On September 11, 2017, then-ESPN sportscaster Jemele Hill tweeted, "Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists." Though this tweet—especially three years later—reads like a bland statement of facts, it earned Hill a public reprimand from ESPN. Her statement came less than one month after Trump made his infamous "very fine people on both sides" remark at Charlottesville, where a white supremacist killed Heather Heyer after driving into a crowd of peaceful protestors.
In this reprimanding, ESPN told Hill indirectly, not to deviate from the network's subject matter; it was also at this time that Colin Kaepernick was drawing attention to police brutality and systemic racism by kneeling, something he began doing at the beginning of the 2016 football season, drawing the ire of the president, NFL supporters, and even NFL athletes who wanted to keep the ugly truth of this nation and the game of football in two separate containers.
Since then, a lot has changed in the national conversation, and for Hill personally. In 2018, Hill left ESPN for The Atlantic. Earlier this summer, she signed on to make a documentary series about Colin Kaepernick for ESPN as part of a production deal Kaepernick signed with Disney.
On January 9, 2020, another fixture at ESPN and friend of Hill, Cari Champion, announced her departure after spending seven years with the network. Champion's time at the network included stints hosting First Take and anchoring SportsCenter. Sometime after her departure, Champion showed up at Hill's door with a bottle of wine and a camera crew, as Champion told Bomani Jones on a recent podcast, and the two shot a pilot for a TV show.
On August 19, Champion and Hill reunite on Stick to Sports on VICE TV, a weekly talk show where the duo will tackle all the topics they couldn't mention at "the four letters," as Cari Champion told Jones.
“Since I've had to hear 'stick to sports' for a few years, this is basically my "fuck you" to all the people who said that,” Hill told VICE.
VICE spoke to Champion and Hill about the show, what they plan to cover, and launching a TV show in the middle of a pandemic.
VICE: First off, what is the meaning of the show's title?
Jemele Hill: It's a play on, for lack of a better word, a movement that started a few years ago where there was a lot of people, a very loud minority of people who were shouting that there shouldn't be sports in politics—telling Black athletes and high-profile Black people that they need to stick to sports. It was always an insult and used as a way to silence issues that they were uncomfortable with. The starting point of it and also when it reached its height is when Colin Kaepernick started his protest. Even though Colin Kaepernick taking a knee is one of the biggest sports stories in the last 20 or 30 years, there was a lot of people pushing back against it because Colin Kaepernick was reminding people what was the reality in this country. Police brutality is a reality. Institutional racism and oppression were definitely realities.
Black athletes throughout history have reminded people, "As much as I may entertain you, understand that when I get off this court or when I get off this football field, I have to live as a Black person in a country that has rejected me for hundreds of years.' Because of that, you had a lot of people who were ardently against this idea of sports and politics, and race and gender and culture all being mixed in the same pot of gumbo, when that's always been the case. It only became more palatable to people when it was proven to be on the right side of history.
We've gone through this cycle many, many times. We went through it with Muhammed Ali, and he received incredible backlash.It was the same with Tommie Smith and John Carlos: when they raised their fists on the Olympic medal stand in 1968, they wanted to draw attention to the fact that they were representing a country that did not even consider them full and equal citizens and they got sent home for that.
The idea behind the title is not just to think about this from a historical standpoint but also to, frankly, rub this in the faces of people who wish these topics and issues would go away. We hope it doesn't. We hope this continues, and we continue to talk about Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and Armaud Arbery. That conversation can't go away. If you are so sensitive that you can't take an athlete or Cari and I discussing how these very important issues intersect, then that's something you need to re-evaluate and you need to frankly straighten your priorities.
Cari Champion: There were a lot of people who worked at our former company [ESPN] who behind-the-scenes were very vocal about how they felt about Colin Kaepernick's treatment: myself, Jemele, Michael Smith, a lot of us. We were very comfortable in expressing it in whatever way we could. But under the corporate umbrella, there's only so much you can do because there's so many people involved in decision-making processes, and you don't want to mess up other relationships. We still have to hear the NFL apologize when they say they got it wrong, but they didn't apologize to Colin Kaepernick.
If Colin Kaepernick was kneeling for breast cancer, he'd be an American hero today. And that's the unfortunate part about the racism and division in this country. Kneeling is always a sign of respect. It's not a sign of support. When there are players on the field, when their teammate is injured, when the other team is injured, they kneel, they say a prayer. Whatever the visuals are that are associated with Colin Kaepernick, weren't so much about the gesture, it was about the man. If he was a white man kneeling in support, if he was a white football player kneeling in support of making sure this country was right, there would not have been so much pushback. We want to have very uncomfortable conversations with Stick to Sports. We want to have that conversation. And Jemele mentioned Muhammed Ali, truth be told, he wasn't loved until he actually couldn't talk anymore. And then he became an icon and a hero. So let's talk about that on Stick to Sports. Let's just remind people how we got here. We didn't just arrive at this moment when George Floyd was murdered in front of our eyes after 8 minutes and 46 seconds. We didn't just arrive at this moment where Black women didn't just become intelligent. We've been as smart as we want to be and we haven't had the platform or the right to say it, and now we do! And we hope that we can entertain in the process, as well as educate.
Launching a show in the middle of a pandemic; obviously it's brought a lot of issues to light, especially in sports. Did it change what you wanted to focus on, or did it just make those things more important or apparent to you?
Hill: If anything it crystallized it more. Police brutality didn't originate with George Floyd. But George Floyd is an opportunity to drill down on these issues even harder. And the fact that it's a pandemic, there's a different attention span now to talk about these issues because they are everywhere. It's kind of unavoidable regardless of what you tune into, it pops up. That puts us in a good position to have even more nuanced conversations about issues we've always cared about. The good thing is, I don't think these issues are going anywhere. Not just because of the pandemic.
This is the deepest racial conversation I can remember having in my lifetime, and because of the severity and the depth of it, there is a lot more interest now in making sure that we don't continue to leave racism for future generations to deal with. That's not to say we're going to get everything right. We're never going to solve this all in the next couple years, but there is a much bigger and better commitment to doing something about it because a lot of us are tired of being in this holding pattern of having the same conversations when we should've been much further along than we are by now.
What topics are you looking forward to bringing up on the show, that maybe aren't getting enough oxygen right now?
Champion: Well, Jemele once actually stepped on my dog's paw and broke it. So I want to talk about how she is not a lover of animals. I like tacos with ketchup. So really just hard-hitting topics that we're going to dive deep into.
I didn't want to bring up the ketchup taco.
Hill: No, please bring that up. And shame her with it.
Champion: Do not shame me. It's a salsa derivative, thank you very much.
I know we're dealing with the racial inequities in our world, but we all put our pants on the same. We all get sick, we all cry, we all love. The goal is to break down that barrier. I'm so tired of hearing what people think what Black women are, what Black people are. And same for me. I have real, valid issues—which may not be—with white women, or white people. And I want to be wrong. I want to have guests on to change my opinion.
[Long pause indicating the author's ignorance of NBA players-turned-GMs-slash-owners.]
Hill: [laughs] This is a fixed question!
Champion: I'm asking him. Do you want to tell us or do you want to pass on that question?
I have to say it wouldn't be coming from a very informed place so I might pass. I have a recency bias from watching The Last Dance recently—
Cari: So you don't like Isaiah? Yes! Good for you. No one likes Isaiah. Go on, my friend.
That brings up a point you both have mentioned about a need for more nuance in conversation, since some people are always coming from a place of bad faith when arguing. So I'm curious since you are close friends in real life, how you think that will come through on the show.
Hill: That's the thing: we've both been doing TV long enough to where we are comfortable being ourselves on television, that part is always natural going to showcase itself. We don't manufacture arguments, we don't have to manufacture agreements. Just the natural flow of our friendship is that we can have respectful disagreement. We don't speak to represent all Black women everywhere, but we know we represent a slice of what Black women go through in this country and some other relatable situations. The reason people love Pardon the Interruption is because of the relationship between Mike and Tony. The reason people love Desus and Mero is because they love the relationship between those two. If you get people in on the relationship, the rest just kind of falls into place.
'Stick to Sports' premieres on August 19 at 10 p.m. on VICE TV.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.