Interview with Jemele Hill Part 1 from 4/11/07

Importing interviews from the original wordpress site to the current version.

Jemele Hill is the only Black female sports columnist currently writing for a major outlet. It’s very important there is a prominent influx of dissenting minority female voices in journalism so fans of sports get more objective coverage of the games they love. Jemele is very talented, knows her stuff and will be the force formidable for years to come. Because Jemele is alone, she carries the burden of cultivating role models in female youth who aspire to do what she does so well. Open your minds people and allow yourself to see things differently. I enjoy interviewing journalists because readers can get a insider view of the voices behind the pen. I hope you enjoy.

Michael Tillery: Describe your style and your vision of journalism.

Jemele Hill: Hmm, that’s a pretty good question. I would say that I always have an opinion on things. I think that’s the most important part of being a journalist. I try to be the columnist that has all the pitches. Someone who could throw the fastball, curveball, lil’ slider and maybe give you a knuckleball every now and again. I think that’s important because anytime you are a columnist and you talk to people one certain way, it’s only a matter of time before you are tuned out and no longer taken seriously—particularly if you are a fastball columnist that always is screaming at people, everything is outrageous and everything is the end of the earth. I think you have to choose your pictches carefully and sort of go with what’s warranted for the moment. Sometimes people need to be yelled at and cussed out, but other times they need to be spoon fed and educated. You have to figure out what it is your audience needs at that moment on that particular subject. I’m a relatively young columnist that’s new in the game. I’m still sort of learning that, but I like to fashion myself as someone that wants to be versatile.

MT: What was your inspiration to become a journalist?

JH: I love writing. I loved two things growing up—sports and writing. I played a lot of sports in the neighborhood and also in high school. I’ve always written short stories and kept a journal. I wanted to become an author, but I couldn’t figure out how to make money. I didn’t know anyone who was an author, or really couldn’t conceptualize what an author was. In high school, I needed an elective. It came down to journalism and personal health. I took journalism because I didn’t want to hear the football coach talk about sex (Jemele and I chuckle). The rest as they say is history. It was a way for me to write, meet people and also stay involved in sports. I didn’t fashion myself as being any kind professional athlete. It wasn’t even available to women then—not like it is now. At least there are a few avenues. I was like wow! This is a way for me to stay connected to a game that I love.

MT: I like to compare journalism to the voting process. I don’t think individuals should complain about the lack of minority voices unless they ascribe to become journalists. Why is there a lack of Black journalists—or for the sake of this conversation, Black women journalists?

JH: That is a good question. I think there definitely should be more. Part of it too is visibility. I flashback to when I was a kid, making choices and figuring out what I wanted to do with my career. I didn’t see anyone that looked like me doing what I wanted to do. It wasn’t until I began to see more female journalists—ones that took me under their collective wing and showed me what journalism is really about. Then, I was like OK, I can really do this. Sometimes things materialize when you see it for your own eyes. Then you start believing.It’s kind of a double edged sword. I wrote a column recently about the lack of Black female coaches in college basketball. People assume that there are, because of the Black players, but it’s simply not the case. When I speak at colleges, I tell athletes that just because you are an athlete doesn’t mean that you can’t be a journalist. In fact, it gives you more credibility because you’ve played the game. We have to show Blacks that we are out there and there is money in this field. Once we do this, then we will start to see an influx of younger journalists in the field.

MT: Why the switch from the Orlando Sentinel to ESPN?

JH: It was just a career choice. I was at the Sentinel for two years. ESPN offers a major brand with a national audience. They are a very versatile company—publishing arm, magazine arm, TV arm and a .com arm. I like to fashion myself again as a versatile person who does a little bit of everything. This company matches my talent. I can do some TV work, some magazine work, some column work and some .com work and that really appealed to me.

MT: What are your goals and aspirations?

JH: Well besides ESPN, I would like to do some more TV work and get some more television opportunities. I would also like to write a novel. I’ve always wanted to be a novelist. It’s just a matter of mapping out a plan to make that happen.

MT: Could you comment on Don Imus and his ridiculous comments recently about the Rutgers female basketball team—calling them “nappy headed ho’s” after watching some of their performance in their loss to Tennessee in the Championship Game?

JH: I wrote a column for I heard about this from a source of mine. She is the president of Black women in sports foundation. She sent me an email asking if I heard about this. I just couldn’t believe it. I know he’s a shock jock and is part of what he does. He’s very abrasive and certainly is not politically correct. I was just appalled because this is the same man that is in the Broadcaster’s Hall of Fame. He’s considered a revolutionary radio voice. He’s just a bigot to me. He is always denigrating women and minorities. He’s crude. His crew of idiots has called Venus and Serena Williams animals—saying they belong in National Geographic. I just don’t understand how he’s able to keep a job. I’m really concerned that his listenership continues to surge. I don’t know what that says about either the type of people he appeals to or the type of Americans we are that we are actually listening to this fool. I was very disturbed. I alerted the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) –their watchdog organization. I’m really impressed that they got the ball rolling as fast as they did (Imus subsequently was suspended for two weeks starting April 16th). I think he should be fired. I don’t think there’s any question. He should have been fired a long time ago. I know how corporate think tanks are. I know how corporations work. Unfortunately because he’s so popular, I wonder if that will work. Someone in the NCAA brought up an interesting point. One of his sponsors is State Farm. I’m a State Farm customer. Do I even want to be associated with them if they are backing this guy? State Farm was the major contributor to the NCAA tournament. If I’m Myles Brand (President, NCAA), who put out a statement condemning Imus, I’m having a conversation with Imus today. That’s the next step to get him off the air. You have to hit him in the pocketbook.

MT: Just as a comparison, I recently interviewed Micheal Ray Richardson. The next day, he made some remarks about Jewish people and also some anti gay comments to hecklers. He was suspended during his team’s (Albany Patroons) run to the championship and subsequently fired. This is the problem I have with America. Yes, Imus has done a lot of admirable charity work, but that has nothing to do with the hatred he continuously speaks. Why is this person still on the air? Like you said, it really says a lot about America and the money green. Imus gets what essentially is a two week vacation? Come on! Another thing, I’m sick of these news outlets giving every Black leader of some organization a turn to speak. Where is the outrage from other races? I haven’t seen anyone White saying Imus should be terminated. Until that happens—and not only on this subject—we will continue to have a racial problem in this society. Speak up people! Do you live his comments or do you strongly hold him accountable?

JH: That’s a good and interesting point. It’s one that I’ve thought of and even said to people before. People have to understand that eliminating racism and eliminating this type of behavior can’t always solely be the responsibility of minorities. We can’t be the one always educating, taking up the cause or highlighting racial issues. We need everyone’s help. This is everyone’s problem. This is just not an issue that people of color have to deal with. It affects White people also. I agree with you. It is funny because I was watching Pardon The Interruption, and they were discussing the issues and I was glad to see that it had gotten out that far. It reached the mainstream headlines on ESPN. But I was kind of bothered by something Tony Kornheiser said. I think he is a fabulous columnist and a good sports radio personality. I am not trying to take any of that away from him. I was bothered by the fact that he said that if someone said those comments in a comedy club, it would be funny. I was thinking “No, it wouldn’t be funny” and that’s not even the issue. It is basically a back handed way of saying, “if somebody Black said it on the Steve Harvey show, then it would be okay.” That is not the issue and it tends to be the focus here. It is who is saying it, and Black people are allowed to say this about their own people so why aren’t we allowed to say it? I think those are two separate issues. The issue is people have been fired for less. You look at Steve Lyons and as you pointed out Micheal Ray Richardson, they have been fired for less. He says this routinely. And people give him a free pass by saying, “He is a shock jock, that’s what they do.” That is unacceptable to me because no one else in the mainstream communication career or avenue could ever get away with this. Again, you are right. There needed to be a mainstream voice condemning Imus’ comments. He is an idiot and needs to be fired.

MT: I am not going to hold Michael Wilbon accountable for Kornheiser’s comments. They are friends; they have known each other for years. But, if they didn’t have that relationship, I believe Wilbon—after Kornheiser’s comments—would have dropped a heavier shoe.

JH: Yeah, I do realize that part of their show is good cop, bad cop. They are different thinkers and that kind of lends itself to the structure of the show. I was discussing earlier with other journalists that at some point, yes, African Americans are going to have to address the entertainment icons in our own community in terms of what they say, what we buy, what we consume and how we allow people to entertain us. That is definitely going to need to be addressed, but that it not the issue here. That is a diversionary tactic that people use to excuse people that behave that way. In that particular case, I think the most important point is that it was discussed on PTI because literally there was initially no media outrage until calls were made. It was like a pebble that dropped in the water. Nothing really happened. People had to be forced to react to it, which is also interesting. That is why I compared it to what Tim Hardaway said about John Amaechi. Instantly, it became huge news and I thought this should have been treated with the same seriousness. Tim Hardaway had to sell part of a business he had in Miami because people didn’t want to deal with him. I don’t understand why Don Imus doesn’t get that same treatment.

MT: Yes, one last point about this. I truly feel that we as Americans, no matter what our race, are out to protect our own individual interests and the hell with everyone else. That being said, I think Imus is a brilliant man regardless of his personal philosophy and chose to use that moment to elevate his number of listeners. He doesn’t care what he said. I am sure he speaks like that all of the time. It was a half-assed apology. I think we need to speak out with more conviction when we do speak out. We should get off of this subject because I am getting hot.

Bob Huggins left Kansas State for West Virginia—his alma mater—after one year. What are your thoughts on Michael Beasley and other recruits being released out of their commitments?

JH: I definitely think they should be released, although honestly I struggle with that. One thing is for sure–and some coaches and NCAA officials will tell you this—when you pick a school, pick it because you like the school. Don’t pick it because you like the coach. And that is kind of their philosophy. However, they are naïve to think that young men don’t do the opposite. Of course they pick a certain school because of the coach, who wouldn’t? From that perspective, I think it is completely fair to let them out of their scholarship. If you just look at how many coaches have changed schools since the tournament ended, these contracts these coaches sign mean almost nothing. If the players are going to be held accountable, then so should the coaches. Given the situation that they brought Huggins out of, Kansas State should have been given more than one year.

MT: What are your thoughts on Barry Bonds and the way Major League baseball chooses to approach Barry breaking the record?

I ask this of anyone I interview because Barry breaking the record should be documented and not ignored for history’s sake.

JH: It is tough for a lot of people to want Barry to break Aaron’s record because of the cloud of steroids. It is more or less about Hank. My dislike of Barry Bonds comes from my love of Hank. Aaron is one of the most principled and honorable people that you will ever meet. I don’t think major league baseball deserves better because this is partly their problem, where they had the chance to get serious about steroids, and they didn’t. Now they have to sit there and watch as the most hallowed record is broken by someone that has a heavy suspicion of steroid use. However, considering what a graceful and wonderful player Hank Aaron was, it is hard to see somebody like Barry Bonds break his record knowing everything that Bonds stands for. I know Hank Aaron has said several times that records are made to be broken. He has tried to stay as far away from Barry Bonds as possible because I know that it has to bother him on some level too. He did everything the right way and the type of racism that he endured in breaking that record makes you want to cry. And to see now what it has come to, he deserves better. More than anyone, Hank Aaron deserves more, and that is how I feel about it.

Hank recently stated that he will not be in attendance when Barry breaks the record.

MT: This is my opinion. Last year, I wrote a piece entitled, A Conversation with Bobby Baseball–an interview of mainstream America for the scrutiny heaped upon Barry Bonds. Barry Bonds has been hated since early on in his career. I think that America and the media at large choose to use steroids as a scapegoat. For the media to always throw down our throats that Barry is hated this way, hated that way, has nothing to do with steroids. I had the chance to meet Barry and he was cool with me. So why does America choose to hate Barry simply because the media says so? I think Barry’s place in baseball history should be intact because there weren’t any anti-steroid laws while he was approaching the record. Barry Bonds might be surly but I don’t see Major League baseball tearing down the legacy of Ty Cobb—who was a known racist—or any other similarly perceived baseball figure.

JH: I understand that, but the one thing that makes Barry’s case a little different is the record that he is breaking. The players union could have at least put some pressure on the players regarding steroid testing and they didn’t. Bottom line, Major League baseball wanted higher attendance at a time where baseball popularity was waning. They were fully aware that something wasn’t quite right but they sanctioned it anyway, because it brought people back after the strike. The league is basically paying dearly for its own greed. I don’t believe that people should make it out as though Barry Bonds was the only one taking steroids. If people want to talk about putting asterisks on things, well there were a whole lot of players that need some asterisks. So I think that part of it is laughable. One thing is for sure, that even before we knew what we know about BALCO, Barry was arguably—maybe—the best player in the game if not the best player of the generation. Before anybody can pinpoint the physical changes, Barry was not one to buddy up to reporters. Barry doesn’t like reporters all that much and that has certainly influenced the fans opinion through the media. That being said, I still think in terms of Hank Aaron’s legacy, Barry is a disservice to that because of the class in which Hank Aaron carries himself. I think baseball in many ways is getting what they deserve and I know there is going to be a lot of talk about what is going to happen when Barry Bonds breaks the record.

I say Bud Selig has got to be there.

MT: Yes, he’s got to be there. It needs to be documented that Bud Selig was the commissioner of baseball during this era.

JH: He can’t be tough talk now when he wasn’t tough talk five, six years ago. He has no choice but to suck it up and bear it. (Jemele laughs)

MT: I was a big fan of Barry’s father. The media was hard on Bobby Bonds. Barry is no different than Sandy and Roberto Alomar, Ken Griffey, Kobe Bryant and the Mannings–to name a few–in that these players know and have experienced the media spin—especially when dealing with their famous fathers. That adds a lot to what is going on with Barry. This important aspect is pushed under the rug and is something the public chooses to not deal with. This is the way it has been spun. Barry hates talking to reporters and therefore is not a good person or teammate. I’m not excusing Barry Bonds for anything. I’m not a Barry Bonds apologist. I think America and the media needs to look at the entire scope when commenting about Bonds.

JH: You bring up great points, but Barry does not do things to help himself. I believe that he came into the game being having total hostility towards the media. You bring up his father and that is a really good point. He as all these blowups on camera and blows up at Jim Leyland, and totally exacerbates the situation. That’s why to some degree I think he relishes the media situation. It’s pretty well documented that he is an ego maniac.

MT: That’s true, most of the greats are.

JH: I’m not saying that players deserving honor is contingent on their relationship with us. He’s got to understand that he has to deal with things a little bit better. If Hank can take it, then Barry Bonds can take it! (Jemele laughs) That’s my personal opinion.

MT: This is a very important statement. When I interview an athlete or celebrity, I have no problems. If you question an athlete in a not so genuine way, where is the positive? What is positive about asking an athlete something that is so irrelevant—doing so in such an unprofessional fashion—and then writing that this particular athlete is an asshole? The public’s opinion is then shaped by the cynical questions that he has been continuously asked his entire career. I’m not even speaking about the steroid issue. I think that is what needs to be addressed by some of our peers. If you ask a stupid question, then you are going to get a stupid answer. If you are forthright and honest with an athlete, then you will get the answer you need for your story. If you ask an absurd question and get screamed on by an athlete, then it’s your fault.

JH: If you are cussing out photographers in front of everyone, what kind of questions do you think you are going to get asked? People are going to ask you why you are cussing out photographers.

MT: True but there is always an action before the negative reaction and that should be addressed regarding any athlete. They are human just like the rest of us regardless of the money they make. They have good days and bad days.

JH: One player I can appreciate is Ken Griffey. He’s a sensitive guy and I know playing in his hometown did not help matter because people expect more or you and want more of a piece of you. I think it really bothered him at first—especially with the injuries. Now that we see the lens being pulled back on baseball, people have eased up on him a lot. I think it has definitely contributed to how he’s portrayed now. People are ten years later realizing what a good guy Ken Griffey is. You can look at him and see that he did it all natural. He is truly as gifted as we thought he was. At the time—especially with every little quarrel writers had with him—Griffey was not someone we truly appreciated. Those same people are looking really goofy now as cheater after cheater has come through this game. I do agree with you that we the media need to stop taking it so personal when a guy is in a bad mood. People are going to get in a bad mood every now and again. I know I would not be very happy if I was asked 500 of the same questions every single day. There are some sports writers that feel if a player is not buddy buddy with them then he’s not a good guy. Some players want a cut and dry relationship with the media. They don’t want small talk. They want you to ask your question and be done—of course some athletes need to be more mature. I certainly agree with your point. We have to watch how we approach people because they don’t owe us anything.

MT: No they don’t. I think the sense of entitlement needs to be eliminated on all sides.

JH: Yes, definitely. None of us are engaging in brain surgery or ditch digging. Sometimes I figure that’s the perfect phrase for both sides, a sense of entitlement. Just because I carry around a note pad and have a press credential doesn’t mean that you have to talk to me. You do have to give me respect that you would anyone on the street. Certainly that doesn’t mean that I’m entitled to anything other than the function of my job.

Click here for Part 2 of the Jemele Hill interview.

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