Jemele Hill was a rising star at ESPN, premiering with her on-air partner Michael Smith in a new “SportsCenter” called “SC6” that would explore not only sports but also its intersections with politics and pop culture.
She was living in Connecticut, not California. She was not yet engaged to be married. She was not writing for “The Atlantic.” She did not have her own production company. She did not have a podcast on Spotify.
She had not yet had the White House call for her to be fired.
It was only 26 months ago.
“As they often say: Life comes at you fast,” she said at a recent event in Manhattan to launch her podcast, “Jemele Hill is Unbothered,” which premieres on April 15. “I guess I believe in transitioning really hard.”
This was not how she planned it. Hill already had stirred controversy before “SC6” premiered, having been suspended by ESPN for a week in 2008 for a column about the Celtics in which she compared rooting for them to “saying Hitler was a victim.”
But nothing before rose to the level of what occurred in September of 2017, when in a Twitter post she called Donald Trump “a white supremacist.”
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders called it “a fireable offense.” Hill did not apologize for her opinion, but she did express regret for the uncomfortable position in which she put ESPN.
Later that autumn, Hill was suspended for two weeks after calling for fans upset with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ position on players kneeling during the national anthem to boycott his sponsors.
By February of 2018, she was gone from “SportsCenter” and by late summer was gone from ESPN altogether after reaching a contract settlement.
Hill said becoming a nationally known figure in these tense political times was — and still is — “very surreal.”
“You’re used to sports fans knowing who you are,” she said. “An average person, they want to talk about: Is LeBron [James] going to win another five championships? Or: Who’s the greatest player ever?
“But now people approach me and it’s a totally different conversation. Some of them aren’t even aware I used to be at ESPN … Now when people come up to me, they want to often talk about some very intense racial issues.”
Hill, who began as a newspaper reporter, insists she is uncomfortable being the focus of attention, though she acknowledged “that seems odd” given her resume.
“I realize there is a perception, and I think it’s a false one, that I’m an activist,” she said. “As somebody who is a career journalist, that is a very uncomfortable label, because that’s not what we do. The reporting is the activism, if you want to call it that.
“The commentary, the journalism, what you’re bringing to life, that is the activism. I’m not out there organizing petitions.”
Hill will be joined by co-hosts Michael Arceneaux and Cole Wiley for the twice-a-week “Unbothered” podcast. Wiley’s late father, Ralph, was a prominent sportswriter.
“When Mike and I started ‘His and Hers,’ podcasts were something ESPN seemed to be mildly into,” Hill said. “For Spotify, podcasts are a huge priority. It’s just a much different feel. Sometimes it feels like I’m releasing an album, just because it’s so big.”
The plan is for sports to be a part of the show, but a relatively small part.
“This is not a podcast where we’re going to be breaking down Super Bowl predictions, or like, who’s going to win the AFC East?” she said. “That’s not happening here.”
Hill added, “’When we do talk about sports we’ll talk about it in a way that covers those tricky intersections: race, gender, politics. I guess sports and I, we certainly aren’t divorced, by any stretch of the imagination. But I do think we’re redefining our relationship.”
Xavier Jernigan, Spotify’s head of cultural partnerships, said, “She’s not afraid to be herself. She’s not afraid to speak what’s on her mind and to speak her truth and to own that truth and not run away from it or shy away from it.
“And she speaks to a segment of people that a lot of segments of mainstream media don’t speak to. That really appealed to us.”
So, 26 months later, is Hill OK with how everything turned out?
“I wouldn’t be very self-aware if I didn’t at least acknowledge there was some tremendous upside to everything that happened,” she said. “In the moment, it was crazy, but as things settled down it created some opportunities for me.
“I didn’t know that when I sent those tweets. I could never have predicted this would be the case. It’s part of the reason that when people ask, do I regret sending them or what I said, I say, ‘No.’ It continues to justify a belief I’ve always held, which is that everything happens for a reason.
“That’s why I’ll never look at what happened on ‘SportsCenter’ as a failure. Never. Not just because I know the hard work that we put into it, but also because it got me from Point A to Point B.”