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Deep Six: Jemele Hill and the Fight for the Future of ESPN

The new cohost of ‘SportsCenter’ and her partner, Michael Smith, have been blamed for the network’s perceived liberal bias. Should they embrace debate or block the trolls? Hill shares her side.

Michael Smith and Jemele Hill Jason Raish

One afternoon in June, Jemele Hill and Michael Smith were sitting in a small green room at ESPN headquarters. It was an hour before the start of the 6 p.m. SportsCenter. But for my presence, they were alone — away from producers offering notes, prying executives, and the outraged wails of social media.

Hill and Smith meet here every day. They don’t rehearse the show, exactly. They map out the trajectories of each other’s arguments and try out lines. It’s like telling a joke to a friend in the adjoining cubicle and asking, “Should I tweet that?”

Today, the topic was where free agent Gordon Hayward should sign.

“What is it — Miami, Boston?” Hill asked.

“Honestly, that feels like an easy choice to me,” Smith said.

“That it’s definitely Boston?”

“Yeah …”

Sheeet,” Hill said. She smiled. The debate was on. “You’ve been to Miami, right?”

“More than I need to,” Smith said.

“Miami will always be in the recruiting game. Because Miami.”

“That’s a whack-ass reason to sign somewhere.”

“Brother living in Utah for four years,” Hill said. “That’s all I’m saying.”

“Boston is a thriving metropolis,” Smith said with a touch of civic pride. Before coming to ESPN, he was a reporter at the Globe.

Hill said: “Last thing I need is Boston on my back …” She was once suspended by ESPN for comparing rooting for the Celtics to having sympathy for Hitler.

A joke had popped into Hill’s head, and she was deciding whether to use it.

She did: “We’re talking about white dudes. That’s a different experience. [Boston] might be like Miami for them.”

“Precisely,” Smith said. “That’s mecca right there! Shit’s lit!”

An hour later, on SportsCenter, Hill and Smith rebooted their debate for the cameras. Smith said, “Boston is a thriving metropolis,” and Hill repeated that she didn’t need a few million angry Bostonians on her back. But I noticed they never used the joke that cracked them up in the green room.

This is the irony of the show ESPN calls SC6 or simply The Six. When Hill tweets about Donald Trump, some of Twitter’s noisiest critics like to complain about what she and Smith are doing to SportsCenter. But if you talk to Hill and Smith, you find them asking the opposite question: What’s the franchise doing to them?

“Because we’re SportsCenter, we overthink a lot,” Hill told me. “We’re like, ‘Does this fit the SportsCenter brand?’ ‘Would this be OK?’ It’s not [ESPN executives] — they’re not putting pressure on us to do that. It’s just we’re in our own heads about it. … That’s some of the downside of how the label can suffocate you.”

This tension — between being the fearless opinion-slinger ESPN hired and honoring the legacy of a venerable franchise — isn’t just the kind of thing that’s on Jemele Hill’s mind. It’s the very dilemma of the network she’s trying to help reinvent.

These days, if someone is mad online at ESPN, chances are they’re also mad at Hill. Why won’t she stick to sports? Why is she so “liberal?” Why are she and Michael defiling the temple of Dan and Keith? To just about every critic, Hill is a debate-show avatar rather than an actual person — one who has found her first six months on the network’s flagship show to be thrilling and bewildering in equal doses. I wondered: Who is she?

A little after 9:30 that morning, after an interview on Mike & Mike, Hill was talking to Mike Greenberg off-camera. She was wearing flip-flops and a T-shirt with a picture of Doughboy from Boyz n the Hood. (“I remember the movie from the theaters,” Greenberg said on the air, like a man insisting on a level of cultural cred.)

Hill has made it her mission to teach Greenberg the occasional bit of slang. Once, she told him that morning, she and Cari Champion appeared on ESPN in short skirts. “As the young kids say, you got to let the lambos out,” Hill told Greenberg. She added: “You can use that.”

“All right, babe,” said Greenberg.

“Great to see you,” said Hill.

When Hill and I were out of earshot, I told her there was no chance Greenberg would use “let the lambos out.”

“Oh, no, he 100 percent would,” Hill said. Two years ago, when Hill was on Mike & Mike, Greenberg blurted out another phrase Hill taught him: “Is the mid still sellin’?” Hill cracked up, and Greenberg got a panicked look on his face. “Did I use it correctly?” he said. “Was that not an appropriate mention of it?” Hill forgot to tell him it was a reference to weed.

A few hours after Mike & Mike, Hill walked into SC6’s morning staff meeting and met Smith, the man who fondly calls her his work wife. Michael and Jemele were first pitched as a romantic item. In 2002 they spotted each other across the Celtics locker room. Hill was covering the NBA for the Detroit Free Press, Smith for the Globe. Rob Parker, who was then a columnist in Detroit, thought they were so similar in their youthful ambition that they might be a couple.

Michael Smith and Jemele Hill Getty Images

Accompanied by Parker and the writer A. Sherrod Blakely, Smith and Hill went to a screening of Spider-Man. They were seated next to each other, like shy middle schoolers. At the end of the night, they exchanged numbers.

“If there’s one thing he has over me,” Hill said, “it’s that I called first.” She was coming to Boston to cover the playoffs, she told Smith. What was there to do around town?

Smith said he didn’t go out much.

Hill said: “OK, let me be more forward then. Do you want to go grab dinner or go hang out somewhere?”

Smith did not. He said he was too busy playing franchise mode on Madden.

“I was like, ‘That dude is lame,’” Hill said. In fact, Hill was also a Madden addict. Smith’s mistake was not inviting her to play with him.

On the set of SC6, as they were on their old ESPN2 show, His & Hers, Hill and Smith are a matched set. In person, you can see their differences more clearly. Smith is all verbal output — the grandson of a minister who’s forever on the verge of his next sermon. “I’m a ponderer,” Hill said. “I stew.” Even on TV, you see her taking a half-second to calculate her response to Smith, to size up where he’s going. Cari Champion calls her Suffers in Silence.

Both Hill and Smith are known as mentors at ESPN, especially for the network’s young black employees. But Hill has a gift for attracting friends. “There’s a competition to see who’s her best friend,” Smith said. Smith figures he’s no. 2 in the rankings, behind only Kelley L. Carter, an Undefeated writer who was Hill’s roommate in college. He begged me not to tell him if I found out differently.

Behind Hill’s warm smile lurks the heart of a pessimist — someone who doesn’t necessarily think everything at ESPN is going to turn out alright. Once, she thought Smith was rolling over in negotiations with executives. “For somebody who is very direct about how they think,” Hill told him, “you’re the most accommodating motherfucker ever.”

ESPN’s transformation is usually described as swapping a highlight for a debate segment. But the changes are even more elemental than that. At the SC6 staff meeting, everyone had their heads buried in their social media feeds, looking for content for the show. “I’m a hawk on TweetDeck,” said Jeremy Lundblad, one of SC6’s producers.

Twitter is now the de facto coordinating producer of ESPN’s daytime lineup. The network’s old currency was a highlight of Klay Thompson shooting a 3. The new currency — and, indeed, that day’s top offering — was a video of Thompson dancing like a dork in a Chinese nightclub. Programming ESPN is like curating your Twitter feed: find the content that everyone’s talking about and craft the right joke.

The Thompson video gave Hill an idea of how they could open that night’s episode of SC6. They would show Thompson dancing, then cut to a video of Smith dancing with Bell Biv DeVoe at an ESPYs party.

On the air, Hill called Smith and Thompson members of the “light-skinned delegation.”

Smith merrily shot back: “Why you act like you black as the ace of spades?”

That kind of banter is exactly what filled His & Hers, which aired every day at noon. It’s radically different than almost anything that has appeared on SportsCenter. Last fall, after ESPN executives tapped Hill and Smith to host the 6 p.m. edition, they began to realize their mission was more than just creating a good show — it was working against 40 years of accumulated nostalgia, against the idea that a show called SportsCenter ought to be done a certain way.

One of the first things Hill and Smith did was ask if they could change the show’s title. Maybe call it something like SportsCenter Presents His & Hers. Management said no. “I will fully cop to having a strong SportsCenter bias,” Rob King, the executive in charge of the franchise, told me. The idea was to overhaul the brand rather than scrap it.

At times, it felt like ESPN was tearing an ACL in its attempts to tell cord-cutting millennials that SC6 was their kind of show. For weeks, the network ran an ad campaign that promised “Sports Music Movies + More.”

“ESPN, they were well-intentioned,” Hill said. “Their heart was in the right place. But when you roll out a campaign that says, ‘Sports Music Movies + More,’ you give people the idea that when we come out of the gate, we’re going to be doing television upside down. … Are we? We are doing a sports discussion show.”

It’s true that Hill and Smith are pop culture fanatics. In June, when the rapper Prodigy died, they quoted his lyrics to each other on the air. They interviewed Love & Basketball director Gina Prince-Bythewood, which prompted a burp of protest from Fox Sports agitator Clay Travis. After they produced grand parodies of Empire and Anchorman, the March 10 edition of The Six began with the opening credits of A Different World.

But if you watch SC6 every day, you realize pop culture is more often Hill and Smith’s go-to reference rather than their actual subject. When critics complain that they’re mixing genres, Smith hears the ring of a double standard. “When Bill Simmons does it, he’s celebrated for it …” he told me. “When [Scott] Van Pelt does it, he’s awesome, he’s everyman, we relate to him. When Barstool does it, they’re anti-establishment, they’re new, they’re fresh, they’re the anti-ESPN.

“When we do it? ‘Get this black shit out of here!’ That’s what it feels like.”

Here, Stuart Scott’s example is instructive. When he died of cancer, in 2015, he was hailed for bringing a new sensibility to SportsCenter. But in Scott’s early years at ESPN, critics greeted him with reactions that ranged from sneering to incomprehension. In 2001, the Chicago Sun-Times’ Richard Roeper wrote a whole column scolding Scott for saying “boo ya!” because the catchphrase had its origins in gang violence.

Scott “stayed true to himself so that me and Jemele could stay true to ourselves,” Smith said. Now, “boo ya!” is scribbled on SC6’s video backdrop as a memorial and a kind of rallying cry.

In the morning meeting where Hill and Smith sorted through the day’s news, they also broached the trickiness of the time slot. The 6 p.m. SportsCenter has always been positioned at an inconvenient spot in the sports day: too late to cover last night’s games and too early to cover tonight’s. “What I have at midnight are results,” said Van Pelt. “At 6, all you have are topics.”

Topics are why Hill and Smith were tapped for the gig, which began in February. But they were still trying to figure out their responsibility to the news. A Woj bomb that dropped at 5:30 would rightly require them to change the lineup. But what if The New York Times posted a mildly interesting news story while SC6 was on the air — were they supposed to stop and read it? “What is our obligation to tell people news that just happened even if we’re supposed to be a discussion show?” Hill asked. “I don’t know. We haven’t figured that out yet.”

SC6’s format was tweaked after I visited this summer. In the opening “Six at 6” segment, Hill and Smith blitz through a list of news items, highlights, and social media offerings. The segment helped the show’s pacing, and it created a place for Hill and Smith to talk about a great catch from a day baseball game or Le’Veon Bell rapping about his teammates — stuff they knew should be a part of the 6 p.m. SportsCenter but didn’t always have a spot for.

Every debate show on ESPN has topic bars — blocks at the bottom of the TV screen where you can see what burning question the hosts are chewing over. (The idea is that ESPN can be watched with the sound off.) Hill and Smith were told that SC6 couldn’t have topic bars, because that wasn’t how SportsCenter was supposed to look. Later in the summer, the decision was reversed, and now Hill and Smith have topic bars.

After the staff meeting, Hill and Smith ate lunch in the ESPN cafeteria, then sat side by side at computers in a noisy room called “Screening.” They call themselves “former journalists,” in deference to their print colleagues, but they write their own scripts. A few hours later, they mapped out their debates in the green room. Just before 6, Hill was sitting on the cavernous SC6 set, which ESPN says is designed to evoke a loft space. Smith looked at the camera and asked, “What’s good?”

“This is a pretty big shift from the Lindsay Czarniak SportsCenter,” said Bomani Jones. “There’s a picture of Bob Marley and a picture of Jordan 6s in the background. It’s SportsCenter being done in the image and personality of the hosts, all the way down to the set.”

“If we struggle in any area with SportsCenter, it’s because we’re still trying to be all things to all people,” Smith said. “We’re trying to keep that person that’s just not gonna be kept, no matter how hard we try, in 2017. And we gotta let go of that. We gotta just be Michael and Jemele.”

Hill cast the process of reimagining SC6 as a search for identity. “You know what First Take is,” she said. “Debate show. Highly Questionable, you know what that is. Around the Horn, PTI. They have a set identity. We can debate whether it works or doesn’t work, but you know what the identity is. What is the identity of SportsCenter?”

Hill was born in Detroit in 1975. In 1980, she and her mother, Denise Dennard, moved to Houston. As Dennard was leaving work, she was pulled into a van at gunpoint and raped. Dennard had been sexually abused as a child, and Hill watched as the incident sent her into a spiral. Dennard couldn’t sleep with the lights out. She kept a knife and a bat and a 12-gauge shotgun under her bed. “If I couldn’t get to one, I could get to the other,” Dennard said. “Nobody was going to hurt me and my baby.”

Years later, Dennard realized she was living with undiagnosed PTSD. But as a black woman living near the poverty line, she got no help from family or government agencies. She and Hill had to fend for themselves. “It was God and her and I,” Dennard said.

Jemele Hill, Michael Smith, and Cari Champion
Jemele Hill, Michael Smith, and Cari Champion
Getty Images

To cope, Dennard turned to prescription pain medication. Hill, who wasn’t yet a teenager, became a voyeur to her mother’s addiction. Back in Detroit, they would get into Dennard’s Chevette, and drive to Linwood Avenue. From the passenger seat, Hill could see dealers hawking their wares by putting up fingers. Two fingers for Tylenol 2, three for Tylenol 3. She sat in the car while her mom scored.

Other times, Hill followed her mom into strange apartments. Dennard would walk into a back bedroom and shut the door while she scored. Hill waited patiently as if she was sitting outside a fitting room while her mom tried on a new top.

Once, Hill got a TV from her grandmother for her birthday. Dennard pawned it to buy more pills. “I told her I did it,” Dennard said. “I told her it was me. I said, ‘Never let anybody else do this to you.’” Before her senior year of high school, Hill got so sick of her mom’s antics that she spent the year living with her grandmother in the black, middle-class suburb of Southfield.

Dennard was on and off welfare for years. To survive, she cleaned apartments. She told Hill, who was tagging along, to sit still and behave. One of Dennard’s clients was an 80-year-old man who subscribed to the Detroit News and Free Press. Hill was a sports fan, a tomboy who impressed the neighborhood boys with her arm at shortstop. While Dennard cleaned she lost herself in the papers’ sports pages.

Hill also began to write in journals, composing stories and novels. It was creativity learned as a defense mechanism. Writing allowed Hill to imagine an alternate universe where her mom wasn’t on drugs and didn’t live in a constant state of terror.

“I really blamed myself the whole time for her childhood,” Dennard said. “Of course I apologized to her upon sobriety. But I always felt that guilt. No kid should have to live through that.”

Dennard got clean in her 40s and now is close to earning her master’s degree. Hill calls her the bravest person she knows — something I heard more than one ESPNer say about Hill. When she got the SC6 job, Hill bought Dennard a Mercedes-Benz C300. Dennard said she loves the car because it means her daughter loves her.

Friends who met Hill later noticed that she described the traumas of her childhood with a certain distance, a kind of formal remove, almost as if she had been serving as her own therapist. Hill would regard her critics the same way. “Her toughness is well-guarded, well-earned, and well-deserved,” Dennard said. “Because it’s a tough damn world out there.”

Hill was hired by ESPN, in 2006, to write a column for Page 2. But she soon found herself on the people mover that carries network talent toward TV hits. Hill noted the irony: Once ESPN “embraced debate,” its future was being written not by young broadcasters pouring out of Syracuse but by print veterans who never imagined they’d be on TV at all.

“At the time,” Hill said of ESPN, “the hot ticket was black guy-white guy.” Stephen A. and Skip on First Take. Mike and Tony on PTI. Hill felt that sensibility made it harder for her and Smith to get their own show, because, in the TV programming shorthand of the period, there was a sense they either looked or thought too much alike.

As a woman, Hill faced another roadblock. She noticed that while women were slinging opinions as panelists on The Sports Reporters, they were reduced to a particular role when cast on a debate show: guiding the show in and out of commercials, teeing up the male panelists, and occasionally saying, “Settle down, guys!”

Bomani Jones told me: “Part of the bargain you’re going to get here is people will be screaming at your avatar on television. You’re not even a human being to them. It can be frustrating at times. But as much as I get it, I’m still a man. Discussing sports is a level of privilege afforded to me. People may not like my perspective, but they still think I’m entitled to have it and express it on this platform by virtue of this penis I have.

“As a woman,” Jones said of Hill, “she has to shake off people who have convinced themselves they watch sports to escape their wives or girlfriends. She’s catching it worse than anybody else.”

During this period, Hill called herself ESPN’s “crash-test dummy.” She would audition for jobs she felt she had no shot at getting. She tried out for the spot on First Take that went to Champion and the spot on SportsNation that went to Michelle Beadle. In 2010 Smith pitched a show that would feature three black hosts: Smith, Hill, and Bomani Jones. “They said, ‘Here’s Charissa Thompson,’” Hill told me. “No disrespect to her, obviously …”

“As a black woman,” Hill said, “I’m looking around television — not just at ESPN but in general — [and I’m seeing] a whole lot of blondes. I’m like, I ain’t blonde and I ain’t white. So I don’t know what my future is in this business. Because they are not checking for me.”

ESPN, Hill felt, saw her more as a utility infielder than a franchise player. “I thought I’d probably wind up leaving ESPN sooner rather than later,” she said. Hill wondered whether she might have more elbow room at a cable news network — a destination where some of her friends think she may still end up one day.

In 2013 Hill and Smith decided to make an end run around TV altogether. They started a podcast called His & Hers. That March, Hill and Smith recorded a podcast about the Steubenville rape case in which Hill talked about the time she narrowly escaped being raped by a family friend. As she would on TV, Hill took a tricky topic that was dominating the airwaves and made it disarmingly personal.

In 2011 Smith got a show, becoming a host of ESPN2’s Numbers Never Lie. Hill’s fate was left to a series of chance events. In 2013, when Jalen Rose left Numbers Never Lie, Hill became a cohost. The next year, after cohost Hugh Douglas was fired in part for reportedly calling Smith an “Uncle Tom,” Hill and Smith finally had their own show. ESPN president John Skipper rechristened it His & Hers.

Years later, trolls of a certain political bent would imply that Hill had fallen into the SportsCenter job. Hill saw her rise more glumly, as if she had triumphed within a system that in many ways was stacked against her. As she put it to me, “I won the war of attrition.”

Hill and Smith expected a certain blowback when they got SC6. “We knew when we moved into this neighborhood that there were going to be people that wanted us to turn our music down,” Smith said. They didn’t expect the blowback to be this loud. In April, when Yahoo’s Daniel Roberts published a story about ESPN, he noted that about half of the 3,000 comments were about Hill and Smith. They weren’t even the subject of the piece.

Before the SC6 staff meeting, Smith sat in an empty conference room ticking off the reasons why he and Hill might have been singled out. “It could be who we are and how we look,” he said. “Another [reason] could be … there’s a certain segment of sports fans that just want their sports. They don’t want your pop culture conversations, they don’t want your social conversations, they don’t want your political conversations.”

“It could be because she’s a woman,” Smith said. “I don’t want to leave that out.”

Smith admitted that some segment of viewers had given SC6 a fair shot and just thought it didn’t work. “I’m not arrogant enough to think that’s not a significant number of people,” he said.

I asked Smith about one of the show’s loudest critics: Kirk Minihane, a Boston radio host who called SC6 “dogshit.” Smith, who lived in Boston for years, told me he had never heard of Minihane.

Hill said that Clay Travis — who in March ventured a theory about Disney CEO Bob Iger’s political plans based on when Iger followed Hill on Twitter — is nothing like the writer she met during her newspaper days. “I feel like he’s playing a character …” she said. “It’s almost like a wrestling heel.” She added: “I would just like to know if he can generate any kind of traffic without ESPN’s name in his mouth.”

Beyond its critics, SC6 suffered from three separate instances of bad timing. The show debuted the day after the Super Bowl, depriving Hill and Smith of football content for six months. (Ratings for the 6 p.m. SportsCenter are lower than they were last year, but ESPN says the show’s audience is now younger and more diverse.)

Then, in April, ESPN laid off about 100 staffers, including many hosts and writers. “When the faces of ESPN are changing,” Smith said, “or people you like are shown the door for people that you don’t, that’s going to elicit a visceral, emotional reaction.”

As Ed Werder has observed, the ESPN layoffs didn’t proceed strictly according to merit. But you only have to dip into a comments section to see how this sentiment can take on a sinister edge: as if the ESPNers left in Bristol are somehow unworthy of being there, or as if Hill hung on to her job only because of “affirmative action.”

“There’s a certain crop of people who’s not trying to see ESPN get more ethnic, more gender-balanced …” Hill said. “As a discredit to all of us, they use words like too ‘liberal’ or too ‘politically correct.’ As if there’s ever been this widespread movement in television to just give black people and women shows. No, it’s been the exact opposite.”

She continued: “That term is funny: ‘social justice warriors.’ What are they talking about? … Whenever I hear that, I’m like, I know what you really want to call me.”

Jemele Hill Getty Images

The final bit of bad timing was the most dramatic. SC6 debuted 17 days after the inauguration of the man Smith calls “President Business.” Donald Trump’s election did something ESPN’s occasional right-wing critics could not: It pulled the network fully into a political vortex. Now, for the first time in its history, ESPN is accused of being an arm of the failing, liberal media, the sports equivalent of CNN or The New York Times — a.k.a. the enemy.

Smith calls the network’s Trumpist critics, the ones that homed in on SC6, Make ESPN Great Again. “It just went to another level that even we were not prepared for in many respects,” Hill said. “I don’t know if ESPN was prepared for it, either.”

Just about everyone in Bristol has offered Hill advice about how to deal with social media. Mike Greenberg said that tangling with the nastiest critics is to risk — here’s a 2017 word — “normalizing” the hate. Cari Champion, who was once the target of comedian Artie Lange’s slavemaster fantasy, reminded Hill that one of her greatest TV assets was her authenticity — reading too many tweets could make her overthink what she says.

But this is where Hill refuses to suffer in silence. “I’ll put my record for people deleting their tweets up against anybody’s at ESPN,” she said. “I get an enormous satisfaction when I see somebody delete a tweet. And if I make you delete your account, I’m throwing a party. That’s even better. I’m like, I’m running you out of this social media neighborhood. You’re not running me out of it.”

On Monday night, Hill tweeted that Trump was a “bigot” and a “white supremacist.” ESPN issued a statement saying the tweets were “inappropriate.”

If you knew SC6 only through Hill’s critics, you might think the show is Rachel Maddow meets The Source. In fact, like a lot of ESPN hosts, Hill’s Twitter feed and her TV show exist on separate planes. On SC6, Hill and Smith rarely plan an explicitly political segment unless an athlete like Colin Kaepernick or Michael Bennett demands that they do. And while Hill may not be a Trump fan, her opinion-slinging has never been predictable. In May, she defended LaVar Ball from accusations of sexism when she could have gotten a mother lode of retweets by saying the opposite.

The effect that Trump’s election had on Hill and Smith is perhaps best described like this: It made two black hosts into actors in a national psychodrama before they uttered a word. And it made it inevitable that when Hill said exactly what was on her mind, her critics would hold that up as proof of what they thought about Hill all along.

“This election was about taking the country back from people like us, right?” Smith said. “And now, it’s like, ‘Dammit, I got to come home and watch these two?!’”

“That may not be what you want on SportsCenter,” he added. “OK. That’s fair. Watch Fox.”

When Hill and Smith leave the terrarium of social media, they’re amazed to find that a lot of people really like them. At this year’s NBA All-Star Weekend, Hill and her boyfriend — a Michigan State alum whose identity she asked me to protect — were walking down Bourbon Street in New Orleans. The rapper Cam’ron was standing on a balcony above them. Cam’ron flashed six fingers, a nod to SC6, and invited them up. Cam’ron asked Hill when she and Smith were going to do a parody of Paid in Full.

Barack Obama is a Hill super-fan. In 2015, when Hill and her boyfriend arrived at the White House’s holiday media party, Obama exclaimed, “Finally, someone I know!” He and Hill fell into such a deep conversation that Hill’s boyfriend wondered if she was flirting with the president. Kobe Bryant, whom Hill once lambasted for his comments about Trayvon Martin, now calls her “Sports Oprah.”

If someone in a liquor store asks Hill for a picture and then finds their phone isn’t working, Hill will offer to text them a photo from her own phone — until Kelley L. Carter reminds her that she’s now too big to be giving out her private number to strangers. “She doesn’t know that she’s Jemele Hill,” Carter told me, “and I don’t know if she ever will.”

In June, as the social media din threatened to become SC6’s defining feature, John Skipper called Hill and Smith into his office for a pep talk. “John Skipper has been very, very supportive,” Hill said over dinner in Hartford. “But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that in the back of mind, I’m like, ‘Are they thinking maybe this was a bad idea?’ Because I don’t know what our grace period or honeymoon looks like.”

“Mike and I know who we are,” Hill added. “We know who we’d like to be on TV. But figuring out who we’d like to be in this space is our ultimate, continual challenge.”

It’s also ESPN’s challenge. Like plenty of old-media institutions, the Worldwide Leader has seen the allure of its signature franchises dim and its hosts’ every utterance scrutinized for political bias. But when you try to fulfill a nebulous expectation of what you ought to be, when you worry about offending people in a period in which everyone is aching to be offended, you risk a rerun of last month’s Robert Lee fiasco.

ESPN has problems that won’t be solved by only what it puts on television. But in terms of daily schedule, it has one solution: for its hosts to say what they want, to be themselves — to let the lambos out, as Mike Greenberg might put it. “The best revenge is success,” Jemele Hill said, as she sipped a glass of pinot noir. “That’s all we got.”

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