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WOULD JEMELE HILL PLEASE STOP COMPLAINING ABOUT ESPN?
Four-plus years after departing “SportsCenter,” she continues to portray herself as a racial casualty at a white-male-controlled network — consider the Howard Bryant case as evidence to the contrary
As an advocate of talented media voices, I was pleased to see Jemele Hill join our pool of panelists on ESPN’s “Around The Horn.” The program’s ratings were strong, but we needed fresh perspective in the rotation. That was my view at the time, as the aughts were turning to a new decade.
I couldn’t have been more naive about an emerging corporate initiative.
Hill, who happened to be a Black woman, was part of a “diversity” push by the network’s soon-to-be president, John Skipper. Had I known, I’d have been the first to applaud. After all, I was among those uncomfortable when we had four white males in the panelist squares, while a white male host controlled the silly scoring joystick.
However, I wasn’t aware of the network plan until a few years later, as Skipper explained over dinner in Malibu why he’d been so quick to run me off the show. When he dropped the big word at Nobu — diversity — my jaw almost hit my plate of food.
“Jay,” he said, in a sound bite I’ll never forget, “we needed diversity.”
To this day, he also can say he removed me for a low-level misdemeanor in my one and only legal case, long since completely expunged — leaving my record as clean as it always was — while I was prevailing in a related civil case. What Skipper never will mention is that he stood behind a Black journalist, ESPN senior writer Howard Bryant, in the same time period. In an incident with his estranged wife, Bryant was arrested and charged with domestic assault and battery, assault and battery on a police officer and resisting arrest. According to police in Buckland, Mass., five witnesses alleged they saw a man choking a woman and pushing her into a car in front of their 6-year-old son outside a pizzeria. When police tried to subdue Bryant, they said, he elbowed a trooper in the chest.
Bryant and his attorney blamed racial profiling. He also said ESPN was supporting him in the matter. Sure enough, after agreeing to six months of probation in exchange for dropped charges, he remained in good standing at the company. He stayed for years, writing columns primarily about race, and published a recent book about baseball legend Rickey Henderson. He appears in documentaries, including ESPN’s ongoing series about Derek Jeter, “The Captain.” In 2017, as a guest editor, Bryant selected stories for inclusion in the Best American Sports Writing anthology. He’s a regular contributor on NPR. He’s a co-executive producer of HBO’s “Back On The Record With Bob Costas,” a program grounded in exceptional journalism. Oh, did I mention Skipper — long after he left ESPN in a cocaine scandal — hired Bryant last year at his fledgling Meadowlark Media project?
Point being, Howard Bryant was given a second chance as a talented journalist. But he also was given a second chance as ESPN was purging a talented white journalist. And, forgive me, I fit the description — one who owned Chicago as a columnist for 17 years and was a daily mainstay in the peak years of “Around The Horn,” which since has slogged and shrunk to near-irrelevance with too many rotating voices. I write this from a happy and fortunate place, amid the good life in southern California, when many people I know in sports media are either miserable or pretending they’re not miserable. I can’t express how thrilled I am to be detached from the flim-flam artists and writing in more productive and satisfying forums. That said, I was the sacrifice in a racial double standard, and I hardly was alone in the land of Mickey Mouse … or elsewhere in media and the American workplace.
So I cringe when Hill, who went on to prominence at ESPN and was given wonderful opportunities, continues to bash the company. She thinks she was treated unfairly — along with another Black personality and “ATH” alum, Michael Smith — during their brief tenure as co-hosts of the early-evening “SportsCenter.” It was a bold move by Skipper, who saw a chance to make a cultural statement in the early stages of the Donald Trump presidency and Colin Kaepernick protest movement. But no matter who sits in the hosting seats, “SportsCenter” is first and foremost a digest of the day’s sports news. I couldn’t go on the program as an anchor and, oh, pull out a bottle of wine and play Red Hot Chili Peppers songs. Hill and Smith were encouraged to inject their personalities, but too often, they turned it into Jemele and Michael Conquering The World.
Or, Activists Over America. I was watching, several nights a week. And soon enough, though ESPN certainly didn’t lack diversity when scheduling “SportsCenter” anchors around the clock, tensions rose over race. Facing backlash from Trumpers, Hill exacerbated matters by referring to Trump as a “white supremacist.” Suddenly, the daily sports digest was spiraling into verbal warfare with the President of the United States, who naturally fired back. Regardless of one’s political views, NO ONE watches “SportsCenter” for political discourse. ESPN wasn’t CNN. ESPN wasn’t Fox News. Stephen A. Smith wasn’t going down that rabbit hole during “First Take” in the mornings. Why were Hill and Smith going there in the evenings?
The network — owned by Disney Company, remember — had no choice but to move them aside. Ever since, Hill has been bitter when, if she’d just picked her spots more selectively for non-sports commentary, she still might be an anchor there. She and Smith pushed the envelope a bit too hard, and they were pushed back. Both left the network, and now, she’d be wise to enjoy her more rewarding gig at The Atlantic and carry on with media life. But she still has arsonist work to do, apparently, when it comes to Bristol.
“By far ‘SportsCenter’ was the most high-profile job I’ve had at ESPN. It was the best-paying job I had at ESPN. But it’s also the worst job I had at ESPN,” Hill said last week on the podcast of another former “SportsCenter” anchor, Kenny Mayne. “I wasn’t a good fit for the ‘SportsCenter’ culture. Definitely not a good fit for management overseeing ‘SportsCenter’ at the time. And I got tired. I got really tired of fighting everyday to be myself.”
Huh? The management “overseeing” the show was headed by Skipper, her biggest champion. Not until he left the company in December 2017 were skids greased for the day-to-day newsroom boss, ESPN lifer Norby Williamson, who was no fan of anything but the traditional “SportsCenter” experience. Within a month, Hill was gone from the show, and she left for The Atlantic in autumn 2018. Smith vanished for a while, eventually resurfacing as a talk host on NBC’s Peacock streamer. Looking back, Hill was as naive as I’d been if she thought orders weren’t coming from Los Angeles — straight from the office of Disney CEO Bob Iger — especially when Trump entered the storm. The network had every right to suspend her, for instance, when she demanded consumers boycott Dallas Cowboys advertisers after team owner Jerry Jones threatened to bench players who kneeled during the national anthem.
To this day, Hill doesn’t understand the fuss. It’s not difficult to grasp. No white anchor can veer off course and remain on “SportsCenter,” either. Scott Van Pelt is about as non-traditional as ESPN allows in the anchor seat, and only because he comes across as a 56-year-old frat boy/corporate puppet with no hard opinions about sports, much less politics and the American social condition. So why make an exception for Hill and Smith?
“It’s a conservative culture at ESPN, and so this idea that ESPN is being run by flower children is just a lie,” Hill told Mayne. “That’s not how it is. It’s the opposite, if anything. As you know all too well. Once (critics) started seeing my face, Michael’s face became more prominent … then suddenly ESPN is too liberal because what they’re really trying to say is, ‘Oh, y’all must be liberal-leaning because you got all these women and all these Black people who are suddenly on my TV every day. So that means this company has certainly given in to a brigade of liberalism.’
“They were so concerned about the headlines, what was being written and all the right-wing media constantly coming for our show.”
Nope. As always, ESPN was concerned about advertisers and ratings. If their ratings had been robust, Hill and Smith would have had support from Bristol, Los Angeles and beyond. But they were losing audience — and not because they were Black. Simply, they sometimes weren’t doing sports. Specifically, they weren’t doing “SportsCenter.”
If ESPN sinned, it was by placing them in a no-win situation during an anxious period in U.S. history. But don’t sit here almost five years later, Jemele, and suggest the network gave up on you because you’re Black.
Just look at Howard Bryant.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.