Jemele Hill knows about the intersection of politics and sports up close. As one of the faces of SC6, last year’s revamp of ESPN flagship SportsCenter with friend and colleague Michael A. Smith, Hill came under fire last September when she replied to a tweet from trolls that “Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists.”
Trump himself demanded an apology, while his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, called the tweet a “fireable offense.” Hill essentially apologized for putting ESPN in the position she had but not for her criticisms of Trump.
Months later, Hill, per her request, moved from co-hosting SC6 to writing for The Undefeated, the ESPN site that addresses the intersection of race and sports. In October, the longtime sportswriter and sports personality left ESPN altogether to become a staff writer for The Atlantic. And now she can currently be heard narrating the three-part basketball docuseries, Shut Up and Dribble, executive produced by NBA great LeBron James for Showtime, that examines the political activism of NBA players in the context of today’s landscape with lots of big names, basketball and not, weighing in.
If the title sounds familiar, that’s because it takes its name from the reprimand Fox News host Laura Ingraham used in February as she denounced James’ criticism of Trump. Originally, Hill was slated to appear as another talking head, along with Kendrick Lamar, James himself, Charles Barkley and more, before getting a call from director Gotham Chopra to take over the narration. Given her extensive sports background and first-hand experience of being targeted by the White House’s current resident, it’s a job for which she is uniquely qualified. Narration, however, is not something she ever considered doing in any capacity.
“I can’t stand the sound of my own voice, so the idea of me narrating an entire docuseries is kind of amusing,” she admitted to The Root via phone from L.A., her new home. “It wasn’t something I saw myself doing but I believe in the content and the story that’s being told and that’s what made it an attractive option for me.”
With as much as she already knows about sports, Hill admitted that she too learned to see athletes, even those she grew up admiring and even covered, through a new lens.
“I knew that Oscar Robertson played a significant role in NBA players becoming free agents and the league merging with the ABA. I knew that. However, what I didn’t know is that he testified in a committee hearing and that footage of Oscar Robertson testifying before our legislature is stunning, dramatic and compelling footage,” she shared.
“There are other incidents that I knew happened but seeing it through the prism of today made it even more kind of shocking,” she continued. “I remember when Craig Hodges went to the White House after the [Chicago] Bulls won the title; what I didn’t remember was that he went in Muslim garb and I didn’t remember or recall that he had slipped the president, George Sr., a letter asking for help and government aid for urban cities.” The NBA, as Shut Up and Dribble shows, punished Hodges for his outspokenness, too.
Because today’s NBA leadership seems very progressive—especially in comparison to the NFL, which has yet to offer Colin Kaepernick a job on any team in retribution for his kneeling against racial injustice while playing for the San Francisco 49ers, or Major League Baseball, where black players are sparse— it is easy to forget its early struggles. For Hill, the NBA’s guaranteed big money contracts has given their players the luxury to speak up without fear. Also she credits the power of LeBron James, the biggest name behind Shut Up and Dribble, for the league’s unprecedented pro-social justice stance.
“The best player in the league is its most outspoken player,” she explained, “and considering how much of a moneymaker LeBron James is for the NBA, how much of an ambassador that he is for the league worldwide, then it’s in the NBA’s best interest to be on the same page as its best and most important player.”
Hill, as evidenced by her reported seven-figure contract buyout from ESPN and position at The Atlantic, is exerting her own power these days. “I have more autonomy in terms of how I’m building my career,” she said. “Getting into business with me now means that you have to guarantee me a certain amount of autonomy and creative freedom and, if I get one percent below that, I don’t have to take the job. And so there are certain compromises I don’t have to make now in terms of my career that I probably had to make 10 years ago.”
At The Atlantic, where her beat “is covering and writing about the intersection of race, sports, politics and gender,” Hill is excited about “step[ping] my game up as a writer and a critical thinker” and doesn’t anticipate the roadblocks she encountered last year at ESPN. Citing her recent article on Sen. Ted Cruz’s Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke in Texas as an example, Hill noted “That’s something I would not have probably been able to do at ESPN because it’s more of a political story than a sports story. So yeah it’s given me this opportunity to explore all these complicated intersections with a lot of nuance. And it also was made clear to me by everybody at The Atlantic that I didn’t have to stay in the sports lane. For once, I was told not to stick to sports.”
And she’s not. Last year, Hill formed Lodge Freeway Media, a production company with her best friend and fellow writer Kelly L. Carter. So far the two have one promising project inspired by their friendship in development at Sony with Gabrielle Union.
The state of our nation’s union is also on her mind. “I’m not one that’s prone to hyperbole or to being overly dramatic but this certainly feels like the most important midterms of my lifetime. I think, with this midterm elections and with our presidential election, that we, as a country, have to decide what we want to be known for and who we want to be.”
What Hill wants to be is becoming increasingly clearer to her. “I’m just living my life and honestly trying to fulfill this calling that God has instilled in me.”
Shut Up and Dribble premieres on Showtime Saturday at 9 pm ET, with episodes 2 and 3 airing on November 10 and November 17 at 9 pm ET and 10 pm ET respectively.