Jemele Hill on doing the right thing
A lesson from her grandmother: Be better. No matter what.
I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but let’s just say I was 11.
I was spending the night at my grandmother’s house with a couple of my close friends. And they had an idea. A terrible idea.
They wanted me to steal a couple of beers from my grandmother. My grandmother, you see, loved to entertain. She had card parties and hosted all the family gatherings, and so she always had an ample supply of alcohol.
I figured with all the liquor she had, she would never miss a couple of beers. So I got my Ethan Hunt on and stole the beers right out from under my grandmother’s nose. I didn’t even drink it. I just wanted to impress my friends, maybe climb a few spots up the unofficial neighborhood G rankings.
As for Ethan? It took my grandmother less time than it takes to solve a case on Law & Order to figure out beers were missing and I was the culprit.
When she confronted me, I cried and immediately confessed to the crime. My grandmother didn’t whip me. All she said was, “I am extremely disappointed in you,” and walked away.
I was heartbroken because I felt like I had let my grandmother, who was one of my best friends, down. And there is no feeling worse than letting down the people who love and support you.
I had not felt that way since … until two weeks ago when I was sitting in ESPN president John Skipper’s office having the most difficult conversation of my career.
It was the first time I had ever cried in a meeting. I didn’t cry because Skipper was mean or rude to me. I cried because I felt I had let him and my colleagues down.
Since my tweets criticizing President Donald Trump exploded into a national story, the most difficult part for me has been watching ESPN become a punching bag and seeing a dumb narrative kept alive about the company’s political leanings.
If we’re keeping it all the way real, that narrative is often pushed by the folks in the media who benefit most from that notion and all the attention that criticism of ESPN brings.
But this isn’t about that. It’s simply indicative of just how complex things get for people in OUR position — especially if you’re a woman and a person of color.
I can’t pretend as if this isn’t a challenging time in our country’s history. As a career journalist, I can’t pretend that I don’t see what’s happening in our world.
I also can’t pretend as if the tone and behavior of this presidential administration is normal. And I certainly can’t pretend that racism and white supremacy aren’t real and that marginalized people don’t feel threatened and vulnerable, myself included, on a daily basis.
Yes, my job is to deliver sports commentary and news. But when do my duties to the job end and my rights as a person begin?
I honestly don’t know the answer to that.
I do know that we’re clearly living in a time of blurred lines. The president’s recent inflammatory attacks on NFL players, his choice to disinvite the Golden State Warriors to the White House, are just the latest examples of silence being impossible. This is not a time for retreating comfortably to a corner.
Still, Twitter wasn’t the place to vent my frustrations because, fair or not, people can’t or won’t separate who I am on Twitter from the person who co-hosts the 6 p.m. SportsCenter. Twitter also isn’t a great place to have nuanced, complicated discussions, especially when it involves race. Warriors player Kevin Durant and I probably need to take some classes about how to exercise better self-control on Twitter. Lesson learned.
Also, let me be clear about something else: My criticisms of the president were never about politics. In my eyes, they were about right and wrong. I love this country. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t want it to be better.
The events of last weekend showed that the intersection of sports and politics is the most pronounced we’ve seen in decades. Sports always has been intertwined with social change in America. But let’s not forget some of the athletes who instigated that change — Jesse Owens, Wilma Rudolph, Muhammad Ali, Curt Flood and Jackie Robinson — only became beloved icons once history proved them to be right.
In November, I will celebrate my 11th year at ESPN. I’ve grown immensely as a person and a professional during that time and have accomplished things that I never imagined possible.
As I think on it now, I wonder about the real lesson my grandmother, who died seven years ago, wanted me to learn. Sure, not stealing is the obvious takeaway. But maybe the larger point was: Be better. No matter what.