By Dennis J. Freeman
In a world of athletic and jock machismo, black female sports reporters are a rare breed. Black female sports columnists are even harder to find. Head into just about any sports locker room and a glimpse of a black female sports reporter is as visible as locating a wasp on an elephant’s trunk.
That never stopped the aspirations of ESPN columnist Jemele Hill from being a sports journalist. And it certainly hasn’t stopped Hill from catapulting to a meteoric rise in the world of journalism as one of the best sports columnist in the business.
“I know that there are not a lot of black women in the business,” Hill said in a 2009 interview. “I understand the responsibilities that come with that. I’m fine with that. I would hope that other women would be encouraged, looking at my situation and feeling like this kind of career is possible for them. I hope I have something to inspire other people to do this.”
“It was because I saw another woman in the field that it gave me a stronger belief in myself. Hopefully, I can pass that on. Even though there are not a lot of black women who are in sports, the numbers increase all the time. We’re having a stronger presence.”
With the exception of a few breakthrough moments, black women covering sports prominently is practically nonexistent. Model turned actress Jayne Kennedy shook up professional football and the viewing public a couple of decades ago when she went to work for CBS’ NFL Today as the first black woman to host a sports television sportscast show.
ABC’s and former ESPN anchor Robin Roberts, Fox Television’s Pam Oliver and TNT’s Cheryl Miller are also black women who have distinguished themselves in the sports media industry.
That landscape is changing. More black women are venturing into the field of sports journalism, Hill said.
“As people like Pam Oliver break through and become more common-as you see more of the faces- I think it just gives other women the belief that they can do it,” said Hill. “For an example, when I went to the National Association of Black Journalists convention in Las Vegas-when we had our sports task force meeting, it used to be that there was just one other black woman in the room.
“But now, it’s like 15 or 20 (women). I think people are saying this is possible. I also think that there are certain companies and newspapers that seeing the benefits of diversity and understanding when you have different faces on television or people reading different people, you’re bringing an added a different perspective. Most of the companies are recognizing the value of diversity.”
But there are some people like Dr. Richard Lapchick, author of the Racial and Gender Report Card, which monitors race in sports, who feel these companies may not be moving as fast as they should. In a study several years ago that reviewed the racial progress of over 300 Associated Press newspapers, the report concluded with only one black woman being documented as a sports columnist.
The findings the RGRC came up with are startling: Nearly 95% of all APSE sports editors at that time were white. Ninety percent of those positions were occupied by white males. The study also showed that white men and women made up 88% of total sports staff employees in newsrooms across the country.
White reporters dominate the nation’s sports departments, claiming just about 88% percent of those jobs. Black columnists are few and far between. At the time of the report, there were just 22 black males with the sports columnist title.
“It is important to have voices from different backgrounds in the media,” Lapchick said in a released statement that accompanied the report. “Having that additional perspective might lead writers to ask questions or look at angles that might shed light on the particular situation of an African American, Latino or female coach or athlete.”
Hill said it is necessary for media outlets to offer that kind of dimension to their audience.
“I think it’s very important,” Hill said. “I think it’s very important for them to see different perspectives among black journalists. There was a time when there were so few black columnists, so few black opinion makers that there was pressure to say certain things or have certain opinions because there was no one else.
“So, the responsibility was strictly going to fall on those select few. Now you have so many black journalists and we all think differently. We’re getting to the point where people see the diversity of thought even among black people. They understand that we are not a monolithic group.”
Hill’s accomplishments as a journalist reads like who’s who and been there and done that. She’s covered the college basketball’s Final Four multiple times, reported on national college football games and worked the 2004 Summer Olympics.
But it’s her work as a Page 2 columnist for ESPN and analyst for the cable network’s First Take the last several years that has elevated her to a media star. While frequently making appearances on First Take, Hill still manages to hold down radio gigs as well. In the meantime, her star appeal has grown.
Hill, however, downplays her fame and said she doesn’t let anything she’s achieved to make head swell. The way Hill sees it, she’s just a regular, down-to-earth sister who is as comfortable sitting at home, eating a bowl of noodles as she is when she is interviewing and chatting with today’s biggest sports stars.
“I don’t consider myself better than anyone or bigger than anyone,” Hill said. “I still feel like the same girl who grew up in Detroit and dreamed of being a writer. This is the first time in my career where I am in front of the camera this much. It takes some time getting used to. It doesn’t bother me. But it put me in a different role. I’m not a celebrity at all. I’m still the same person that will eat Ramen noodles every once in a while.”
Part of Hill’s allure to the national public and to the sports world is that she is black, female and unapologetic about her viewpoints. A multi-sport athlete in high school, Hill got hooked on becoming a journalist when she first walked into the newsroom of the Detroit Free Press.
She spent time at the publication working as an intern. She worked the sports copy desk, answering calls her senior year in high school.
“Being exposed to a sports department very early gave me the confidence to say this is something that I can do,” said Hill. “It certainly put a bug in my ear that this was something that I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
An avid sports fan growing up, Hill went on to cover the basketball program at her alma mater. She went on to take a job at paper in North Carolina before landing at the Orlando Sentinel. It was at the Sentinel that Hill flourished as a star columnist. She has since transcended herself to national media personality. Hill said she wouldn’t gotten to where she is today without the strength of her mother.
Hill’s mother raised her single-handily most of her childhood. Her father was mostly a no-show, bouncing in and out of her life for periods at a time. Growing up, Hill saw her mother struggle. Living conditions were tight. Shopping for groceries with food stamps became a staple in the household. Every dime counted. Hill said that situation pushed her to want to do better.
“For a huge part of my life my mother raised me as a single woman,” said Hill. “She didn’t have a college degree. She just scraped and did what she had to do. It was often a challenge. I don’t have any horror stories about not having food on the table. Everything was accounted for. I think those who have grown up having to go without…I think it allows you to have a certain appreciation for things.
“It allows you to realize that what you have is just not promised to you. I think growing up that way really inspired me to have a very strong work ethic, because I saw I didn’t want to go back. I didn’t want to go backwards. It was a great lesson for me. It taught me all the things I didn’t want to do.”
Editor’s note: This article appeared originally in Global Woman Magazine