Renowned sports journalist Jemele Hill joins the show to discuss her powerful new book Uphill: A Memoir. We talk about how she organized and thought about telling her story, how she cultivated he sources as a journalist. Jemele also reveals how she navigates the challenging relationship between her own identity as a Black woman and the world of sports.
The Stacks Book Club selection for November is Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms by Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law. We will discuss the book on November 30th with Mariame Kaba.
*Due to the nature of advertising placement, these timestamps are not 100% accurate.*
Traci Thomas 0:08
Welcome to The Stacks, a podcast about books and the people who read them. I’m your host Traci Thomas and today I am joined by Jemele Hill, writer for The Atlantic. Former ESPN host, an analyst and the host and creator of the podcast. Jemele Hill is Unbothered which focuses on culture and politics in addition to of course, sports. If you don’t know her Jemele is basically the first woman of sports and she is someone whose work I have admired from afar for eight years. Jemele has a brand new book out and it’s called Uphill. It’s a powerful memoir about her life of resilience following cycles of generational trauma, about her professional setbacks and public scandals, and today, we talk about what it means to be a black woman in sports, writing a memoir when you have a bad memory, and some of the biggest sports stories of Jemele’s life. Remember, our November book club selection is prison by any other name the harmful consequences of popular forums by journalists Maya Anwar and Victoria Law. We will discuss the book on November 30. With our guest Mariame Kaba. Quick reminder, everything we talked about on each episode of The Stacks can be found in the link in the shownotes. If you love the show, and want more of it head to patreon.com/th stacks to join to the stacks pack. The stacks is an independent podcast, which means I rely on listeners like you to make the show possible week in and week out. In addition to knowing that you’re supporting one of your favorite podcasts, you also get perks like our monthly virtual book club bonus episodes, access to our Discord and more. If you’d like to be a part of this wonderful bookish community head to patreon.com/the stacks. And thank you, of course to the entire stacks pack. And now it’s time for my conversation with Jemele Hill
All right, everyone, I am beyond thrilled. Today I am joined by someone that I admire for her work and her talent and someone who wrote a shockingly great celebrity memoir. I mean, I don’t know if you’d call it that. But I call it that it’s sort of in between. Anyways, it’s Jemele Hill, author of Uphill. Jemele, welcome to the stacks.
I read these celebrity type memoirs a lot. And not everyone is a writer. So usually I just go in and I’m like, let’s see what’s going on. And in like, the first paragraph, or like the first page, I was like, Okay, we’re gonna do this. And I was like, super geeked about it. So I guess I shouldn’t have been shocked because I follow you and I follow your work. But I, you know, it’s always a pleasant surprise. I get it. But I’m also a writer by trade. I’m not a celebrity. But right. So it is right, that’s I know, I should have known. I should have known it was gonna be guide. Anyways, okay, in about 30 seconds or so can you tell folks about your book.
Jemele Hill 3:09
So the title of the book is called Uphill: A Memoir. And it’s my personal story. And what I was kind of locked in on was General generational trauma and explaining how the generational trauma in my own family had shaped me into the person I that I am today. So it’s a story of resiliency, resolve perseverance. But I think it’s also a story about how we cannot let shame define us. Or really, we shouldn’t be ashamed at all. But we especially shouldn’t let shame nor circumstances define us. Something that you say early on, like something, a principle that’s guided you in your work and in your life is to or mostly in your work, I guess is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. And that stuck out to me from jump. And I’m curious how you use that as a guiding principle like, how do you check if you’re doing it? Well, being a journalist by trade, when I was kind of growing up in this business, if you will, that was a phrase that was repeated often, you know, there was these certain principles, these core values that the profession was supposed to be about. I mean, this is not to say that every journalist is noble, but a lot of journalists were attracted to the profession for noble reasons, you know, we there was no promise of fame or that you’d make a lot of money, you were literally doing it. Because you thought that it was important that our society have checks and balances, that there’ll be a group of people that were able to hold the people in power accountable, able to make sure that the citizens voices were heard. And it’s an important and crucial element to having a democracy and a free press. And so, that has been such a guiding career principle for me. Because we need to challenge systems and structures otherwise, we see what happens when they go unchecked.
Traci Thomas 4:58
Yeah, you start As you start your life as a child, well, you actually started the book talking about with your mom as an adult, but then we kind of get into your life as a child and some of the things that you went through, and the relation that complex relationships you have with your family members. And, you know, I think most of us know you from from the sports world from being a journalist from ESPN from your podcast, how did it feel to commit these words and these stories to the page, like an ad in a book and in one place? Because you know, it’s sometimes you might hear one of the stories on your podcast here and there, but like, it’s all here, it’s all together? Like, how did you get the confidence and the courage to tell this story?
Jemele Hill 5:42
I think I’ve always shown the kind of confidence and courageousness and writing that maybe I have not shown in real life, particularly as it relates to exposing myself and being vulnerable. And from a child, since I was a child, rather, that was always easy, it was always easier to write it than to say it, and sometimes easy to write it than to do it. And so I knew that considering a memoir is like a almost like a personal statement, but much, much longer. Yeah, you you want that statement to be as honest and as raw and as vulnerable as possible. Because, you know, I think this as an interviewer, sitting down with subjects, the ones I believe, are the ones that are willing to be transparent. And so considering how I respond to that, as a journalist, when I’m sitting with a subject, there was just no way I was gonna write this and not be brutally honest and not expose certain truths and expose certain complicated dynamics within my family. Because, you know, when you pick up a celebrity memoir, like I was, you know, playfully rebut? Yeah, a little bit. But I, you know, the gist of the game, especially if, if the celebrity is writing is that they’re, in some ways trying to make themselves look as good as possible. Right, right. Right. Yeah. So it just, I felt like people would learn more, almost from the warts than they did from the smoother parts of my life. And so I didn’t want to put readers in a position where they felt cheated.
Traci Thomas 7:17
Yeah. Did you? Did you ever struggle, like when you’re telling a story, and look back and go, You know what, Jamal, that’s, that’s your You’re being too nice to yourself. Or like, you’re you’re sugarcoating this, or did anybody else read it and say to you, like, there’s more there?
Jemele Hill 7:34
Well, you know what, it’s funny, because so the book editor who wound up doing most of this, I had two book editors, one, she, she kind of started the process with me, but she wound up leaving the company. But she said something to me, that was really interesting when I was writing about, after I turned in, submitted the first draft, and she wrote, or in an email, she said, This, to me is that when, when I was writing about my stepfather, James, she thought I was actually being really unfair to him. And she’s like, I knew she didn’t use the word unfair. What she said was, I noticed that everybody else, you’re willing to give a lot more grace, but him, you should ask yourself why that is, and then write about it as a part of how you want to describe your relationship. And I guess that was a really good seed for her to plant. Because it made me then go back and think about the people I’d written about and say, am I being fair to this person? And everybody doesn’t deserve grace. But one thing is for sure, is that everybody does deserve fairness. Right. And so that’s why I think it’s an important journalistic principle to have in general, but I was like, Oh, everybody does deserve some fairness. So I just went back and comb through it again, to make sure everybody I was writing with, I wrote about them with a sense of fairness. Did you have to prep anyone in your life about what you were gonna say about them in the book or talk about or was this stuff that you’d already sort of hashed out with your loved ones, I did talk to my mother about it just because, you know, needing to understand that what was going to be in the book. I didn’t, you know, fill her in on this is how I’m writing it about my perspective. I didn’t, I didn’t go through it like that. I just wanted her to know, this incident will be in here. This one will be in here, this will be in here. She read a very early copy, like a different advanced reader copy of the book while he was still being edited. So it was, you know, an opportunity that if she took issue with something, it could be changed, and because I because I write so extensively about her, I thought that was the least that older. Of course, you know, my husband had an early copy of the book too, because I did not want him to be surprised by anything. And while you know, generally he knows everything about me, it’s like sometimes you never know quite remember, it’s like, Did I tell them this? Right, right? Just Are you? You know, he may know, he may know the the general headline, but maybe not the whole story, you know. And so, you know, there’s a difference between telling somebody that oh, you know, my mother and father were both addicts to let me tell you about the time this happened. So I wanted to make sure that, you know, he knew it was comfortable with everything that was gonna be in there. And probably the see the other the only other person I talked to was a couple it was a couple of people I talked to, some of which I can’t name because they told me stories, and I know where they are professionally. I don’t I don’t want to compromise them. But just some colleagues of mine that used to be at ESPN about certain things that happened there, because I wanted to make sure I remembered it the right way. I was like, this did happen this way. Right. I’m not tripping, okay. And so they were able to, you know, help me verify some things. And my former co host, Michael Smith, while he didn’t read any advanced copy, but there was a incident that I wrote about in the book that I know, was a sensitive one for him, you know, issue he had with a colleague that right became a very national story. And so I wanted to just say, like, Hey, I remember it happened. And this way, it was just the way that it happened. And, by the way, I’m writing about this. And so if you feel away, then tell me you feel away. And he did. He was he was fine about it. But so it was it was a few conversations, but there’s some people that I frankly, didn’t feel the need to have to let them in on the process. And, you know, writers, as you know, we’re protective about our shit, right? We are. And so you don’t want to put yourself in the position where people feel like they have a say, Right? Right. You know, it’s a fine line, like the people that are close to you. Like, really, really close, like if my husband saw that I wrote about something was like, I don’t know about that one. If it was in any way going to embarrass him or not be protective of our relationship. Okay, that’s another matter. But, you know, you start letting letting people play editor. And they think, yeah, the storage and they do.
Exactly, then they want to like chime in with the opinion that I asked for your opinion, I just want to know, is this right? Or not? My perspective is my perspective, just factually, am I getting everything right here? It’s interesting that you say that because I obviously do talk to a lot of write writers. And I love a memoir. So I have a lot of memoirs on the show and the scope of like, I didn’t show anyone and I told no one anything to kind of what you’re saying, is has been really interesting, because I think maybe because I’m just so nervous, like, I want to make sure everyone’s happy. No, you can never write a memoir with that idea, because somebody is not going to be happy. Yeah. And if you have a story worth telling, there’s gonna be some complex if you can 100% approval from everybody. You did not write the right memoir, right? No. And so. And that’s not to say that you write things purposely to piss people off. But there’s going to be people who feel like they should have been characterized different, or, you know, they just will feel uncomfortable about the fact that now they really know how you feel. And so you have to be prepared for some conflict and some fallout, which I certainly am. Yeah, yeah. One of the things you talked about in the book is how it’s kind of like an offhanded comment, but it piqued my interest about how you have not a great memory, you don’t remember anything, is what you said. And you said, I think, think like Michael remembered everything, and like every play and every this and that. And as a sports fan, I joke that I don’t remember any sporting anything like I cannot like last year, I went to a World Series game. And I was just saying to my husband, I cannot tell you anything that happened in the game that we went to. And it was my first and only time at the World Series like and it was like a big deal. And I traveled and all this stuff. And I’m like, I just know, we lost. I don’t remember anything else. But I’m wondering how you navigate that, because you’re talking about all these little sporting events. And also, how do you write this book? What did you rely on to remember everything? You know, I would say I have a memory for useless things.
Like, ever that I don’t even know. But I think when it comes to thinking about critical joints and and junctures in your life, you remember those. And one of the best pieces of advice I got for right, as I was writing this memoir was from Rick Ross. And Rick Ross was working on his memoir when I interviewed him for the podcast, and he said that it was a good idea to kind of narrow your life down to 12 to 16, pivotal moments and organize it like that. And I can easily think of those moments. And but you know, it was funny because as as this book is, you know, being read and people are responding to it. A childhood friend of mine, she reached out to me, and she lived a couple doors down from my grandmother and she was like, oh, yeah, you know, I’m so proud of you. And as my mother, not we we appeared on red Table Talk. And she saw the episode and she just said about how proud of me she was. She was like, Yeah, I remember when used to spend the night over, you know, my house, you were like the only kid that was allowed to because my mother really liked you. And, you know, you and I would talk about some of the issues we were having with your mom. And I was like, Wait, did I not remember that at all? I was like, Well, what are you? So, you know, it was just like, okay. But it also helped that I still have a lot of my old journals, as well from, you know, when I was kind of coming of age, and even though that wasn’t, sometimes I wasn’t very specific, you know, I would just look at the timestamp. And I might, I might have something as simple of an entry of Oh, I was really pissed off today, when such and such didn’t look at me in the hallway. And I was thinking, like, who is such and such. But, you know, it’s sort of helped me tap into what were the emotions that were boiling inside of me as a kid. And even one of the stories that I tell in the memoir about how my mother read my journal, and in which she found the contents of it, which were not very nice to her, you know, how she beat the shit out of me, basically, even when I wrote about that, when I talked to my mother about that incident, and we were laughing about it as we were talking about it. So it was really a happy conversation, because, you know, you laugh about acid weapons much, much later. Not in the moment. Not at the time, not really not real funny, not comedic at the time. But anyway, she told me some things I said to her in the course of that argument, if you want to call it that, that I do not remember, say that I was like, Oh, I see why you went by ask like. So yeah, even though I can’t recall everything in in detail. It’s like the major things I knew and felt pretty comfortable with and even being able to go and ask my mother about it, or even like one of my friends Kelly, who remembers everything. I was like, oh, remember that happened? Is this how it happened? I at least had the ability to do that with a few people as I was writing this,
Traci Thomas 17:00
right. That’s so interesting. I have a great memory for everything. But sports. So it’s interesting to think about writing and like to hear about your writing a memoir.
Jemele Hill 17:09
I’m sure you might remember moments. Like you may not remember maybe how, you know, things happen. But you remember moments like, Yeah, I’m sure you remember every one a golden state championships. They won.
Traci Thomas 17:21
I do. But like so for example, last night, I’ve said to my husband, I go, Who did we would be last year for the championship? I was like, did we play someone or they just let us have it? Like I couldn’t. And then it dawned on me. Yeah, but it’s like one of those things, I think, because I remember, like, every little thing from every conversation with everyone I know. And then I think sports, I’m just like rooting and cheering and like, I just such it’s a very weird, because I’m like known. I’m like your friend Kelly. I’m known for my memory. It’s like what happened? And I’m like, Oh, this is what happened. That’s what you’re wearing. This is the day of the week. This is like, you know, okay, you talk about the OJ Simpson case, as being this pivotal moment for you in your professional career. You wrote, like one of your early pieces about it. I’m wondering, how do you feel like seeing the country through the lens of OJ Simpson and Nicole Brown, maybe changed you as a writer or storyteller? Or just as a young woman?
Jemele Hill 18:19
Well, I mean, it had such a profound impact on my professional career, I’ll start there first, just because, you know, I mean, people today will not know what this is like, because I got I cannot imagine if a OJ Simpson that happens with, with Twitter. It would just be It’s, um, you know, what actionable? Even now thinking about it, one of those, y’all had to be there. Right. So remember, when I guess speaking of sports, when they broke into the NBA game, to show OJ in the Bronco and everybody thought he was literally going to commit suicide on national TV, like it was it was real. So that case, was when I think it took journalism to a to an interesting place. When it was the type of blanket coverage that was pretty rare. I mean, it happened, certainly there were national incidents. But it it showed, I mean, it kind of ushered in the 24 hour news cycle, it definitely ushered in our complete addiction to true crime. Right. Yeah, to enter trials in particular, because after that, the, you know, showing trials became a thing, right, because of the OJ Simpson case. And the ratings were just outstanding. And I remember being a college when the verdict was read, and everybody in our newsroom and our college and our college newspaper being gathered around waiting on this verdict and I was managing editor then. So it was my I was the one deciding what the front page was gonna look like, how many stores were going to dedicate to it and all of that, so professionally, it’s just much more easier to read. whomever but then on a personal level, obviously, as I write about, one of the reasons as x case was unfolding at that I wrote a extensive series on domestic violence is because my dear play was, you know, brutalized, you know, was a victim of domestic violence. And it was a very frightening to see her go through that. She was never okay. And it was, it was really one of those early examples of how I saw that you can bring situations to light that are a massive importance to the society through a personal lens, even though I didn’t, I didn’t write about my aunt in that story at all. But knowing what she went through, and some of the obstacles she was facing informed my reporting. So it was like the first major piece of journalistic work I did in my career.
Traci Thomas 20:59
Do you, I guess this is sort of connected, because I think one of the things that makes you I think, an important figure, if you will, in society is that you are a black woman who is in the center of the sports world in some ways. And also in a world that is notorious for hating women and hating black people in a lot of ways. And like, there’s this dichotomy of like, Jamel Hill is who I look to, for my sports things. But also, Jamel Hill is receiving, like blowback because of the optics of who you are. And so I’m wondering like, how do you balance and push through and negotiate being a black woman in a white man space that is filled with black and brown people of color? Who are the athletes? And are the face of this industry? Which is I don’t even know if that’s a clear question. But
Jemele Hill 21:59
no, I know, I know what you’re getting at. But there’s a parallel example, I think, and I would say, probably black women’s relationship with hip hop would be a pretty close parallel. Sure. Yeah. I mean, we all love it. We’re huge buyers of it. You know, the men have, I’ll just leave it to them. The men who are you know, male rappers, they, a lot of what they decide to rap about topic matter comes from our response to it. Now, we know that lyrics can be very misogynistic, downright cruel toward us. And yet, we still love it. And sometimes, it does take a cost on us, or take a toll on us to wager, you know, because sometimes we can certainly disassociate the music and see it as purely entertainment. But then there’s also I think, in all of us, if we’re being totally honest, a part of us, that feels humiliated by it, in some ways. And so with sports is similar in the sense that a lot of times when you watch sports, you’re sort of wagering your integrity. And it’s, it sucks. Because, you know, when you’re a kid, you don’t think about these things. Like, you know, when I was growing up and watching sports, I did not think about what kind of person an athlete was, or how did they treat their family or, you know, I didn’t worry about their character or the integrity only worried about that in relationship to their availability and whether or not they can play. Right, that was, yeah, that was it. And so something like, what happened to Colin Kaepernick, I’m a 40. Niners fan. You’re right. And even though the team itself did not put him out of the NFL, they were complicit in his career being taken from him. And so it’s just, I mean, for for a while, I didn’t really feel good about watching them because of that lame. This guy
Traci Thomas 23:59
fully gone back to football. Yeah, I’ve been able to, I was at his first NFL start. That’s a sporting event. I remember. See, you do remember, the Chicago Bears. It was that was like a pivotal moment in my life, because I was like, my quarterback is half black. And so am I. And like, it’s calling God for deck.
Jemele Hill 24:17
Yeah. So I find myself like sort of thinking about these things in especially now that I’m, you know, you’re at an age where you do care more about how certain things make you feel. But what I’ve told myself in terms of my participation in sports, and me watching it, I mean, I’m very entertained by sports. There’s no doubt about it. But what I’ve told myself is this. It my job for the Atlantic as a writer is to write about the intersection between race sports, politics, gender, culture, with sports. I can’t write about that unless I watch it. Right. Okay. And somebody has to be watching it in order to do what I said earlier. Hold the powers that be accountable. I need to be the writer reminding the NFL what they did to Colin Kaepernick, I need to be the writer reminding the NFL about the race norming that they willingly engaged in until recently about concussions about how they do everything to usurp undermine players power, I need to be the writer to do that. And to do that, I have to understand how the league works. So, you know, my participation is professional. But it’s also, I also the other part, too, that I think about is when it comes to the players themselves, and they’re the labor. And they put, they put so much work and effort into being a professional, and they have committed themselves to this dream, sacrificed a lot. And what it’s given them back is changing. They’re changing entire generations of their family because of the money they’re, they’re able to make, because of you know, how they’re may be able to live a much different life than they thought they would live. It’s given them so many good things. And I feel like even if there’s even if often sports flirts with if not crosses the line into exploitation, the players deserve support that they’ve done with, they deserve to have support.
Traci Thomas 26:24
Yeah. I’m trying to decide where I want to go from here. I feel like that’s just like such a salient point. You know, we’re gonna take a quick break, and we’ll be right back. Okay, I want to talk about sports journalism. I am, as I mentioned, a sports fan. I love sports journalism. You talked about a bunch of people in your book that are people I’ve been fans of like SALLY JENKINS, Michael will bond. I’m a Tony Kornheiser fan. Here’s how I got into podcasting, listening to his radio show for years, though I don’t listen anymore. But that’s a different story. I want to know, so you were a sports news reporter, then you went to becoming a sports columnist, I’d love for you just to explain to people who maybe aren’t like super into sports or journalism, kind of what the difference of those two jobs are?
Jemele Hill 27:08
Well, as a sports reporter, it’s more of a nuts and bolts job, in the sense of something happens, you report on what happened and why it happened. You talk to people, you turn out the story. If you’re covering the team, as I did for six years, you are covering the ins and outs of that team. who’s injured? Who’s heard, what’s the team outlook? Why did they lose this game? Why did this Player Start? Why didn’t that Player Start? You know, who are they recruiting? Like all different types of storylines that are associated with how this team exists? And you don’t opine on anything? So you’re not right. Yeah, you’re not everything is like fact base, or even if you have a theory about why something isn’t working, you find some evidence that can support your theory. So it’s, it’s very reported, it’s very, it should be pretty unbiased. And, and always, of course, fair. Now, when you’re a columnist, this is when you are taking the liberty to, you know, generate your own opinion about what is right or wrong with this team. Is this player good or not? You’re you’re taking a stance about something. So the nature of it is much more personal. Because when you’re writing for a newspaper, and your picture is next to your opinion, right? People are going to begin to attack you when they don’t like something, if you write that like are horrible, which they kind of are right now are
Traci Thomas 28:41
after four games. In other words, or five.
Jemele Hill 28:45
They are they are they actually I mean, this is one of the one of the worst for own for teams. They don’t they don’t they don’t look good. And but you know, if you’re a columnist running for the LA Times, you have to be truthful about that and say this team that’s very poorly constructed, they’re more than likely not going to even come close to challenging the Warriors for the blast or frankly, any of the other upper echelon teams and that you know, you have your opinion but you know, you do support it with facts the proof is in knowing that they don’t really have any three point shooters and a game that is now predicated on three point shooting. We know what’s going on with Russell Westbrook. So these are the things you know you you write and pontificate about, but bottom line one is opinion base one is just, you know, just by the, just the facts, ma’am.
Traci Thomas 29:34
Right. And how do you this is, this is a nosy question, how do you cultivate sources? How like, Who are you talking to you not to give away any sources but like, who are sources? Are they players? Are they front office? Like how are you and how do you get them to trust you enough to do it because different journalists have different sources?
Jemele Hill 29:56
Oh, yeah. And sometimes a bunch of journalists have the same source and By the way, in certain circles, I can tell exactly like I can tell based off the story with some reporters exactly who told them. I know exactly. I might, yeah, that sounds like such a such, I knew it. So it’s a constant. You know, being able to develop sources is like a constant practice. You know, I remember when I first started covering Michigan, State football and basketball, even though I had gone to school at Michigan State, which was an advantage for me. So I knew that terrain, I knew a lot of it I, you know, got into Michigan State. And I also had covered sports when I worked for the college newspaper. So some of the people that I met them, were still there. And, you know, you start taking folks out to lunch, who does not like a free meal? Don’t know. Yeah, exactly. So you take people out to lunch. And you know, one of the many tricks so to speak, that veteran journalist taught me is that you begin to chit chat with people and talk to people when you don’t need them. So that way, when you do need them, they won’t feel like you only come around, or you only talk to me when you need something. So yeah, I mean, listen, so ton of sticky reporter trips. So there are many times where in this more, it has to do with professional locker rooms where you, you go in the locker room. And you know, just to give people a better insight of how the access worse access works. Depending on what sports you are covering, like in the NBA, I think the locker room is open like 45 minutes, something like an hour to 45 minutes before the game. So that’s your opportunity as a writer to go in there. Talk to guys, you know, just kind of get a feel of the mood and all this other kind of stuff. And usually that’s when it’s called. Unless you have to have a deadline stories shoot the shit time. Like I remember in Orlando. When I was the columnist there, one of the players that I got a pretty had a pretty good relationship with was Keon dueling. The reason we had a good relationship is because we were shooting the shit during that pregame locker room time. And it turns out we had something very interesting and common. We were both fans of young and the restless. So we will be talking about what was going on all young and the restless. Like all the time. I don’t even remember how I this even came up. I mean, I think it just came up in a conversation during shoot the shit time and I was like, Oh, you watch my narc. What you think about Sharon when she did? So every time I would see him after that, I’d be like, Yo, did you see Thursday’s episode? Was it Oh, right. But then when I needed something when I needed a quote from him about something going on with the team, always willing to talk. Because I’d established that rapport. And a lot of times, let’s just say dissenting voices on the team make for great sources. Now you have to keep in mind, they have an agenda when they’re doing this. Like if there’s a guy who wants more playing time. He may tell you things about the starter about like, Yeah, but they didn’t tell you about how you miss practice to, you know, a couple weeks ago, but no excuse, yeah, they haters, but use them to your advantage. Okay, it’s fine. Right, or, assistant coaches make great sources because they’re not the head coach. So they don’t really take any of the blame for anything. So they don’t give you the insight on the team backup quarterbacks, they make great sources, because their backups, and they see all the dynamics that are happening on a team, you know, people, you know, sometimes horses, they, they try to woo you because they want a particular story planted in the media. You know, my friend Tom is the coach of Michigan State. He was really good at this is that when he was upset with his team, and he really wanted them to respond to something he wants to challenge them. He had a way of planting within a narrative that the team wasn’t working hard enough, or, you know, they were soft, or you know, they thought that they should be tougher, had a great way to do and that he would plant it with us when he was just talking to the beat writers and you know, none of us were really writing anything, he’s just shooting the shit. And then if they lose, and one of us writes like oh is you know, the toughness is a question blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And then as soon as that story is written or that cotton’s written he come to the podium and be like, How dare anyone question my team? And you’re like, but you said okay, and then he uses that to create a us versus them to get them to play harder because he’s like, look, they’re doubting you. They don’t think you’re tough enough and this and that and be like man this to immediate one on one.
Traci Thomas 34:44
I love that. I love it. It’s so manipulative and the best way I feel like the best managers and coaches do that though, right? Like they are constantly trying to figure out how do I get that extra something from this player and
Jemele Hill 34:56
figure out how to push the team. Who else makes excellent sources By the way, our support staff, team managers, administrative assistants, you know, people, that’s why I’ve made it a point when I covered a beat to know everybody’s name in the football office or everybody’s name in the basketball office so that, you know, you never know what tidbit you can use for something. It doesn’t always have to be nefarious or bad, but just something that might lead to you writing a good story.
Traci Thomas 35:25
Yeah, I love that. I my other dream job is to be a journalist, though I have no interest in actually being a journalist. I just love journalists, and I love stories from journalists and all these things. I just love being on the inside, you know. So one of the things you talked about once you go to TV, so you’re a journalist, you’re your start, like in high school, you’re writing college right out of college, or writing your report, and you’re hustling or moving around the country or hitting up these different, you know, newspapers, working your way up, you get ESPN, eventually you get on television. I don’t wanna spend too much time on television, or Donald Trump or any of those things, because I feel like that’s what a lot of people know about you. And I think you’re probably doing a lot of that on your press tour. So go listen to Jamal and other things. What I’m really curious about that you mentioned is that you said TV turned you into a girl, and you’re talking about how you were a tomboy. And you like weren’t into those things. You were like, you know, you go on TV, and you’re like, can people tell this is from Marshalls like, these shoes are just like hand me downs from so and so? I don’t know shit about makeup? Like I think it was sage steel is like telling you like Girl, you look a pasty like with her face in the background. I am so curious what you think about could you have found the success that you found on television, if you had stayed in your tomboy ways, given the time that you were coming up on TV at ESPN.
Jemele Hill 36:47
So I don’t want to say all of that hinged on it. But as you know, I wrote about in the book about how I hired an image consultant, a friend of mine, Erica, because she had been a longtime TV veteran, she was sort of transitioning out of the business. And so she had the size, side business of of image consulting, and not just for TV people, but for people in the professional world period. And she was very instrumental in me understanding that while you could sound really great, and you could make salient points and have cohesive sound arguments about a variety of topics, you have to look the part. And there is a TV look that is widely acceptable and that people are comfortable with. And you have to fit within the scope of that. And so I’m not saying that I would have never been on TV again. But yeah, I think there is some question to whether or not if I hadn’t sort of looked apart like, what would that have meant for me? Because you have to, even though it sounds horribly superficial? I do maybe not in the same way, maybe not with the same intensity. But you know, I don’t know that they’re gonna let a man you know, be on TV all that much if they’re always wearing wrinkled clothing.
Traci Thomas 38:09
Let’s do let them on with those oversized suits and those giant tires. I’m like, What’s going on sports? What is the giant tire? Not why why
Jemele Hill 38:17
they’re not. They’re not nearly as scrutinized as having webinars. So I don’t I don’t want people to think I’m making it possible. I have not, of course, because there’s plenty of things that men can get away with on TV from an appearance standpoint that women absolutely couldn’t. But you know, there is they, they do want you to look polished, because the fact is that when you’re delivering the news, delivering an opinion on TV, people are buying into who they think you are as much as they’re buying into what you say. So, I mean, I had to upgrade. I mean, it’s just that simple. It’s like, I had to re shape my look in a way, like make it a little softer. I mean, I had to do it in a way that was comfortable for me. So I still felt myself, but yet willing to grow and change to do something that I loved. And so I didn’t really see it as me sacrificing any part of myself because they were just aesthetic changes. And they weren’t really I think that outrageous. It’s like, okay, so, you know, making sure I wore accessories and because there was always gonna be about wearing xx accessories. She got me wearing black to every television. She was like, no, these colors really pop on TV. I mean, these are just sort of little things and tricks that at the end of the day are going to make you look good and make you better at selling yourself to the American public.
Traci Thomas 39:42
So interesting. I made me think about all the other women that are on sports television and made me think about like, how many of them also have like tomboy roots, right? Like, I’m sure some of them do.
Jemele Hill 39:56
Yeah, yeah, some of them do. And but I don’t know anybody did to the degree of care? But yeah, but um, but but some of them, but I do think media is kind of changing with that like, like, I look at just style wise what anchors are wearing now. And I think there’s a general and I don’t know if it was brought on by the pandemic or it was just trending this way. But, you know, wearing, like jeans or sneakers on TV used to be considered a cardinal No, no, but I see it frequently now, like the casual look is okay. I mean, some of it depends on, like, how you dress. I mean, people may not realize this, but sometimes there’s some shows or some networks, how you dress can sometimes be directly correlated to the type of show you’re on, and what time of day your show comes on. Does in the morning, like there’s a different expectation when you’re on a morning show, like people expect your morning anchor to be, you know, kind of jovial and happy and delivering you the news with a smile. So your personality demeanor has to be different. And so, you know, there’s, there’s ways you can still be yourself within. What is the audience expectation?
Traci Thomas 41:07
I love this. I love this insight. Okay, one of the things we always talked about here is how you write so how do you right, where are you? How many hours a day? Is there music? Or no? Are there snacks and beverages? Are there rituals, candles, bath time yoga, like set it up? Tell us how you write.
Jemele Hill 41:23
So when I was writing this book, in particular, I usually write in general, I’ll say I usually write with something on the TV. That is entertaining, but I don’t have to pay attention to it. Okay, I mean, I can go in and out like, Oh, that’s interesting that happened, and then come back to writing. So I’m typically will during writing this memoir, there was a, I had watched Grey’s Anatomy years ago.
Traci Thomas 41:53
That’s my favorite show. Oh, those are my top.
Jemele Hill 41:58
So I watched it years ago when it first came out. And so I was pretty hooked for like, five or six seasons, and then I just kind of lost track of it. And yeah, you know, it just wasn’t a big deal anymore. I picked it back up. All right, because it was perfect. It was like, you know, it was very, it’s very formulaic in a good way. And the formula is comforting. And so I wrote it. I you know, I wrote to it young and the rest is of course, I but I always I mean, young. And the rest of this is my go to for writing. Okay? Because it’s soap operas. And then every now and again, you look up it like was such a such. Wow, okay, let me get back into this. So it’s usually that and, or another one, well, actually, I had to stop watching it while writing because it was really absorbing too much of my attention. So I couldn’t write in watch it. I got into this as us during Oh, writing this book. And it just, it got so emotional. I was like, I cannot write and
Traci Thomas 42:54
I watched like the first season and a half. And then I was like, I can’t be here anymore. Like I like I just like had, it was too much for me.
Jemele Hill 43:01
But the storytelling so good. So the writing is so exceptional that it was it was really excellent. But it got to a point where that was too big of a distraction. So I had to just wait and do that at another time. But, you know, I believe changing change of scenery helps writing. So I often kind of rotate in different places in our house. I mean, there was a part when I was writing this book, we were not in the new house that we’re in now. So we had a spare bedroom. And I would write in there. And just because you know, we had Netflix and everything in the room, just go to Grey’s Anatomy, that that go home, start started, you know, writing whatever I need to write and then you know that that’s it. When we moved into new house, it was even better. Because there were several rooms I could really rotate. You know, there was we actually you know, I could go in our office or be in the living room or we have a very nice outdoor area. So we have a pool and a Jacuzzi. So going out there to write as well like next to that. So believing changes scenery and all of that snacks. Um, you know, I’m a I’m a chip person. Yeah, right. That’s like, you know, something you can grab. But other than that, yeah, that’s that’s pretty much it. I mean, I think what matters most is what I write to. Television wise.
Traci Thomas 44:22
Okay. One of the things I love food anytime anyone mentions food in their books or anything, it always piques my interest. I just want to note this that you were a person who used to eat your steaks medium rare and you’ve switched over to medium and medium well, and I’m just I’ve never heard that before. Everyone I know has gone from Well Done to medium rare. They’ve seen the light they’re happy. How did you go the reverse way? i It’s a nightmare for me.
Jemele Hill 44:45
Well, what it was like my grandmother was a big believer in eating steaks medium. And so I mean, she just thought you were a heathen if you ate it. Well, yes. Like that’s me and I you eat it? Well, no, I
Traci Thomas 44:56
think it’s a heathen thing. Oh, rare side. I’m medium Rare on the rare side?
Jemele Hill 45:02
Yeah, you something’s wrong with you if alive,
Traci Thomas 45:04
I’m looking for alive cows,
Jemele Hill 45:07
cows. So I gravitated over because I noticed if you say medium, well or medium plus, you get kind of right where it’s supposed to be because I feel like if you tell a chef like, Hey, make this medium? Well, they’ll actually make it medium. So it’s like, so you go up. So they’ll come down.
Traci Thomas 45:33
I go down so that they’ll stay down. Right? Yeah.
Jemele Hill 45:37
I mean, if I asked for it, medium rare. I mean, I’m sure there’ll be parts of the state still quivering. Like, right, you know what I mean? And all it was like for me? Yeah, if I wanted to medium rare, I would just ask for medium.
Traci Thomas 45:49
Yeah, I see. So you have a podcast. Now, Jamel Hill is unbothered? How does that compare for you for like from sports journalism, writing things? Like do you prepare differently? Are you thinking about things differently? Like how are you approaching podcasting? I know you did it before. I know you did his and hers. But now you have your own show. What’s that? Like?
Jemele Hill 46:10
I mean, I put a lot of extensive research into it. Just in terms of like trying to figure out, especially since I’m typically dealing with people who are big newsmakers, you have to figure out a way and it’s a challenge. And it’s, it’s very thrilling for me to figure out a way to talk to them about something differently than they’ve been talked to about it before. You know, like, you know, taking this interview, for example, as you said, like when you’re on a book tour, like you’re asked literally the same question 700 times. And so I appreciate this conversation, because you’ve already asked me at least in questions I haven’t been asked yet. On this tour. So Oh, yeah. So I tried to do the same thing is like not asking the same question. And if I do have to ask a question, just because sometimes it just requires getting an answer, even if it’s about the same thing, then I will ask them in such a different way that hopefully it leads to a different answer. And that comes through exhaustive research, which for me, includes I look at interviews of theirs in stages, like, oh, what’s the interview they may have given when they were just a couple years into their acting career? What’s the interview? What did they sound like five years after that? What did they sound like 10 years ago? What did they sound like, you know, a couple of months ago, just to see what their evolution actually is. One of the big reasons I gravitated right into podcasting after leaving ESPN is because I missed the intimacy of the interview. And when you’re working daily television, and even a lot of times, when I was writing for publications, you may have like five or 10 minutes with somebody in TV, you don’t even have that you have like maybe a four minute segment with somebody. And being able to get an hour of somebody’s time. It’s not easy, but it you know, it’s worthwhile. And so I wanted to just sit down and just have these, you know, engaging compelling conversations with people whose journey I think a lot of people wanted to hear about. So what I love about podcasting is that, it just creates this intimacy between you and the interviewer. And so I think I’m able to get much better stuff than, you know, if I sat down and did like a TV interview with them.
Traci Thomas 48:29
Yeah, that’s what I like about it, too. I only have a few more questions, one of which I hope no one else has asked you before, which is what we asked everyone here. What is the word you cannot spell correctly on the first try?
Jemele Hill 48:39
Oh, conscience. Conscience.
Traci Thomas 48:43
Impossible. That’s a really hard one. I love.
Jemele Hill 48:47
Easy, easy. Oh, and defibrillator? can’t spell it to save my life.
Traci Thomas 48:52
Are you spelling it a lot? Does it come up for you a lot?
Jemele Hill 48:54
I mean, whenever it comes up, I promise you I have to look it up every single time I’m like, is a D. I’m always missing something missing some letter or you got too many ELLs, like it’s always something.
Traci Thomas 49:05
I’m honestly terrible speller. So every word people say I’m always like, what but defibrillator has I can’t even say it so I definitely can’t spell it. I’m like, is there an AR there’s over like, what’s happening?
Jemele Hill 49:15
No, no, it’s it’s crazy how certain words like you’re just blinded to and for the rest of your life. You’re just like, I can’t spit. Why do I not know how to spell conscience? I don’t know.
Traci Thomas 49:26
I can’t spell recommendation. And I can’t tell you how many times I have to spell it because I’m always giving a book recommendation and I’m like, Can’t tell you I couldn’t help. Okay, this is sort of like a sports the moment but not exactly. But you know, everyone in sports loves a ranking. What are the top five sports stories of your lifetime to you?
Oh, man. That’s crazy. All right. I’m gonna just go with what
comes to mind.
Jemele Hill 49:55
Yeah, you just go with Lebron James returning to Cleveland. Huh? Um, LeBron James going to Miami. You guys say that to? Gosh, I know that I’m gonna miss something so freakin obvious? Well, I mean, I would say that, you know, I put up in there, maybe like the start of the WNBA just because nobody ever imagined that there would be like a women’s professional women’s professional sports leagues generally have it done well. Michael Jordan retiring and unretiring with that was definitely a big one. You know, you could definitely put the OJ Simpson story in there. But I was like, is that a sports story? Yeah, I think Aaron Hernandez oh my gosh, yeah, so forgot about that.
Traci Thomas 50:45
Yeah. So huge. Oh, my God. Yeah,
Jemele Hill 50:48
it was. I mean, I was traveling. I was at ESPN, obviously, when that happened. And he’s from Bristol, where ESPN is located. So to see the cops and the media touches swirling around Bristol. Like, it was just so bizarre. But those are just some that kind of come to mind. And I hope people realize the question you asked, you said in my lifetime, yeah. So I said, I know there have been much bigger stories. But yeah, you know, like, but I wasn’t alive when Muhammad Ali decided not to go to the Vietnam War.
Traci Thomas 51:16
Right. Last few questions. One of them. I asked everyone also is for people who love your book uphill, what are some other books that you might recommend to them that are in conversation with your work?
Jemele Hill 51:26
I would say Viola Davis, his memoir, and it’s so very good. And I would encourage people to listen to the audiobook because he does it. Oh, it’s incredible.
Traci Thomas 51:37
Do you do your audiobook?
Jemele Hill 51:39
I did. I did my audiobook and
Traci Thomas 51:40
I want to read your book before it had come out. So I wanted to listen, but I might go back and listen.
Jemele Hill 51:45
Well, the the audiobook experience is very unique. And took me a few weeks to do it. Because there were some revisions and this and that, but it’s such a weird experience. Because if you hate the sound of your own voice as much as most people do, it’s it can be very, very grating. So I thought that the Viola’s book was quite good. Another one that I didn’t read this this year. I read it last year, I think it was was, yeah, Jesse’s homecoming. Yeah, she is just, Oh, man. Really? Just a gifted writer. Oh, that reminds me. Another book that I read. And I think it this I read this book before the Viola Davis memoir, night crawling. Like calling, Leila Motley. Like, I mean, Oakland in a house like I cannot believe that she actually wrote that at such a young age. That young woman is brilliant. I mean that, everybody, I’ve recommended that Book Two, has immediately hit me up and said thank you because it’s so powerful. So yeah, night crawling was definitely one.
Traci Thomas 53:07
Leila came on the show this year. And we had y’all on in 2020. So both people who I love whose work I love, but Leila is she’s and she’s so funny, because she’s like, I don’t want you to think of me as exceptional. I’m just like every other 16 year old writing a novel.
I’m like, I’m like
okay, you can be exceptional but you also are That’s what I told her. I was like, very sweet. But let me tell you as your as your elder, your exceptional keep it up. Last question for you. If you could have any person dead or alive read this book. Who would you want it to be?
Jemele Hill 53:39
Wow, what a question. Well, maybe it would be and this is always dangerous to do is like you don’t want to have the person is dangerous because if you have the person who read your book who maybe changed your life or something about you because of something they wrote, that’s a pretty high bar and if they don’t like it, then I just be forced to, to cry and in a puddle of my own insecurities in the fetal position. So but I’m gonna say Nora ZIL Hurston, because Their Eyes Were Watching God is probably my favorite book of all time. And during the pandemic, I mean, I’ve read this book a few times, like at least four or five times, but I’d never listened to the audiobook, and I was very curious as to what it was like and, and everything. I believe it was Ruby Dee who did her audiobook and it was exceptional. So yeah, I would have her read it and just pray she liked it.
Traci Thomas 54:45
I love that answer. All right, folks. Jemele is out of here. But first let me remind you the book is called Uphill. You can get it wherever you get your books, audiobook physical ebook. Also you can find them all on her podcast. Jemele Hill is Unbothered which is on Spotify and she writes For the Atlantic, a subscription that I highly value one of my favorite places I get the print and everything. love it so much. It’s where all the Smarties go. So if you want smart sports things, find Jemele over there. Jemele. Thank you so so so so much.
Jemele Hill 55:14
Well, thank you. This was a wonderful conversation. I appreciate it.
Traci Thomas 55:17
Thank you and everyone else. We will see you in The Stacks. All right, y’all. That does it for us today. Thank you so much for listening. And thank you, of course, to Jemele Hill for being our guest. I’d also like to thank Carolyn O’Keefe for helping to make this conversation possible. Remember, The Stacks book club pick for November is prison by any other name by Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law, which we will discuss on November 30 with Mariame Kaba. If you love the show and want insight access to it, head over to patreon.com/TheStacks and join The Stacks pack. Make sure you’re subscribed to the stacks wherever you listen to your podcasts and if you’re listening through Apple podcasts or Spotify, be sure to leave us a rating and a review. For more from The Stacks follow us on social media at TheStackspod on Instagram and at TheStackspod underscore on Twitter and check out our website TheStackspodcast.com This episode of The Stacks was edited by Christian Duenas with production assistants from Lauren Tyree. The Stacks is created and produced by me Traci Thomas.
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