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Inmates, Blogging, and ESPN: An Interview with Jemele Hill of the Orlando Sentinel

Our moles in Bristol tipped us off that the talented Jemele Hill of the Orlando Sentinel was being courted by that little entity known as the Worldwide Leader. So we decided to catch up with Miss Hill, who had a brief brush with fame this summer after she did an entertaining story about ridin’ dirty with Buffalo Bills running back Willis McGahee (that’s her in the back seat, tape recorder in hand, looking all journalism-y). Seeing as how Miss Hill is our first female interview, we peppered her with questions about the locker room, male athletes, and stigmas.

Q: We hear there’s a rumor you’re going to ESPN’s Page 2. Any truth to it?

What are you guys, the mob? You are scaring me. I don’t want to get into too many details because that would just be bad business. I know people will assume this has something to do with Jason Whitlock, but it doesn’t. ESPN and I have had a relationship for awhile now and began some very positive conversations long before Jason terminated his dealings with them. So even if Jason were still there, ESPN and I would still be having those conversations. Anyway, they’re a great organization. I’m not sure what the future holds, but I’ve got a pretty good job right now at the Orlando Sentinel. I’m working with the best editor I ever have, John Cherwa, and that is meant as no disrespect to any previous editor. It’s a really good place. No matter who comes along, they’re going to have to steal me away because I work somewhere great.

Q: You started the ‘ridin’ with athletes’ series at the Orlando Sentinel, and instantly, Michael Silver at Sports Illustrated copied it. While it’s not the most novel concept, did you feel honored? Angry? Did it even register?

I had no idea of Silver’s appreciation for it until someone forwarded the shout-out he gave me in his column. You know what they say, imitation is the highest form of flattery. Besides, I can’t be too mad because I ripped the idea myself. Well, sort of. At my old paper, The Detroit Free Press, they ran a series where they talked to notable Detroiters about their cars, only they extended it beyond sports figures. But my tweak on the idea was to actually get into the car with only athletes and talk to them about life, relationships, politics, whatever came up. Sort of like MTV’s Cribs, but in the car. I wanted it to be very conversational. I figured that because I was on their turf and in a car they love, the conversation would be much more relaxed. I find it impossible to get to know an athlete if you’re always standing at his locker or interviewing him on a podium. One reason sports writers of the past were so good was they weren’t always in some contrived interview setting. I’m reading Dave Kindred’s Sound and Fury and it just blows me away how Dick Schaap picked Muhammed Ali up at the train station, how Kindred rode around with Ali in a car once and Kindred’s son was riding in Ali’s lap as he drove the car. Or even the opening scene where Kindred and Ali are literally in bed together under the covers. That type of stuff rarely happens now because the 24-hour news cycle has helped create an atmosphere of animosity between reporters and athletes. I’m not saying we have to be friends, but if we got more of a window into who they were, maybe we’d write more pieces that show their complexity.

One final thing I’ll add about the ‘Riding With’ series: Willis McGahee was uneccessarily clowned for the comment he made when I asked him what was worse, a baby momma or an ex-wife? It was a goofball question that was really meant to be lighthearted and funny. I understand that people can’t sense mood well in that situation, just like they can’t over e-mail. Of course, Willis answered honestly and didn’t say anything that athletes don’t say among themselves privately. But if you’re a 20-something-year-old football player with millions, living in a city like Miami, of course you’re going to have some baby-momma drama. Just ask Matt Leinhart.

Q: We have a few journalism students that read us. What’s it like being a female in this white-male dominated industry?

I’m sure it’s no different than women who are at Fortune 500 companies. You have to master the art of blending in, but staying true to yourself. If you’re the type of woman who has Gloria Steinem and human resources on speed dial, then this isn’t the job for you. You don’t put up with any sort of disrespect, of course, but you have to realize where you are. You are working around all men. You are on their turf. They’ll respect you, but it’s all in the approach. Sometimes it’s necessary to go to your bosses or take other action if things get out hand, but most day-to-day squabbles and issues, can be handled with simple and direct communication. Besides, most guys are scared of arguing with a woman, anyway. We’re much better at it.

Now, the killer for me is that I’m a double-minority. On any given day, I either don’t know anything because I’m a woman or I’m a affirmative action hire because I’m black. People are going to say things because it’s not like your resume is posted next to every column I write. I’ve learned to just let that stuff go. It used to kill me. I was trying to prove myself every time out and it was only leading me to a daily anxiety attack. But now I realize that people are going to hate just because it’s a Wednesday and they feel like hatin’. There is nothing I can do about it. Jason Whitlock, who I belive is one of the most talented columnists in this country and one of your favorites, once told me success is the best revenge. Great advice.

Q: You may or may not have read this piece on what it’s like to be a woman in the locker room full of athletes … thoughts?

I hadn’t read this until you gave me the link. This just feeds into the negative perception people have about female sports journalists. People have it in their minds that when we go into a locker room, we’re seeing rose petals, candlelight, champagne and our next date. Let me tell you, there is nothing sexy about a professional locker room. The smell in there could peel paint. And if you’ve had the misfortune of seeing an offensive lineman naked, you probably wanted to stab your eyes out. We’re in there to do a job, not get a boyfriend. Sure, it’s something weird about it, but I’ve got to believe it’s that way for men, too.

Q: One of the greatest arrest stories to come out of Florida State in recent years came courtesy of quarterback Wyatt Sexton in the summer of 2005. He who went to a rock concert in Tennessee one weekend, returned to campus, and then went nuts in the parking lot, lying down in the street and calling himself God. The cops had to pepper-spray him and he was arrested. There were many theories floating around about whether it was drugs, lyme disease (as his family claimed), or something else. What’s the craziest thing you heard about this case that never made the paper? Any theories of your own?

Most people, including coach Bobby Bowden, thought it was drug-related. It makes perfect sense, too. Kid goes to a concert and then turns into the Tazmanian Devil. You wonder if he licked one of those little smiley faces at the concert, if you know what I mean. Being that it’s Florida, I’m surprised no one suspected the Scientologists.

Q: You’ve got a blog. But it’s hidden. And it’s only hidden because last year somebody discovered the blog and found out you had been writing about – correct us if we’re wrong – masturbation, oral sex, and other interesting issues. Were you shocked at the outage? Did your paper call you into a glass office and tell you to cease and desist? And why the blog in the first place?

Congrats for being the first person to ever ask me about this. I guess it gives me the chance to set the record straight. First, let’s get everything correct. There was no blogging about masturbation and hardly any blogging about sex. I never, ever, gave any how-tos, told any personal seedy sex stories, or anything of that nature. It was way overblown, in my opinion. People already had been pointing a gun at me because I was new to this job, and there was a faction of people who believed I probably didn’t deserve it. And that infamous incident just gave them ammunition. The big mistake I made was having a blog with my name on it. So, for those reading out there, if you’re going to have a personal blog, do not use your own name.

Also, rumors of my demise were greatly exaggerated. I was never suspended. I was never disciplined. I never came close to being fired. Besides, before I started the blog, I cleared it with my bosses at the Sentinel. Of course, they were concerned when it became industry fodder. They were worried about my reputation, more so than I was. I apologized to them profusely because they’ve been really good to me and I never wanted to bring them any undue embarrassment.

I took matters into my own hands and changed the name of my blog. I did think about blowing it up entirely because it reminded me of how I felt when my mother read my diary at 13. I started the blog because it gave me a chance to be silly and goofy and the person I was when I’m with my friend. I didn’t want to do a blog if I couldn’t be me.

I compromised slightly, but I’m still me on the new and improved blog. I’m not at all saying anyone should feel sorry for me because I put myself in that position, but I was disappointed, stunned and more than pissed off at some of what was whispered about me in the industry following the blog incident. People that never met me were saying stuff about me that was just flat-out untrue. But one thing the incident taught me was this industry is full of insecure cowards who talk behind your back and then sit and joke with you in the press box. It made me understand why some writers just keep to themselves. I’m not like that, but I get why those writers do it.

Q: What’s your ideal sports writing gig?

I’m in it. Writing columns is harder than I imagined, but the most gratifying thing I’ve ever done.

Q: What’s the strangest email you’ve received from a reader?

Strangest or crudest? I’ve got stories surrounding both. The strangest for me is when prisoners write me. Of course, all of them are innocent, all of them want to be writers, and they all think I’m hot. It’s great for the self-esteem, even if it’s coming from someone who hasn’t lived in normal society for 20 years. I also love prison letters because you can tell those guys are getting exposed to a dictionary for the first time in their lives. They use all these ridiculous words that don’t go together at all. But I usually send them a short note telling them I appreciate them writing. Hey, whatever I can do to help them kill time. Although, my fear is that they’re trading my photo around for cigarettes and Ramen noodles.

Q: Coolest athletes you’ve encountered? Biggest pricks?

I’m not one of those sports writers who considers someone a prick just because they don’t talk to me after a game or blow me off for an interview. We all get moody. I can certainly imagine being that way if I answered the same questions day after day. Now, of course, some athletes have made my job more difficult than others (Albert Belle), but I’m going to hesitate calling anyone a prick.

As far as my cool list, the person who immediately comes to mind is Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, the most genuine person I’ve ever covered. What I like about Tom is you can fight with him. Some coaches, you have one spat with them and they hold it against you forever because you stuck up for yourself. I like covering people who understand they’re not always right and there will be times where you won’t disagree. Tom is the type of person where if he doesn’t like something you’ve written, he calls you personally. You don’t hear about it through the SID. You yell at each other for a few minutes and then the next day at practice, it’s like nothing happened. I respect that.

 

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