Exclusive Interview with ESPN.com analyst, Jemele Hill
You’ve seen their tall, curvy yet toned physiques on the court however did you know women with curves exist behind the desk? The Curvthlete had a chance to catch up with ESPN.com analyst and writer, Jemele Hill for its first exclusive and delve into what it’s really like to be female, curvy and a knowledgeable yet opinionated sports fanatic in the male dominated world of sports journalism. Jemele reveals her guilty pleasures for reality TV and soaps, her origins, real reason behind her past suspension from ESPN and advice on how to avoid pitfalls as a minority and female journalist.
CM: How did you first become interested in sports? In sports journalism?
JH: I always was a big tomboy growing up. Loved to play football, basketball, and baseball, which was my favorite sport as a kid. I also loved reading, especially the sports sections for both the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press. In 10th grade, I needed an elective and the only thing available was journalism. I was hooked after that.
CM: Did you play any sports in school?
JH: I played fast-pitch softball. Shortstop.
CM: While at Michigan State where could one find you on campus? On the sidelines interviewing the jocks? Nose buried in the books? Or partying keg style at the frat and sorority houses?
JH: How about none of the above? Best place to find me was at The State News, the campus newspaper where I spent 99 percent of my time. I only covered sports for one year, and it was all the non-revenue sports. After that, I was an editor for the next few semesters. The remaining one percent of my time was split between drinking Squirt and tequila and class. And before you ask, I didn’t have a death wish.
CM: Upon graduation, how did your Michigan State education inside and outside the classroom help you land a job with the Detroit Free Press covering Michigan State football and basketball?
JH: The State News isn’t your ordinary college newspaper. We were an independent newspaper and at the time, we were the largest college daily in the country. I supplemented that experience with professional internships every summer. I interned at five newspapers, and my first job out of college was as a general assignment sports reporter for the News & Observer in Raleigh. Getting that break with the Free Press happened because of my experience, and also because I had a long relationship with the paper dating back to high school. I started working at the Free Press the summer before my junior year in high school. I was what the paper called a “Free Press baby.” They accepted me into their high school apprenticeship program my sophomore year and when that was done, I got a job answering phones in the Free Press sports department. I took scores from high school coaches, and typed up brief summaries of high school sports games. I did that my 11th and 12th grade year, working just about every Thursday and Friday night. And then, the summer after my sophomore year of college, I was a Detroit Free Press features intern, covering mostly R & B and hip hop. So when they hired me in 1999, I had known everyone for years. That gave me a huge leg up.
CM: What was the most major transition from covering Michigan sports to Orlando sports at the Orlando Sentinel to nationally for ESPN.com?
JH: That’s a tough question because the transition from beat writer to columnist was really hard. I was terrible the first 6-8 months that I was a columnist in Orlando, although my detractors would argue I’m still awful! Giving my opinion wasn’t the hard part. It was getting used to the fact that my words could have so much impact. I had stop seeing situations in such absolutes, because you can be wrong so often in this job. I’m still wrong now, but it comes with a more mature perspective since I’ve gone through some things in life. Going to ESPN was another difficult transition because the stage was so much bigger and the mistakes and accomplishments can be magnified to such an incredible degree. And at ESPN, you become a public figure. That was a challenging adjustment.
CM: What is a man’s first impression or comment when he finds out you write about sports for a living?
JH: Most of them are pretty impressed by it. But I’ve run into a few men who’ve been a little intimidated by what I do. Stories for another time.
CM: How do some men test your sports knowledge?
JH: Some try to insult me by asking questions like, ‘well who’s the starting quarterback for the Falcons?’ I’m like, really dude? Why don’t you just ask me who invented the telephone? I’ve had my share of male readers insist that I go write for Good Housekeeping or Cosmo. Some guys want to play the trivia game and ask me about players who played in the 1800s. I don’t usually get into the game of trying to validate myself to guys who’ll never like me anyway. The only people I have to validate anything to is ESPN.
CM: Do you feel this business is the root cause for the negative reaction you’ve received for what has been viewed as some of your most controversial articles in the last two years?
JH: Some of the controversial reaction was warranted, but there’s an element out there that reacts to me so strongly because I’m a black female who isn’t shy about giving my opinion.
CM: How did you deal with the suspensions for your Adolf Hitler/Boston Celtics comparison during the 2008 NBA Playoffs and University of Kentucky basketball coach, John Calipiri to Charles Manson?
JH: I was irresponsible in both cases, but I wasn’t suspended for my comment regarding John Calipari. That’s another part of my learning process, understanding the immense responsibility that comes with being on a platform like ESPN’s. I learned a difficult, but valuable lesson, and thankfully during those cases, I was able to rely on my ESPN family as well as many of the wonderful mentors who have helped me throughout my career.
CM: Why do you think comparisons such as the aforementioned and comments like your suggestion to Green Bay fans to give Brett Favre the “Duracell Treatment” get misconstrued or taken out of context?
JH: One thing I had to understand is that just because things are said routinely and jokingly in every-day life, that doesn’t mean it’s suitable for television. I was joking about Favre and thought that people could tell by my facial expression and tone. It’s a phrase me and several of my friends use when we describe how badly an opposing player or team will be treated by another fan base. I’d never advocate for a player being hurt intentionally, but it was dumb for me to say because I have to understand the weight of my words.
CM: If you could go back, what would you have done differently?
JH: All of it.
CM: Any pitfalls you would advise any women journalists to avoid? What about pitfalls for minority journalists to avoid?
JH: You have to have thick skin. Everyone isn’t going to like you. People will disagree with what you say. People will think you don’t deserve something you know you’ve earned. Don’t worry about that. Stand on your square.
CM: Despite some controversy in your career, you’ve accomplished quite a bit also. How did it feel when you found out you won the 2007 Best American Sports Writing Award and 1st Annual McKenzie Cup?
JH: Van McKenzie was one of the great newspapermen in sports. He was gruff, but warm. He made you excited to do your job each and every day. He was a great mentor to me, and gave me a chance, even though I was a 28-year-old columnist who didn’t know a thing. To be the first recipient was extremely special and I don’t care if I win a Pulitzer, it will be my most memorable award.
CM: Name some of your other accomplishments you are most proud of.
JH: Does making the playoffs as a rookie in my 20-team fantasy football league count?
CM: The accolades and career changing opportunities have been continuous in 2010 as well with your coverage of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and becoming the second woman to appear on ESPN “Around The Horn.” How did you prepare for each experience?
JH: The World Cup was phenomenal, and to date, it’s the most awesome thing I’ve ever covered. I read three terrific novels prior to going to the country, which spoke to the mood, history and culture of South Africa. I read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Rian Malan’s “My Traitor’s Heart” and J.M Coetzee’s “Disgrace.” A lot changed in South Africa since those novels were published, but I wanted to get a sense of how they changed so I could appreciate the country’s journey and maturation. As for Around the Horn, that was pretty different show for me to do. You have to tap into your silly side and become your alter ego. My preparation for the show was no different than it is for Jim Rome Is Burning or 1st and Ten, but I was nervous about exposing my sense of humor.
CM: Who was your favorite analyst to debate on “Around The Horn” and why?
JH: I love all those guys, but debating Jackie MacMullen was special. I have admired her for such a long time and to be able to do television with her – and beat her in Showdown – was pretty cool.
CM: As part a Curvy Magazine’s Curvthlete Exclusive who has been some of your favorite curvthlete’s (curvy athlete) to interview?
JH: That’s a very difficult question. I covered womens’ basketball for two years (college and pro), and met a number of engaging, curvy, athletic women like Dawn Staley and Andrea Stinson. I also covered the womens’ national team at the 2004 Olympics in Greece.
CM: Those women have been known to go the extra mile to maintain their curves. What are some things that you do in your spare time to keep your curves in tip top condition?
JH: I go to the gym at least four times a week. The last year or so I’ve focused on the exercise machines I hate the most, which are the stairmaster and treadmill. I also play basketball twice a week, and softball once a week.
CM: Who are some curvy women that you admire?
JH: Serena Williams is at the top of my list. She’s an unbelievable athlete, of course, but I just love her confidence. She’s powerful, but graceful. She’s muscular, but feminine. If I could steal any athlete’s body, it would be hers.
CM: Top Random things to Know About Jemele Hill?
JH: 1. My name was actually supposed to be Jamila, which means beautiful in Arabic. But while my mother was loopy after having me, my grandmother changed it to Jemele and put it on my birth certificate.
2. My first job was filing cases at a welfare office.
3. Michigan State apartments/dorms I stayed in: Hubbard Hall, Wonders Hall, a house on Hillcrest with five other girls, and an apartment in Haslett with two of my good friends.
4. Time honored Michigan State tradition you’d have to be a Spartan to understand: The Long Islands at Peanut Barrel.
CM: If you had the choice between dating anyone in the sports world who would it be? Outside the sports world?
JH: I’m going to stay far away from the first question. As for the second question, here’s some BREAKING NEWS: I’ve been dating Idris Elba for two years in my mind. He’s going to propose to me later this year.
CM: Guilty pleasure: Basketball Wives, Football Wives, Chad’s The Ultimate Catch or The T.O Show?
JH: Definitely, Basketball Wives. Here’s a freebie, though – my biggest television guilty pleasure of all time is Young & The Restless. I’ve been a devoted watcher for 15 years.
CM: Three items on your bucket list (things to do before you die):
JH: Meet Oprah, Return to South Africa, and Spend an entire college football season going to every stadium in the SEC
CM:How did you come up with the infamous Uncle Ron you mention so much on Twitter?
JH: Ron Washington is the Texas Rangers manager. He’s got an uplifting, personal story, and maybe should have gotten Manager in the Year. He also happens to have one of the most ridiculous baseball card photos of all time. He just looks like America’s Hood Uncle, so I affectionately refer to him as Uncle Ron. We’ve all got an “Uncle Ron” in our family, that uncle who is unintentionally funny, but shady. Only I’ve taken things a step further and created an alter ego for Ron Washington, which involves him smoking Newports heavily, drinking cognac, and driving a Brougham.
CM: Do you have any interests, hobbies and charitable works outside sports? If so, name them.
JH: I’m a major foodie, so I enjoy going to great restaurants and trying different foods. I also love bowling and am hopelessly addicted to Bejeweled.
CM: Words to live by?
JH: Smack ‘em, yak ‘em.
CM: Where can our readers find you online and on the air?
JH: They can find my columns at ESPN.com. My television appearances are different each month, but I always announce them on my Twitter page, http://twitter.com/JEMELEHILL.