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What Does Jemele Hill Do Now?

On the eve of her return to ESPN after a controversial suspension, the lightning-rod ‘SportsCenter’ host and Donald Trump target finds herself at a sports juggernaut in political crisis. Will she be supported or bolt for a more politically focused future?

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On Monday, Jemele Hill returns to The Six after a two-week suspension for violating ESPN’s social media policy. But a key meeting happened Sunday, when Hill sat down with ESPN president John Skipper. According to two sources, the meeting occurred away from the Bristol campus; Hill and Skipper were alone. (ESPN and Hill declined to comment.) It was the first time the two met since September 13, two days after Hill called President Donald Trump a white supremacist on Twitter and the day that the Trump White House called for her to be fired. As Hill wrote in The Undefeated, she cried during that meeting.

Hill’s suspension is both ESPN bureaucratic intrigue and a national political cause that has been joined by everyone from J.R. Smith to the ACLU. (This month, there was even a small protest in a driveway at ESPN’s Bristol campus.) But Hill and Skipper started on good footing. Three years ago, Skipper insisted on rebranding Numbers Never Lie, Hill and Michael Smith’s old ESPN2 show, as His & Hers, a move that cemented their TV careers. “People saying he’s not supportive of Jemele is categorically false,” said Evan Dick, Hill’s agent at CAA.

Could Hill decide she wants to work at a place that leans into criticizing Trump rather than one that tries to carve out a woke-but-not-that-woke safe space? Sure. But according to multiple sources inside ESPN and close to Hill, we’re not there … yet. Neither side has even broached the idea. This is the beginning of what could be a long period of talking and thinking.

For the time being, Hill will be back with Michael Smith on The Six. A few things to consider as Hill ponders her future:

1. It’s not right to think of Trump’s attacks on Hill as something completely new. Rather, they’re an escalation of the sliming that Hill and Smith have been taking on social media since their show went on the air February 6. The ferocity of the attacks shocked a lot of people in Bristol. It was maybe the most dramatic instance of the kind of bile political writers had faced for months migrating into the feeds of ESPN anchors.

Some of the attacks on Hill and Smith were overtly racist. Some were overtly-covertly racist, charging that Hill and Smith got their gigs only thanks to “affirmative action.” Smith called the movement “Make ESPN Great Again.”

“This is the part that’s frustrating,” he told me this summer. “Why is it such a foreign concept for Jemele and I to be in this position because we’re actually really good at our jobs? Why does there have to be some ulterior motive involved? Why does there have to be ‘ESPN wants to appeal to a certain demographic’ or ‘This is their liberal agenda at play?’”

“Frankly, why is it when black people get something, it’s because it’s a handout …?”

If you work in the hinterlands of Bristol, your Twitter mentions can take an outsized place in your head. When Hill and Smith traveled to remote broadcasts around the country and found themselves mobbed by fans, they liked to joke, “See, white people do like us!” This summer, long before Trump weighed in, Skipper brought Hill and Smith into his office to tell them they had his support.

For a sports TV host to find herself the target of a sitting American president is, well, unprecedented. But even Trump’s October 10 tweet, which suggested Hill was a reason ESPN had “tanked,” recycled a line Hill and Smith had heard dozens of times before.

2. The Six has been on the air for eight and a half months. But the problem that looms over the show is the same problem that loomed over it at conception: What is it? Before the show aired, Hill and Smith were worried enough that people would be confused—if not pissed off—about how they were changing SportsCenter that they asked to change the show’s name. ESPN refused, reasoning that Hill and Smith were merely continuing an evolution that Scott Van Pelt had begun on the midnight edition of SportsCenter.

If you think of ESPN as a pendulum that swings between news and debate, The Six started on the “debate” side. It has since swung the other way. On Wednesday, when Smith was hosting solo, a viewer watching the “A block” would have seen him chatting with Tim Legler about Joel Embiid’s usage. They would have seen him asking Pedro Gomez about the Dodgers and talking about Ezekiel Elliott’s legal machinations and plugging ESPN’s 7 p.m. NBA tipoff. But for Smith’s unique style and DJ Jazzy Jeff’s remixed theme song, the show sounded like a lot of other news shows in the ESPN universe.

Hill told me this summer she felt she had Skipper’s full support. But two sources said that what the show has lacked is someone within the Bristol universe who knows the hosts and can truly solve the problem of translating their voices—funny, chatty, pop-culture-obsessed—into the language of a show that’s still called SportsCenter. Multiple people told me that ESPN’s concept for The Six’s trailer was sharper than its concept for the show.

3. The Six is now talked about (even by Hill allies) in the hushed tones reserved for troubled shows. But it’s worth remembering that for Hill and Smith it represented not just a promotion but a career capstone. In the decade-plus each had worked at ESPN, Hill and Smith felt they’d been passed over or ignored many times. Then, last fall, executive Rob King told them the network was thinking of moving them from His & Hers, on ESPN2, to the big show. “My favorite movie is Pulp Fiction,” Smith told me this summer. “I’m like Sam Jackson at that moment, talking to Marsellus Wallace… ‘Sheet, negro, that’s all you had to say!’”

In a typical gesture, Hill celebrated by splurging on other people—the network of family and friends she felt had had her back for decades. She gave the Undefeated writer Kelley L. Carter—who has been Hill’s best friend since their days at Michigan State—first-class tickets for a trip to Italy they took in August. Hill bought her mother, Denise Dennard, a Mercedes-Benz C300. “She didn’t give me a car,” Dennard told me. “She got me an experience.” Hill finally splurged on herself. She bought a Maserati.

4. Hill has spawned 1,000 think pieces. But Michael Smith has endured his own kind of pressure, facing criticism not only from the right but from the left. Why doesn’t he speak out? Why doesn’t he refuse to host the show unless Hill’s on it? Between supporting his friend and so-called work wife and figuring out his own future at ESPN, he’s in a no-win situation.

Hill was suspended on October 9. A day later, when Smith began hosting the show solo, Hill sent a tweet of support, saying, “I truly don’t deserve you.” The message was clear: They were in it together.

5. Hill’s suspension brought up a larger question, which Bill Simmons wrote about here: Can ESPN carve out an apolitical space while Trump is president?

“The tension is not that they want to be apolitical,” said one ESPN employee. “The tension is that they want to be fashionably political. They want to be Oscar-speech political.”

The employee said that, in a weird way, Hill’s tweets turned out to be helpful. Since Trump took office, a lot of ESPNers’ Twitter feeds have been more politically conscious than they’ve ever been in the past. At the same time, ESPN’s social media policy—like The New York Times’ new policy—is vague and open to case-by-case enforcement. In calling Trump a “white supremacist,” the ESPN employee said, Hill accidentally discovered the uncrossable line. Oh, so that’s what we can’t say about Trump!

6. Anybody who wants to understand what Hill is thinking now should know that she has been in a remarkably similar situation with ESPN before. Around 2010, she was established as an writer and debate-show guest but struggling to find a permanent spot on TV. Hill had tried out for so many shows, like First Take and SportsNation, that she started calling herself ESPN’s “crash-test dummy.” She didn’t feel a ton of institutional support, since she didn’t see women given permanent slots on ESPN’s opinion shows.

But the bigger issue was that Hill felt there was a world beyond sports that she had things to say about—things she wouldn’t be able to say, or say exactly the way she wanted to, as long as she was working for the Worldwide Leader. Hill began to think about other options, including cable news. Recalling her career crossroads this summer, she told me, “I thought I’d probably wind up leaving ESPN sooner rather than later.” Only a series of promotions—to Numbers Never Lie, then His & Hers, then The Six—kept her at the network. But Hill’s interest in saying the kind of things you can’t say during a sports debate never went away.

Since then, Hill’s life and image has changed immeasurably, first by becoming a SportsCenter anchor and then by emerging as a first-name-only character in our national political psychodrama. Before she was suspended, Hill sent me a text message noting an irony. In 2016, she was sipping Hennessy in the Obama White House. In 2017, the new occupants of the White House were calling for her job. “Life comes at you fast,” Hill wrote. “I might tweet that someday.”