Kevin Kapenda, Columnist // Illustration By Cynthia Tran Vo
Whenever I’m asked what I like most about journalism, I respond that it allows us to discuss matters that are uncomfortable but relevant. One can engage with issues that people struggle to discuss with colleagues, friends and loved ones.
One area that desperately needs such journalism is sports. More often than not, sports articles exploring larger social issues like gender, LGBT and racial bias are dismissed as irrelevant or chastised on social media as being propaganda. ‘Stick to sports!’ is the all too common response from the ‘silent majority’. While matters of identity and power are not always relevant to sports stories, it’s important to discuss them when they are. Sports journalism is arguably the most consumed and easily accessible form of news and has just as much burden of responsibility as the rest of the media to expose injustice.
In August, it was revealed that long-time ESPN personality Jemele Hill would be leaving the network in September. With Hill’s departure, ESPN is losing someone who understood that sports did not exist in isolation from larger societal challenges, such as economic, gender and racial inequality. Sadly, it is probably because of those views that she is leaving the network.
I first watched Hill back in 2011 on a show called Numbers Never Lie. At first, Hill would occasionally appear on the show, which was initially hosted by her future SportsCenter colleague Michael Smith, former NBA player Jalen Rose and NFL standout Hugh Grant. However, by mid-2012, Rose would move on to other roles with the network and Grant would part ways with ESPN, making Hill the regular host of the show with Smith. The show was later renamed His and Hers in 2013. Hill and Smith became known for her pop-culture references to films and music, predominantly hip-hop. But what I liked most about Hill was that she wasn’t afraid to discuss nuances that her colleagues, most of whom male and white, did not see or were unaffected by.
One of Hill’s controversies was calling Donald Trump a white supremacist on Twitter in 2017. Her comment was met with furor from ESPN’s loyal ‘silent majority’, who claimed that it wasn’t Hill’s job to delve into the President’s dog-whistle response to NFL anthem protests. Instead, they argued she should “stick to” anthem protests in isolation of the reason they were happening in the first place. Of course, I can see why people would be uncomfortable with sports media discussing racial inequality. With music, film and television paying increased attention to these questions, and news media frequently covering the racial divide Trump’s politics have wrought, sports was the only thing many could seek comfort in and not be constantly reminded of their privilege.
In Jan. 2018, Hill left Sportscenter at 6 pm (SC6) with Michael Smith to run The Undefeated, an ESPN-owned online publication that would explore the intersections between sport, popular culture, gender, race among other matters – similar to Bill Simmons’ The Ringer. Despite the launch of The Undefeated, the real story has been Hill’s tweets about the issues she has gotten so much racist and sexist flack for discussing. On Sept. 4, just after Nike announced that they would make former NFL QB Colin Kaepernick the face of the “Just Do It” slogans 30th anniversary campaign, Hill tweeted “When it came to WNBA players wanting to get a fairer share of the pie, everybody suddenly was an economist. Now with Kaepernick, everybody is suddenly a stock market analyst and went to Wharton.”
Earlier this year, WNBA players stated they deserved a 50/50 revenue share with owners like NBA players had. This was met with backlash from predominantly male sports fans saying that like most female sports leagues, the WNBA did not earn as much as the NBA and that the players were unrealistic to expect higher wages. According to an August ESPN article, WNBA players earn 22 per cent of league revenues, less than half the pie of NBA players.
As for Hill’s future, it hasn’t taken her long to land on her feet. On Sept. 19, it was announced that she will collaborate with LeBron James on his Showtime venture ironically titled Shut Up and Dribble. The title is a jab at Fox News host Laura Ingraham and members of the “silent majority” who like Hill, want James to refrain from discussing politics and race relations. Luckily for me and countless others who want to speak out about racial injustice, but are afraid doing so will jeopardize their professional life, Hill doesn’t appear to plan on “just sticking to sports” anytime soon.