On Oct. 30, widely esteemed journalist and activist Jemele Hill inspired hundreds of Charlotte students and community members. She engaged the crowd with a broad range of topics, including her experience as a woman of color in a white-male dominated field, her work as an activist and the importance of voting.
Hill specializes in sports journalism, a field that presents obstacles for women. She got her start at the Raleigh News & Observer, then moved to Detroit Free Press and later the Orlando Sentinel. She joined ESPN in 2006, where she was a co-anchor on SportsCenter with Michael Smith. Now Hill works as a staff writer for The Atlantic.
Hill’s talk at UNC Charlotte capitalized on sexism in male-dominated fields. She told students, “People think your ability to know and understand sports is directly linked to your genitalia. As a woman, and I think this isn’t just limited to sports; a lot of times you have to show what you are so they can stop looking at you for what you aren’t.”
She explained how this constant pressure can be deleterious to a woman’s self-image. “You just have to get used to a different level of scrutiny. You can sometimes internalize that and think that you can’t make a mistake. Don’t feel that you have to be perfect because men certainly don’t feel that way.”
Sam Palian, Sports Editor for the Niner Times, says she rarely experiences sexsim in her job. Her staff is uniquely diverse, consisting of 40 percent women. However, she said, “Sometimes coaches will say ‘oh that was a great question!’ as if they are surprised. I never thought of it as sexism, but sometimes I wonder if they actually mean that was a great question.”
Hill has established herself as a controversial figure in the journalism field. In 2008, she was suspended from ESPN for comparing the Boston Celtics to Adolf Hitler. “I showed very poor judgment in the words that I used. I pride myself on an understanding of, and appreciation for, diversity — and there is no excuse for the appalling lack of sensitivity in my comments,” she said in an official statement.
Perhaps the most famous — or for some, notorious — controversy of Hill’s career was a Tweet about President Trump after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville: “Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself with other white supremacists” and “Trump is the most ignorant, offensive president of my lifetime. He is a direct result of white supremacy. Period” she wrote. President Trump fired back, claiming that ESPN’s ratings “tanked” because of Hill.
Hill stands by her decision to criticize President Trump. She told a UNC Charlotte student, “I thought I was saying water is wet. I didn’t really think or consider that this would have a negative impact on my career. I knew it was going to put me in a difficult spot with ESPN, but I certainly didn’t think it would derail my career.”
According to Jemele Hill, a little backlash is an inherent part of journalism. “Journalists are supposed to be the disrupters. They’re supposed to be the agitators. That was why I became a journalist,” she said.
Hill left ESPN with a $5 million buyout right after the Tweet, breaking her five-year contract.
Continuing her work as an activist, Hill emphasized the importance of voting during her speech to UNC Charlotte. She referenced the Florida mayoral race between Andrew Gillum, who she supports, and Ron DeSantis as an example that every vote matters.
Hill’s speech ultimately captured what she is already known for: journalism and activism. Looking over a crowd of mostly people of color, Hill implored these students to pressure newspapers across the country to diversify. Only 16.6% of the American news workforce is made up of people of color. 82% of all sports reporters are white men.
Jemele Hill has made it a priority to change these numbers by boldly integrating activism with sports journalism. Hill closed with a quote from Ida B. Wells that sums up this drive for change: “I’d rather go down in history as one lone Negro who dared to tell the government that it had done a dastardly thing than to save my skin by taking back what I said.”