewership. But what had worked on other shows proved too great a departure for SportsCenter viewers, who wanted more highlights and less opining. The Hill/Smith SC6 pairing wound up being one of the most misguided and mismanaged misadventures in recent ESPN programming history.

As if things weren’t difficult enough for Hill, she found herself in a firestorm that resulted in White House press secretary Sarah Sanders calling for her to be fired after Hill had tweeted that “Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself with other white supremacists.” Then she subsequently added yet another tweet for good measure: “Trump is the most ignorant, offensive president of my lifetime. He is a direct result of white supremacy. Period.”

Then came an October 10, 2017 tweet from the President himself: “With Jemele Hill at the mike, it is no wonder ESPN ratings have tanked, in fact, tanked so badly it is the talk of the industry.”

It’s hard to recall a day at ESPN — apart from the death of colleagues or an announcement of layoffs — when so many employees expressed so much dismay at any fellow colleague for thrusting the network into such a quagmire.

In the aftermath, then-president John Skipper summoned Hill to his office for one of the most dramatic dressing-downs of his presidency. He told Hill that he had been uncommonly supportive and given her extraordinary opportunities, and she had now squandered them in exchange for the relative triviality of tweets. ESPN found itself engulfed in a national controversy.

When Jimmy Pitaro became president of ESPN in March, it didn’t take long to figure out that he had two meta agenda items: Repair ESPN’s badly damaged relationship with the NFL, and somehow bury the allegation that ESPN is really a high-tech think-tank dedicated to promulgating an ultra-progressive agenda. 

Solving its NFL dilemma would require daily executive and owner butt-smooching, far less emphasis on investigative journalism — at least where football is concerned — and of course tons of cash in rights deals.

But the political problem was somehow tougher. A parade of incidents like gay football player Michael Sam kissing his boyfriend after getting selected in the NFL draft, and transgender reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner receiving the Arthur Ashe courage award at the ESPYs, were like catnip for those convinced that ESPN had a political agenda.

And for a network already reeling from a declining subscriber base — losing more than 12 million households over a period of just several years (households that were paying roughly $7/month) — and operating in an environment where the cost of TV rights deals are continuing to escalate, the controversies were bad news. It was clear why Pitaro wanted to get politics out of ESPN’s system.

Disney Chairman Bob Iger, who was no doubt instrumental in setting this agenda, made it crystal clear he endorsed Pitaro’s strategy: “Jimmy felt that the pendulum may have swung a little bit too far away from the field. And I happen to believe he was right,” Iger recently told The Hollywood Reporter.

Still, no matter how hard ESPN executives tried to push back on accusations that the network was overly political, and left-leaning at that, it seemed the harder they tried, the more traction it acquired.

But wait. Maybe, finally, there could be a way out.

“Looking at it from their viewpoint, of course, it would be easier not having me around,” Hill agrees. “I don’t even take it personally. But the truth of the matter is that part of the reason they have been swimming endlessly in this narrative that they’re too political is because of me.

“It’s a dumb narrative, and I knew that my presence contributed to it,” Hill continues. “And so while I think they would have been completely fine with me continuing to be there, and they made that known, there was a part of me that understood that if I wasn’t there it would be perceived as a win for them.”

For Hill, this isn’t something that all of a sudden crept up on her or the network. “Mike (Smith) and I specifically were called political, way before any of the Trump stuff ever happened,” she recalls. “And I always thought that was a very interesting label, because frankly, I think that most of the time it was said because we were the two black people."

Hill has many examples to cite when it comes to race playing a role in such attacks.

“It wasn’t our fault that Chance the Rapper decided to wear a Colin Kaepernick T-shirt and say that he wasn’t supporting the NFL. We didn’t have him on the show for that. We had him on the show to talk about him being in Vegas for Mayweather-McGregor. But because you have the two black people that are outspoken, with another outspoken black artist, suddenly the show is too political.”

However, Chance the Rapper didn’t author those tweets about Trump, and didn’t, in 2008, write as Hill did that “rooting for the Celtics is like saying Hitler was a victim.” Obviously, Hill is passionate about her beliefs, and by many accounts works incredibly hard, but her passions sometimes tend to obscure her message.

Controversies have contributed mightily to Hill’s fame and reputation. She is a frequent target on social media, but increasingly savvy as to how to respond. Or not. In 2018, she was named journalist of the year by the National Association of Black Journalists. More opportunities surfaced for her, and coupled with ESPN’s willingness to let her go and pay her to do so, the timing seemed perfect.

“So much has happened in the last year that I felt like this is as appropriate a time as ever to spread my wings in different ways that I hadn’t really thought of before, or that I knew were possible.

“I guess I was going through major FOMO — fear of missing out. There’s a wider playground that I can dabble in, and places where the discomfort is okay,” she says. “I wasn’t going to be able to be happy with myself if I didn’t adhere to this calling that’s beckoning me right now.”

The brave new world she has just begun to create for herself is shaping up to be multi-platform, and need we say, diverse. Hill is captivated by her development of a sports and politics show for LeBron James and Maverick Carter. Imagine the happy challenge of going from a show (SC6) where she had to worry about saying too much to a show where there will be endless enthusiasm, and a need, for her to say more. Sounds like a Jemelian dream. The show doesn’t have a distributor yet, but Hill is no doubt hoping that if anyone has the clout to park this show someplace that can rival the ESPN platform, it will be LeBron James.

Hill has also started a production company with her good friend Kelley Carter and is preparing to sell a half-hour scripted series in collaboration with Gabrielle Union at Sony loosely based on her friendship of over 20 years with Carter. “The best way I can describe it, it’s as if Molly and Issa from Insecure had grown up. Imagine those two characters as fully-grown, accomplished women of color,” Hill explains.

Hill will also have a twice weekly podcast which will be as she calls it, “sport’ish.” As we well know, that could cover a lot of ground, and she is currently in discussions with several potential suitors.

But perhaps the most provocative aspect of Hill’s new life is that she will be joining The Atlantic as a staff writer beginning in October, and will be writing for both the magazine and TheAtlantic.com.

There’s a warm welcome waiting for her from editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg. “She’s interested in something I’ve been preoccupied with for a long time, which is the intersection of sports and race and politics. I think it’s one of the best beats in America,” Goldberg says. “When I saw that Jemele was leaving ESPN, and when I realized, in reading more about her, that she is, at heart, a reporter, I thought it was a perfect match. Because I want to cover this subject in a serious way.”

Asked how life at The Atlantic may differ from Jemele’s days at ESPN, Goldberg responds instantly.

“Put it this way, my journalistic interests are somewhat different than Disney’s,” Goldberg says. “Let me be diplomatic. I’m not sure that, as a consumer of ESPN products, I’m not sure that ESPN is particularly interested, especially in television, in standing at the intersection of sports and culture and race and gender and politics. It can be a pretty dangerous corner for some people. But that’s exactly the intersection that I want to be at.

“Look, she’s a Roman candle, right? She is fearless, energetic,” Goldberg adds. “I like having journalists on our staff who make all sorts of useful trouble, and Jemele, I believe, will make all sorts of useful trouble.”

James Andrew Miller, a Hollywood Reporter contributor, is the author of several books, including Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency, and the host of the Origins podcast.