This is the first profile in our TSL Leadership Series. This series features individuals who have worked hard, overcome obstacles, exceeded expectations and become successful leaders in the world of sports. We will profile the most interesting, entertaining, knowledgeable, unique and inspirational personalities in the field, those who are leading the charge and inspiring others to follow.
Read TSL Leadership Series: Diary of Jemele Hill, Part I here
Jemele Hill was sent by angels to me when I was interning and then hired as a general assignment sports reporter at the Raleigh News & Observer over 15 years ago. If there was ever a person literally born to do this and then went on to earn their warrior stripes in the sports journalism game its “Juice” Hill. To know her is to love her.
Being privy to her rough come up and hearing her spit her sports knowledge, it’s easy to understand how deep the game goes for one of its youngest O.G.’s. Shes carrying on tradition and seriously repping for the forgotten few, even when her pearly whites are flashing and the cameras are rolling.
In Part 1 Jemele revealed some very personal information about her loving, but challenging, childhood and some of the early experiences that shaped her passion for sports and future Hall of Fame talent for sports journalism.
In Part 2 we dive into Jemeles career and her candid opinions on race, women and surviving the ESPN game.
As an African-American woman surviving in the predominantly white and male world of sports journalism, I was pretty fortunate. Its a long, distinguished list of people who have helped nurture my career. I was lucky because my earliest mentors were primarily women like Johnette Howard (ESPN.com columnist).
Rachel Jones (international media consultant), Michelle Kaufman (Miami Herald sports writer) and LA Dickerson (specialist, Michigan State’s School of Journalism). All these women gave me the confidence and encouragement I needed, so I never was intimidated despite being in a male-dominated field.
We also make this assumption that mentors have to be older and more established than us. Some of my closest friends — Kelley Carter (celebrity reporter), Suzette Hackney, and Andrew Guy — also were great mentors and probably didn’t realize it.
As my career progressed, I came across a number of people who were invested in my success and would lend support when called upon. For example, Rob Parker, who I met when I was 16 or 17 years old and answering phones in the Detroit Free Press sports department. Also, the late Bob McGruder and Greg Huskisson, who I worked with closely at the Detroit Free Press and Michael Wilbon.
With all of the support I received, any prejudices that I might have encountered just weren’t enough to stop me; but that doesn’t mean you don’t deal with them. I know that at each step along the way, there were people that didn’t believe in me or my ability. Now some of that has nothing to do with my gender or race, but some of it did. And once I started getting deeper into television, I think that there were people that frankly didn’t know what to do with me. I wasn’t a classic host. I was a commentator.
I figured out that TV is all about duplicating what’s already been successful. There are a lot of great copycat artists in television masquerading as geniuses. I didn’t fit a mold. I’m sure if there were 10 other black women in sports television driving successful shows, I might have had the opportunity to drive a show sooner.
I’d like to see women and people of color extended meaningful opportunities, and not just given “chances.” There’s a difference. I was very happy to see Fox give Katie Nolan her own show. She’s young, gutsy and edgy. But could a young woman of color get that same opportunity and investment?
I’m encouraged by the increasing numbers of women I see in this business. But I’m discouraged somewhat by the roles we’re being offered. I stand out because I’m one of the few women driving content on a news-of-the-day sports show. There always will be roles set aside for women as sideline reporters and as hosts, but I’d like to see more women driving shows or more women as play-by-play announcers. And if we are hosting, I’d like to see more of us hosting major properties, like NFL pregame shows.
I run into a lot of women who know sports just as well or better, but they haven’t been put in a position to showcase their depth and versatility. Women and people of color often have to prove what they aren’t, before people truly see who they are.
As far as transitioning to TV, the toughest thing for me now is being farther away from the athletes and teams I discuss. That’s what I miss most about writing and reporting. I don’t get to talk to players and coaches nearly as much as I’d like to. Writing also allows you time to develop an idea, or a thought. Television is in the now, and sometimes you’re asked to speak on things before you have a full grasp of the situation. Earlier in my career, I felt like I had to have a “hot take.” But now, I don’t care about going on TV and admitting what I don’t know. I think people appreciate that. I still have many great memories as a writer to hold me over.
Top 5 Moments In Jemele Hill’s Career
1. 2010 World Cup in South Africa: It was my first World Cup, and for it to be in South Africa made it that much more special. I spent 38 days in the country and adored the people and found it to be a stunningly beautiful place. I grew up during apartheid and to see South Africa finally realize the dream Nelson Mandela wanted for his country was overwhelming.
2. 2004 Summer Olympics in Greece: This was my first experience reporting internationally. I was there for three weeks and the thing about covering an Olympics is that it tests everything you’ve ever learned as a reporter. The best plan is no plan.
3. 2005 Winter Olympics in Turino, Italy: At the time, I had very little experience covering winter sports. I spent the entire time flirting with frostbite, but the wine and pasta made it worth it!
4. 2000 Final Four: That was the first time I covered a significant championship. Michigan State won it that year, after losing the year before in the Final Four to Duke. I had a really good relationship with that team. I was a former student there and spent a significant portion of my early years covering the team. It was home and it kind of felt like we all grew up together.
5. Becoming a Heisman voter: I gave up that vote when I moved to Orlando, but I feel honored to have been a part of a special club. Even better, no one I placed first ever won.
The top moment to date? His & Hers is the biggest thing I’ve ever done in my career. It’s hard to describe what (co-host Michael Smiths) friendship means to me. I’d say it’s beyond friendship. We’re family. We’ve known each other for over 10 years and he’s the most talented person I’ve ever worked with on a regular basis. We unconditionally support each other.
That’s no small thing in this business, because there are plenty of television pairs who are jealous of one another and constantly undermine each other. We honestly want what is best for each other. If at the end of our contract Mike got a huge opportunity at another network or on another platform at ESPN, I’d be the first to throw him a goodbye party. He’s also an unbelievable father and husband. He’s definitely one of the best men I’ve ever known.
Being on TV with Mike is the easiest part. We honestly forget we’re on television. We’re just a couple friends talking. I’m blessed and fortunate to do something like this with one of my best friends.
Putting the show together is the toughest part of the job. I told Mike that our process sometimes is like really awful, awkward foreplay. We have very hard-working, dedicated people who work on our show, but some days we all get on each other’s nerves. We wrestle with what topics to add or eliminate. We’re just trying to do the best show and it can sometimes be a painful process. Television, in general, is a real grind. I can’t have a bad day on air. I’m there to entertain people who have hundreds of other options besides me. That’s a heavy responsibility.
Despite all of my success, I never consider myself a celebrity. I only think about it when real celebrities recognize me. Otherwise, I’m in my little bubble. The most recent reminder of my “fame” came at the Super Bowl in Arizona. Mike and I wound up on stage with Jamie Foxx, whose work I’ve respected for a long time. He was really excited to meet us because he’s a huge sports fan and according to him, he watches us every day. I still find it surreal that I was on stage singing “Blame It” with Jamie Foxx while swigging champagne.
Read here for the final installment in our exclusive three part series on Jemele Hill.