Jemele Hill never planned on having a decade-long and counting career working at ESPN, the worldwide leader in sports. And her sights were never set on becoming a television anchor. Rather, her lifelong goal was to write long-form stories for Sports Illustrated because she always thought print first.
Gradually, she transitioned from an ESPN.com national columnist to regular studio commentator, appearing on First Take, Around the Horn and Outside the Lines. Ultimately, those opportunities led to a front-and-center role as the co-host of His & Hers, a daily sports discussion television show and podcast.
And somewhere along the way her knack for merging music, culture and sports, as well as her magnetic personality gelled with audiences. Earlier this year, Hill and her co-host, Michael Smith, were paid the ultimate compliment when they were given the nod to take over ESPN’s iconic SportsCenter brand.
After four months on air, SC6 with Michael & Jemele is attracting a younger racially diverse audience, and the time spent viewing SC6 is up double digits over the same period last year.
I spoke with Hill during a telephone interview where she discussed stepping into the SportsCenter spotlight, the role of women in sports media and how she navigated the transitioned from print journalism to television. Her answers below have been edited for length and clarity.
Glass: How have viewers and the ESPN family responded to SC6?
Hill: The ESPN family could not have been more supportive and more pleased with what we’ve been able to do. They were looking for the 6:00 pm Sports Center to be more personality branded. In terms of viewers, they have been very positive. There is a contingent of people out there who are still trying to figure out what we are and what we’re doing. Much like we had to do on His & Hers, we have to train the viewers to have a different expectation. When you give people the same thing consistently and with good quality, the next thing you know they can’t remember it any other way.
Glass: You are walking in the footsteps of notable and powerful journalists – Robin Roberts, the late Stuart Scott and John Saunders. What do their legacies mean to you? Are you applying any advice that you received from them to fulfill your current SportsCenter role?
Hill: I have deep admiration for Robin Roberts, Stuart Scott, and John Saunders. From Stuart, the great lesson for everybody is that you’ve got to bet on yourself. People aren’t going to always be positive about what we’re giving them, but we feel so strong about who we are that we’re not willing to change. Even if you don’t like it, even if it’s not successful. I don’t think either one of us could stomach the idea of being someone else on television other than ourselves. Then we would feel like we disappointed people like Stuart Scott, Robin Roberts and John Saunders, because they were very much themselves no matter where they were appearing and that’s what we appreciated about them.
Glass: You’ve been a champion for women in sports, not only female athletes, but also women in front of the camera. And you’ve been outspoken about the treatment of women on social media and how voices of women in sports are often marginalized. Have you seen any improvement in this area?
Hill: I don’t know that if it’s something that will ever be completely solved. Much like with any issue of this magnitude, it’s always going to be a situation where it’s progress and resistance. The unfortunate part is that in sports there’s always going to be this faction where people believe that women just don’t belong. That mentality is going to be out there and unfortunately, it’s something that women in the business have to put up with. And it feels terrible to say that because it empowers and emboldens in many cases the people who do carry that mentality. I hate that is something that we have to take as collateral damage of the job, but that’s unfortunately, how we have to take it. As we continue to get more women in sports media who are in the position of putting women and their voices at the forefront of sports, and so even if you do have the mentality that women don’t belong, guess what? We’re not going anywhere.
Glass: While transitioning from print media to television, what have you learned about the sports business?
Hill: The mentality in television is way different than it is in print, and so there were a lot of things I had to learn. Having an opinion was the least of what I had to learn because that came naturally. What I began to understand very quickly is that having an authentic opinion is not the only thing that makes you successful on television. TV is performance theater in many respects. You have to learn how to perform your opinion and that was probably something that I learned just by repetition. And I’ve said this before; TV can be in some respects very unrelenting on women. I’ve never felt this way at ESPN, but there is a fixation on how women look on television that can be at times uncomfortable. I had to get used to that part of it.