Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Media | Sports

June 8, 2011

Deadspin's Biggest Fan at ESPN

Jemele Hill respects good sportswriting in all forms, even if in the future it's beamed directly into our brains.

David Goldenberg

Even before she started writing for in 2006, Jemele Hill attracted national attention for her engaging approach to sportswriting. Her "Riding With" column for the Orlando Sentinel—in which she casually interviewed a variety of athletes while they drove her around town—showed off Hill's ability to get normally guarded people to open up. (In Willis McGahee's case, that led to an interesting diatribe on baby mommas.)

Jemele Hill
"For all I know, they'll be zapping information directly to our brains in 10 years. Regardless, I'm still going to have to go to press conferences."

Jemele Hill

Since moving her column to Bristol—even though she herself remains in Orlando—Hill has continued to take a different approach to her craft. Though she's occasionally courted controversy, both on the air and on the web, by comparing certain teams to certain homicidal maniacs, she's kept her readers engaged by remembering that they are complete people who want to know how sports intersects with a variety of other topics. Sometimes, that means blogging about the amorous advances of a certain World Cup coach; other times, it means a discussion of Oprah's impact on sports.

In the following interview, which was conducted by email and has been edited for clarity, Gelf asks Hill the same questions posed to our guests at the recent 5th anniversary Varsity Letters. In her responses, Hill explains how she might score a basket against Kobe, reviews her bowling record, and praises Deadspin (yes, really).

Gelf Magazine: Favorite linkable thing you've read recently?

Jemele Hill: Roy S. Johnson's column on how a number of historically-black colleges are being sanctioned by the NCAA for poor academic performance. Roy's a terrific writer, and a wonderful person. Loved his point about how this is reprehensible considering the mission that HBCUs were founded under.

Gelf Magazine: Favorite sports-related Twitter feed to read?

Jemele Hill: I can't pick, seriously. I'm following 800 people, and each has their own role on my Twitter feed. In general, I love following people with a sense of humor. For example, after Anthony Weiner admitted to sexting, Jeffrey Ross tweeted, "I'd like to formally apologize to any fans who may have received pics from me. They were meant for my proctologist." Those are the kind of people I like to follow.

Gelf Magazine: Which sports moment in history would you like to have witnessed in person?

Jemele Hill: Are these questions going to get any easier? Geesh. Immediately, a couple of events come to mind: The Rumble in the Jungle, Game 5 of the 1984 World Series (I'm a lifelong Tigers fan), or any Wimbledon.

"I tell aspiring journalists not to make the mistake that previous journalists did, which is to get so worked up about the method of delivery that they overlooked that the gathering process never changed."
Gelf Magazine: In a game of one-on-one to 25 against Kobe Bryant, how many points would you score? How many points would you win in a set against Roger Federer?

Jemele Hill: I play basketball a couple times a week, so I'd like to think I can get one bucket against Kobe—if he didn't take me seriously for a minute or two. (Editor's Note: It's not very likely that Kobe would let his attention lapse.) I could probably sneak in a jumper. But I've never picked up a racquet, so I know Roger Federer would totally humiliate me.

Gelf Magazine: What is the most embarrassing thing to happen to a sports figure recently?

Jemele Hill: It was an embarrassing admission, but I give Wayne Rooney a ton of credit for admitting that he got hair plugs. That was gutsy, but also smart. If you take the air out of a story, there's a better chance people won't be fascinated by it.

Gelf Magazine: What percent of pro athletes vote? What percent are Democrats? Republicans?

Jemele Hill: The stats say 56.8 percent of voting-eligible people voted in the last election, and considering the emotional momentum President Obama created—especially among African-American males—I could believe that figure represented professional athletes, as well. My colleague LZ Granderson wrote a great piece about how the presence of Obama was inspiring more professional athletes to register to vote. Maybe for the general public it's hard to contemplate a pro athlete not being registered to vote, but athletes lead pretty transient lives and most have been caught up in this cycle since high school, so I'm not surprised that the 2008 election was the first time a lot of them voted.
In general, though, I'd assume most pro athletes were Republicans because that party tends to represent the issues that are important to the upper-echelon tax bracket.

Also, here are Hill's answers to our vital stats questions, asked of each Varsity Letters guest:

Gelf Magazine: Whom do you agree with more, Will Leitch or Buzz Bissinger? (Even though these days Buzz is a friend of Deadspin's.)

Jemele Hill: Quick sidetrack: I don't know if you follow Bissinger on Twitter, but he is dynamic. His anger, passion and ranting is just beautiful. I love that he just doesn't give a…care. Anyway, I'd probably lean a little bit toward Will's perspective. Bloggers are not the enemy. Sure, there are some bad bloggers, but there are also some bad columnists and journalists who work in the mainstream. Every industry has bad apples, so we can't take the bottom layer and judge everyone by that standard.
I think most bloggers just want to be respected and I actually believe they've made mainstream journalists more accountable for what we write. But I get Buzz's frustration. There have been times where I've seen things posted on blogs and wondered if that person would have written that same thing if they had to face a guy in the locker room the next day, or had to be accountable in some other way. But, by and large, blogs have strengthened our industry.

Gelf Magazine: Are the following sports: gymnastics, golf, archery, bowling, cheerleading, weightlifting?

Jemele Hill: Yes, yes, yes, no, yes, yes. I've been bowling since I was eight years old. Highest average I ever carried is 171. It can't be a sport if you can do it well while drunk.

Gelf Magazine: Favorite teams growing up, and favorites now:

Jemele Hill: Tigers, Pistons, Red Wings, 49ers—and same four now.

Gelf Magazine: What's your dream sportswriting job?

Jemele Hill: I'm pretty sure I'm doing it now. I get to write what I want. I've got a great editor. I'm based in Orlando and work out of my home, which means my office uniform is tattered Michigan State shorts and a clean t-shirt. OK, sometimes, it's not that clean, but still…I'm living the dream. Now, if you asked me my dream non-sports writing job, it'd be writing for a soap opera. I've been hooked on The Young and the Restless for almost 20 years. I can only imagine what the writer meetings are like. "So, is Amanda going to sleep with her professor, get pregnant, and sell her baby on the black market or is she going to steal someone's baby and pass it off as her own for 12 years?" To come up with stuff like that on a daily basis would be awesome.

Gelf Magazine: Where will the best sportswriting be published in 10 years?

Jemele Hill: I don't think it matters. I tell aspiring journalists not to make the mistake that previous journalists did, which is to get so worked up about the method of delivery that they overlooked that the gathering process never changed. Just because I read a Bill Simmons column on my Droid, that doesn't change the fact that Bill still has to be topical, clever, and brilliant. For all I know, they'll be zapping information directly to our brains in 10 years. Regardless, I'm still going to have to go to press conferences, and develop sources.

Gelf Magazine: What's the best sports venue to visit?

Jemele Hill: I'd say Cameron Indoor Stadium. It's so small. It's a high-school gym, basically. I covered a bunch of games there when I was a reporter in Raleigh and the students sit so close to press row that you can feel their spit on your neck.

Gelf Magazine: Who's your favorite mainstream sportswriter? Least favorite? Why?

Jemele Hill: I've got a ton of friends in this business and could give you a long list, but Michael Wilbon was the first name that came to mind. He's a tremendous person, and everything a columnist should be—informed, dedicated, passionate, and he still works the beat like he's hungry. He doesn't lose himself in the madness of this industry. I think—and I say this without insult to anyone else—he's the most complete columnist in the country.
As for my least favorite…I'm going to give you the clean, journalistic version of something Master P once said: Real journalists don't talk about other journalists they dislike in Q & As.

Gelf Magazine: Put the following sportswriters in order from your most to least favorite: Bill Simmons, Mitch Albom, Dan Shaughnessy, Peter Gammons, Deadspin's A.J. Daulerio, Rick Reilly.

Jemele Hill: Why not label this question…things you can say that will be completely taken out of context?
None of these guys are my least favorite. I'll totally detour the question and tell you what I like about each guy.
I grew up reading Mitch Albom. It was Albom, Charlie Vincent, and Detroit News columnist Terry Foster who were my daily reads, and they made me love newspapers. Detroit was a great two-newspaper town, and it's a blessing that I was able to draw such inspiration from them. I know Mitch can be polarizing in our industry, but he put a lot of columnists up on game. People may not like it, but I admire him for making sure he was in control of his own talent from a business standpoint.
The second publication that inspired me to become a sports writer was Sports Illustrated. I worshiped Rick Reilly, whom I met for the first time before Game 1 of this year's NBA Finals. I don't think I took a breath for the first 30 seconds of our conversation because I couldn't believe I was talking to him. That's something I would have never imagined when I began learning this industry. It's even cooler when you meet a writing idol and you all are considered as equals. Extraordinary. Reilly's Marge Schott profile is still one of my favorite five reads of all time.
I didn't start to read Simmons until about 2004. He's so prolific. He's got this knack for making the most complicated concept simple and funny. I respect him because he respects the game. His passion is contagious. When it was announced I was coming to ESPN, Simmons was the first person to send me a welcome email. I saved it. He's so cool.
Peter Gammons…one of the best reporters out there. He's just complete. When I was a cub reporter, he ball-hogged me on this David Wells interview. I was pissed initially, but then I realized he taught me a lesson. Be assertive, even if it is Peter Gammons. I watched him work the locker room and it was really a thing of beauty. I picked up a couple tricks, for sure.
A.J. Daulerio…I know a lot of people consider him to be a scum, but I don't have an issue with him. Any time Deadspin has clowned me, I've deserved it. Can't say everyone feels that way, but I like A.J. because he's transparent. He's not trying to be more than what he is. You know where you stand with him. Deadspin actually does a lot of good reporting on its site. People have varying opinions about how they report on people's personal lives, and I get that, but they've done some really good stories that have nothing to do with photos of someone's unmentionables. For example, they had a great piece about the racial disparity in BYU's honor-code violations. And it was because of them that we found out the Marlins were being dishonest about their financial records.

Jemele Hill loses bet to Matthew Berry
As for Dan Shaughnessy, I don't recall having ever met him in person. But I respect him also because of his honesty. He's a great wordsmith. He's also a dying breed, a hardcore newspaperman.
And by the way, the order in which I talked about these folks was totally coincidental!

Gelf Magazine: One last Q, since we just stumbled upon this review of a bet you won against your fellow Varsity Letters panelist, Richard Deitsch: Any more bets planned with Richard?

Jemele Hill: I'll bet Richard anytime. Who I won't bet is Matthew Berry, because that led to the unfortunate photo that's at left.

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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- Sports
- posted on Jun 09, 11
Jerel Brickerson

Great Q&A with Jemele. You have allowed me information that I may never have had a chance to ask.

Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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