Jemele Hill on Being Black, Female, Young - and On the Sports Page

The Orlando Sentinel columnist talks about investigative sports reporting, celebrity ride-alongs and about being the only black female sports columnist in America.

Jemele Hill

Jemele Hill, 30, is a sports columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, where she has worked since February 2005. Before moving to Orlando, Hill covered Michigan State football and basketball for the Detroit Free Press for six years. While in Detroit, she covered five Final Fours, four college football national championship games, the 2004 Summer Olympics and the NBA playoffs. Her first job out of college was as a general assignment reporter for the Raleigh, North Carolina News & Observer.

Liz Cox Barrett: As a rule, columnists/opinion writers tend to be older white men. You are none of the above. According to a recent study prompted by the Associated Press Sports Editors, you were the only black female sports columnist to be found at the 305 newspapers surveyed. What do you make of that (or, in other words, why is that)? What do you bring to the task?

Jemele Hill: I think I’m going to get a license plate that says “.3” on it. Never in my life did I think I’d be the answer to a trivia question. I’m not sure what to think of it, really. On one hand, it gives me a pretty special distinction. I’m proud of what I am and what I’ve become. I don’t mind being considered a “black columnist,” because I bring those experiences to my column. On the other hand, it’s sad. What does it say about our business that I’m the only one? I also won’t deny there is some pressure on me because I am the only one. That can be difficult to manage at times. This is my first columnist job, so I’m going to make mistakes. But because of my age and what I represent, I’m not sure if I have much latitude.

LCB: One of your peers, Jason Whitlock, a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, wrote a column a few months ago after attending a sports journalism gathering at the Poynter Institute. In the column, Whitlock wrote: “Sports writers don’t do near enough legitimate investigative journalism, and the reporting on the Barry Bonds-steroids issue and Duke lacrosse rape controversy are prime examples of the sports media’s failure to do our real job.” He also wrote that there was “considerable disagreement [at Poynter] about where newspaper and magazine sports writing needed to go to remain as relevant and influential as it was before the advent of ESPN, the Internet, TiVo and 24-hour sports-talk radio.” Some people, he wrote, “claimed that newspaper and magazine sports writing could be saved by further embracing the kind of descriptive, narrative writing that made John Lardner the envy of all sports writers in the 1930s and 1940s” while others “pushed for more opinion, analysis, information and entertainment.”

Your thoughts on both points?

JH: I’ll agree with Jason on his point about the Duke lacrosse situation. I’m not in Durham so I can’t completely speak to what reporters are or aren’t doing. The local paper, the News & Observer, has done the best job of the type of investigative reporting that Jason was talking about. They went door to door. Most of the national media didn’t bother to do that. They just jumped to conclusions and seemed more interested in offering an opinion than gathering the news.

I go back and forth about the steroids issue because short of drug testing players personally, how could that have been brought to light? If it weren’t for a federal investigation, would Barry Bonds have ever been caught? I don’t think so. The BALCO trial was the paper trail and once it was out there, reporters were pretty aggressive. And the vast majority of the public — including baseball writers — was just very ignorant about steroids and some of the other things guys were using.

But overall, I’m not sure if newspapers are as committed to investigative journalism because it takes time and money. With the way newspapers are downsizing, they don’t have the resources to give two or three people eight or nine months to report on one story. It’s just not going to happen at most places.

Sports sections just need to be more creative. The game story isn’t that relevant anymore. Sports is a 24-hour business and newspapers keep operating as if television doesn’t exist. We need to capitalize on what the other mediums can’t give you. ESPN is the most popular sports medium, but it only gives you snippets. Newspapers can still give you analysis and insight because we’re there when the cameras aren’t.

LCB: You wrote the following about ice dancing (while covering the 2006 Winter Olympics): “When death comes, you’ll agonize thinking about the time you wasted watching it.” And, “I know ice skating requires coordination, skill and timing, but so does picking your nose and that ain’t a sport.” You wrote this about Sheryl Swoopes, the WNBA star, coming out: “Sorry, but Swoopes’s coming-out doesn’t have enough shock value to make us learn anything. Lesbians don’t pose a threat and have a certain appreciation in a male-dominated culture. And sadly, the prevailing stereotypes of female athletes as lesbians will probably reduce Swoopes’s emotional admission to a raunchy, tasteless joke by the end of the week. The only way we’re going to address homophobia in sports is if Peyton Manning, the NFL’s MVP last season, makes a similar disclosure. Or Brett Favre. Or Michael Jordan.”

Which of your columns has provoked the most passionate feedback from readers? Why do you think it struck a chord?

JH: I didn’t really catch flak for the ice dancing or the one about Sheryl Swoopes. The columns that generate the most response are always the ones you don’t expect. When I ripped ice skater Sasha Cohen for her terrible performance [at the 2006 Winter Olympics], that drew enormous response. My voicemail was full. I was Lucifer to most people. And I naively thought readers would agree with me, that Cohen choked. But I forgot most people were getting the sugary-sweet NBC version of what happened. And no matter how old they are, we tend to always see figure skaters as little girls. Anyway, they weren’t happy, but I found the whole thing sort of amusing.

And, of course, any time you write about race, people get incensed. I recently wrote a column saying that there is just as much evidence against Lance Armstrong as there is [against] Barry Bonds, and part of the reason there is this extraordinary benefit of the doubt extended to Lance is because he’s white. That’s not the overwhelming reason, mind you. Just a factor in the whole equation. I got a ton of mail about that one, even though I posed the racial element in the next-to-last graf of the column.

But I’ve pretty much heard every racist and sexist insult there is. That stuff doesn’t bother me because I know it doesn’t represent our total readership.

LCB: I noticed you dabbled in a bit of media criticism in a recent column about golfer Michelle Wie. You wrote, “Wie failed to qualify for the men’s U.S. Open, but the way it was characterized by many media types, you would have thought Wie was the Hindenburg at the Canoe Brook Country Club in New Jersey.” Can you elaborate on that, on which “media types” you were referring to and on what you think they were doing/do wrong?

JH: Well, the tone of a lot of columns and other pieces written about her were that she was this huge failure. It’s an understandable and justified opinion because of her talent and her track record of not closing out tournaments. But given her age and the short time she’s been a professional, it’s unreasonable to expect that she’s got everything figured out at 16. She’s still growing into her game. Plus, she owes it to herself to try to compete on the highest stage, which is the PGA Tour. What people fail to point out is that the PGA Tour is not a men’s tour. The language about who is eligible to compete is not gender specific.

LCB: In addition to your columns, you write a series of pieces called “Riding Along with Jemele Hill” where you interview sports figures while riding along in their vehicle of choice. For example, you queried Buffalo Bills (and former Miami Dolphins) tailback Willis McGahee about, among other things, “What’s more troublesome, an ex-wife or a baby momma?” while driving around in his black BMW 645. This strikes me as a sort of fantasy come true for a young sports fan — riding in a sports star’s car and casually asking him/her questions (and getting paid to do it). Did you pitch this idea? And what is the purpose of it, for readers? Finally, who would be your dream “ride along” — any public figure, in sports or not?

JH: Yes, this was my idea. I thought it would be cool to get a sports figure in their own vehicle and ask them questions about politics, relationships, whatever comes to mind. I didn’t want a Q&A where I just asked them about their sport or their statistics. I was thinking of something like Craig Kilborn’s 5 Questions — something funny, off-the-wall, with a hint of the ridiculous. I wanted to bring a sense of humor to it, and in turn bring out the real personality of sports stars. Even though sports writers are with athletes a lot, most of us don’t know them that well or what makes them tick. This was a good platform because it put us on their turf. Besides, most athletes are obsessed with their cars and love showing them off.

As for my dream “ride along,” I’d have to pick Oprah Winfrey. She’s the most brilliant woman of my generation. I’d really like to ask her about her stance on hip-hop, why she never had children on her own, if she could ever be convinced to run for president, and what it’s like to be so rich that you could literally set a million dollars on fire and not miss it. Now if I could pick someone who is deceased, it would either be Frank Sinatra or Zora Neale Hurston, my favorite author of all time. Although, I’m not sure if most of Frank’s answers could be printed.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.