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The SportsNewser Interview: Jemele Hill

Jemele Hill is more than just Skip Bayless‘ competition on ESPN’s “First Take.” The Detroit native realizes that debating sports with the surly Bayless is just part of her day-to-day duties as an ESPN.com columnist.

“That’s not a job,” Hill tells SportsNewser. “Debating Skip is not my job. It’s what I do, but my job is to be a journalist.”

Hill has been a standout at her job as a journalist since starting her professional career at the Raleigh News & Observer in 1997. After stops at the Detroit Free Press and Orlando Sentinel, Hill joined ESPN in 2006.

SportsNewser.com spoke to Hill on the phone about her experience covering the World Cup in South Africa and the challenges she’s come across as a black woman in the journalism industry.

SportsNewser: Where does covering the World Cup in South Africa rank on your all-time list of favorite sporting events?

Jemele Hill: I would have to say that would be in the top three. It’s kind of hard to pick one but it would definitely be in consideration I guess. It was a fantastic experience. It was a beautiful country and a wonderful sporting event. It is almost hard for me to put in words because I have never been to Africa before. That was the first time I covered soccer on that scale. I just felt so many emotional connections in going to South Africa, a place that I think the last real recognition most of us had of it, myself as well, was apartheid. To see how the country had grown in those few years since it had been on the worldwide stage was very moving. It was definitely a benchmark for my career.

Did you do a lot of prep work before hand to brush up on your soccer knowledge?

I did a lot. I paid attention to soccer on a very surface level up until that point. I was aware of the headlines, who the players were. I knew the game because I covered it kind of extensively when I was at the News & Observer in Raleigh, but it was primarily women’s soccer. I brushed up on general things, especially with the American team. I made myself more familiar with the lesser-known players at least here in the States. In fairness, ESPN didn’t bring me there for my soccer knowledge. They brought me to do sports-cultural stories about how the World Cup was not only impacting the citizens in the country but those in the world watching from afar.

What challenges or obstacles have you faced in your career due to either your gender or race?

Coming from Detroit, which is a majority black city, I think that like a lot of people, as I grew, my own sort of way at looking at things racially had to change first before anyone else’s did. I went to Michigan State, which is a predominately white school, and that was my first real exposure to different races and cultures. It taught me a lot. Once my own transformation began, I was able to have a better sense of racial and even sexual politics. I never felt held back in any way. I always did feel there were unspoken things I had to prove just because I was a black woman in sports. There are hardly any black women who do what I do. In my personal interactions, I never felt belittled or my race was held against me at any place I have ever worked.

Do you feel the gender gap is closing between men and women journalists?

Absolutely. Even the women who came before me, they tell me stories all the time just how different it was for them. They were use to situations where they were literally the only woman in that locker room or press box. I don’t think it’s that way anymore. Certainly you have certain sports that are male dominated. You do see women have a presence in most of the major markets. Will it ever catch men? I don’t know about that.

How does television compare to print?

It’s a lot more nerve-wracking, that’s for sure. I use to be one of those journalists who thought that TV is easy. We use to make fun of TV journalists and anchors all the time. And then, I had to get in front of the camera and read on the teleprompter and I understood this was no joke. What I’m use to being able to expound on and rely in 1,000 words; I have to say in 30-45 seconds. A minute if I’m lucky. If you told me 10 years ago that I would enjoy it as much as I do, I would have told you that you were out of your mind. It was something that I looked down on. Now I love it.

You’re an avid tweeter. What other sports journalists would join you on the Mt. Rushmore of Twitter?

Buzz Bissinger. He’s one of the most entertaining follows on there. He’s angry. He’s thoughtful. He’s amazing. When that guy goes off, it’s straight ether. Bill Simmons. Clearly, he’s one of the most entertaining sports columnists in America, if not number one. That same sense of humor he has in his columns comes through on Twitter. And I would put Gregg Doyel on there from CBS Sports. That guy is just so funny. I know him in real life, not just on Twitter, so maybe I’m slightly biased.

Career-wise, where do you see yourself in 10 years?

This will sound so horribly lame but I think it’s better to set conceptual goals than physical, actual goals. They can change and sometimes you could be doing something entirely different but it will give you the same fulfillment conceptually that you really wanted. Conceptually, I just want to be challenged. That’s it. I want to feel like I’m waking up every day doing something that I love, but also feel like I’m growing in the process. If I’m doing that in 10 years, whether I’m at ESPN or slinging fries.

What advice would you give an up and coming female sports journalist trying to make it in the industry?

Read. Please read. Read books. I still have a library card. I love my library card. It’s the best investment any journalist can have. I think when you read other people’s work, especially not in you field, you tend to have a real respect for language, probes and verbiage. You have to be in love with words. Also, know the basics. People see what I do and they just want to be on TV. I have to say that it really disappoints me when people say they want to debate Skip [Bayless]. That’s not a job. Debating Skip is not my job. It’s what I do, but my job is to be a journalist.

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