On September 19, 2018, Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Institute (CJI) presented its 4th Annual Trailblazer Lecture Series: A Discussion with Jemele Hill. Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Institute (CJI) is the nation’s premier public defender clinic. Its students learn to provide client-centered representation, developing their advocacy skills to help their clients both in and out of the court room. Led by both CJI’s Director, Professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. and its Deputy Director, Professor Dehlia Umunna, CJI provides law students with a rigorous educational experience while also ensuring that clients accused or convicted of crime and/or delinquency are provided with high quality legal representation. The mission of CJI is to educate Harvard Law School students in becoming effective, ethical and zealous criminal defense lawyer-advocates through practice in representing indigent individuals involved in the Massachusetts court system as well as to research and present issues and debates about the criminal and juvenile justice systems in order to affect local and national reform.
CJI’s annual Trailblazer Lecture honors and recognizes individuals pioneering social, legal, and political change. Jemele Hill, an award winning journalist and sports commentator was named CJI’s 2018 Trailblazer Lecturer. The Trailblazer Lecture, as Professor Ron Sullivan described, honors “people who are bold enough to make an impact in our country and in our world.” Jemele Hill’s commitment to use her voice to speak truth to power and her platform as a catalyst for change has opened up a new dialogue about sports culture.
Former ESPN personality Jemele Hill garnered national attention for calling President Trump a “white supremacist” on Twitter shortly after the Charlottesville riots. The White House quickly called for her dismissal, stating that Hill’s tweet was “a fireable offense.” ESPN issued a statement saying that Hill’s comments were inappropriate and not reflective of the company’s views. Hill was also in the midst of another controversy over remarks she made on Twitter about Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who said that players who “disrespect the flag” will not play, referencing the recent NFL protests during the national anthem. ESPN suspended her for two weeks for a second violation of its social media policy. Hill withstood the backlash, but shortly thereafter, Hill and ESPN split ways.
In a field where championships, athletic success, and outcomes dominate sports journalism, Hill had a desire to raise awareness about the intersection of race, sports, culture, and gender. Her identity as a black female sports journalist put her in a unique position to cover complicated issues in sports. Oftentimes, Hill was the only black woman covering sports in the newsroom. In 2005, while Hill was working at the Orlando Sentinel, she was the only black female sports journalist on a daily newspaper in North America – 1 out of 305 sports journalists. “That is something I thought was an embarrassing statement about sports journalism in North America,” she said. “Because there was no way I was the only person gifted enough—that was a black woman—to write about sports. It was just representative of the lack of representation that we had in our industry – still have in our industry – that is still largely white and male.”
Hill stated that the lack of diversity within sports journalism and who makes news judgment decisions contributes to the deficiency of the conversations about the intricacies of sports, race, and politics. But Hill thinks sports might be the best place to have these conversations. Hill cited the Ray Rice scandal as an example of the complex dynamics of domestic violence, race and sports. Rice, a professional football player, punched his then fiancée in an elevator to the point of unconsciousness. Hill discussed how domestic violence for women of color is complicated, not just because the issue itself is difficult, but also because “black women know the cost of calling the police on a black man and what that could do to him.”
Hill also talked about the rise of activism among athletes particularly since the era of Michael Jordan. “Michael Jordan taught athletes how to globally brand themselves while remaining apolitical . . . His activism was showing that a black man could be a marketing dynamo . . . however it came at a cost.” She contrasted Jordan’s legacy with that of LeBron James, who was a leader in the Miami Heat’s decision to wear hoodies honoring Trayvon Martin’s death. She discussed how many Heat players come from communities where they have been profiled by the police before, and have an understanding of the fractured relationship between minority communities and the police. She noted that these athletes are raising black children and black sons in mostly white, affluent neighborhoods, and they know if one of their kids is in the neighborhood playing around and someone doesn’t recognize their child, they could very well experience the same nightmare as Trayvon Martin’s parents.
Instead of having these tough conversations, Hill says, the focus on sports news has been on not aggravating sports fans who prefer that the networks just “stick to sports.” But sports is embedded in politics from its very core, Hill argues. It is a political act for residents to vote on building a new stadium, allowing municipalities to use taxpayers’ funds to subsidize corporate wealth. Hill says that issues such as racism, police brutality, inequality, and social justice aren’t simply politics, but issues of morality. “We have decided to put everything the political crockpot. Everything is not politics – some things are just right and wrong.”
After twelve years at ESPN, Hill has decided she wants to be a part of the larger political dialogue in a deeper and a meaningful way. Hill is now a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she will focus on the intersection of race, sports, and politics. She is also the narrator for LeBron James’ documentary Shut Up and Dribble.
Watch the video of the lecture here.