It’s been almost three years since Jemele Hill, then a sportscaster for ESPN, tweeted what many likely wouldn’t deny:
"Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists."
The tweet — which came in response to the president’s handling of the Charlottesville protests, where 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed after a white supremacist drove through a crowd of counter demonstrators — would land Hill in the hot seat with her employer at the time. The network’s point of contention: they wanted Hill to stick to sports, and didn’t feel it was appropriate for the veteran sports journalist to discuss such matters on the network (this was also around the time that Colin Kaepernick was still receiving backlash for kneeling during the national anthem a year prior, which Hill will highlight in a forthcoming Kaepernick documentary series for ESPN via the athlete’s Disney production partnership).
Hill eventually departed from ESPN and joined the team at The Atlantic. Cari Champion, Hill’s good friend who left ESPN in January after seven years with the network, was her “ride-or-die” throughout it all.
“Her support never wavered, and even though it was awkward for people at the network to publicly state their support of me, Cari did it,” Hill shares with R29Unbothered. “That meant a lot to me.”
Their new late-night VICE show, Stick to Sports, brings the two back together on the small screen — and while the title implies otherwise, they’re not sticking to sports at all.
“We’re not doing anything of the sort,” Champion shares. “We’re taking all of these topics that people don’t believe intersect, and we’re gonna show you how they do intersect. By the interviews that we do, the people who come on the show, the way that we approach topics, we will make sure that the intersection is there and you see how seamlessly it goes together.”
And they’re doing it with friendship as their foundation.
“The show’s a relationship show,” Champion adds. “I want you to feel like you’re listening to two of your girlfriends talk, two of your good guy friends talk, two people who you respect having a conversation with two different points of views and moving about their lives. I think that’s really what we were trying to convey.”
R29Unbothered caught up with Champion and Hill to discuss their new show, the importance of staying authentic, and why supportive sisterhood is necessary for Black women to have.
Unbothered: Congrats on Stick to Sports! How are you feeling?
Jemele Hill: Uhhh…. Tired! [Laughing] I wish I could come up with a better answer than that. But it’s a good kind of tired. We realise that we’re in a blessed position to be able to launch a show during what is a very tumultuous time for a lot of people. It does come with a lot of hard work, which it’s not like we’re not accustomed to that, but it’s an exciting time for us and we’re just really happy about the kind of content we’re gonna be able to deliver to people every week.
Cari Champion: I’m so excited. I’m super excited. Our show is gonna be great and amazing. We’re just trying to do our job and really put something out there that can make a difference, and hopefully entertain and educate at the same time — which is our goal.
We’re particularly excited to share your story about what we find to be especially inspiring, which is the story behind your friendship and sisterhood — being able to support your best friend while doing what you love, and now working together on a new late night show. From the trailer, it looks like you guys had a lot of fun doing it.
JH: Yeah, I think the biggest component is the fact that this show — regardless of what we talk about, regardless of the debates and discussions that we have — this is ultimately a show about our relationship and what makes our friendship special. Even if [viewers] disagree with some of the things that we’re saying, it’s the relationship part of it that [makes] the show.
Tell us more about Stick to Sports. What was the inspiration behind the title, and what can viewers expect to get from the show?
CC: The title is ironic. When Colin Kaepernick decided to kneel, we thought we’d discuss it at our former network, ESPN. But it became such a controversial and divisive issue based on how the president approached it, based on how a lot of Americans saw it, so we were limited to what we could say.
Every time we delved into that realm of politics and sports intersecting, people would say, “Just stick to sports. I just want to watch TV and veg out. I don’t want politics and sports.” But we had to say, “Hey, sorry guys. Just so you know, politics has alway been a part of sports” — the national anthem, the flyovers, the list goes on and on. I believe that no one likes to hear that, so when they got uncomfortable, they would tell many voices that had platforms that they should stick to sports — much like they tell women to stay in the kitchen.
We thought it would be clever to tell everyone we’re sticking to sports, which means we’re not doing anything of the sort; we’re taking all of these topics that people don’t believe intersect, and we’re gonna show you how they do intersect. By the interviews that we do, the people who come on the show, the way that we approach topics, we will make sure that the intersection is there and you see how seamlessly it goes together.
What made you want to do a show together?
JH: When we were together at ESPN, we did a lot of things on social media together — Periscope, Instagram, Twitter — and we always got a great response from people. Even though it took some time before we vocalised that we wanted to work together, I think we both always knew that if that opportunity arose, it would be one that we would jump at.
Fast forward to when we both were living in LA, Cari was still at ESPN, and I was just doing my own thing. She was really persistent in the fact that we needed to get a pilot done. Even though we didn’t know who would be interested, we decided — or I should say Cari decided to show up at my house with a camera crew and a bottle of wine and was like, “We’re taping something.” So we did, and we weren't really sure where it would land. We didn’t necessarily have a succinct plan, but word got back to VICE because a mutual friend mentioned to them that we were working on this and there was interest.
They wanted to see what the two of us on TV together would look like. A lot of people saw small snippets of it when we were both at ESPN, but I don’t think anybody really had a real picture about what this kind of partnership would look like. It was something we were passionate [about], so after VICE expressed some interest, the rest, as they say, is history.
Beautiful. And touching upon your personal friendship, what are the best parts of working with your best friend, and what are the challenges of working with your best friend?
CC: There are no challenges, honestly! Here’s the truth — the troof with an, F: Jemele is very, very easygoing. She is a Sagittarius through and through. It takes a lot to get her angry. She’s very even, almost to the point where you don’t think she even cares. You’re like, “Wait, did you hear? I fell down and broke all of my knees,” and she’s like, “Yeah, my bad, I’m tweeting.”
CC: She’s very, very carefree. She has a very great approach, and that is about every single thing, unless there’s something she doesn’t like. If that’s the case, she’ll tell you. And because she’s so easygoing, when she tells you she doesn’t like something, you understand that she’s rational and it’s not an emotional reaction; it’s something she’s thought through.
Me on the other hand—
JH: [Laughing again]
CC: Why did she start laughing when I said that? Me on the other hand, I am probably much more of an attention-to-detail, stickler, clean-up-the-room, straighten-up-the-house type of person. If it’s at 3:00, make sure it’s at 3:00. If it’s 3:04, make it be at 3:04. I like to know what I’m getting into. I’m a little more rigid in my ways, but being around her helps me and vice versa.
So the reality is that there are no — I’m not just saying this — there are no downfalls. I think that our friendship has been through so much. I can give you stories where we’ve argued, where we’ve been upset, but because we both know each other’s hearts, no one is coming from a place of anything. The challenge might be, if there was a challenge, is that we let everybody in on our private joke, because we’ve got a lot of private jokes. So I try to make sure that everyone is a part of that, and that’s the key to this show.
Earlier you touched upon your experiences at ESPN, and you two went through some tough ones. How have you two supported one another other through your career challenges leading up to this moment?
JH: I think what was key is when Cari first started at ESPN, we were up for the same job. I had been at ESPN at that point for six years, so they were considering me for a hosting job, but they were also considering her. Of course, it’s very normal in this business for them to pit women against each other. It usually kind of indirectly happens when you hear another woman is up for the same thing you are, but for me, I was really happy that they were considering another Black woman.
When she got the job, I was extremely happy because it’s a high-profile show, and Black women don’t often get considered for those kinds of positions. They’re often overlooked, if even considered in the first place, so to me the win of it was how much that representation would impact our business. I didn’t want anybody to continue to spin the narrative because it was already being spun, through nothing that had to do with me, that I would feel some kind of way about her getting this job. It was the opposite. I was truly happy for somebody I didn’t even know, and I wanted to make sure that she knew when she got there that I had her back and that I wasn't gonna let people pit us against each other.
We eventually were able to spend some time together socially, and, despite the fact that it was our first dinner conversation that we had, I probably came on a little too strong. You know, I have six years of stories and experiences at ESPN built up, so I’m trying to warn her about everything like, “That coffee machine on the third floor don’t work. Also, they racist. Also, this.” [Laughing] So she was thinking, “This is a lot of information to receive from somebody you don’t know and don’t even know you can trust them!” But she tolerated my crazy in that first meeting, and I think she was able to see that I truly did have the best intentions. I just wanted her to be aware so she knew what she was getting into. Certainly the job she was in was high-profile, but I think they had a tendency to think very little of the person who was in it, so I didn’t wanna see her diminished in any way.
Fast forward to a few years after that when I went through my controversy with the president, Cari was my ride-or-die. Much to her Gemini personality, she was ready to take down city hall with me.
CC: [Bursts into laughter]
JH: And I was like, “No, Cari. We can’t do that, that’s probably illegal, but I like the spirit.”
I think this has definitely been a friendship where we have seen each other at challenging points in our career, and it’s really important for Black women to see through those times, to lean on each other for that kind of support. We all know that being a Black woman in this business, often all we have to rely on is us. So I think it’s meant a lot to both of us that we can count on each other through, not just our difficult times, but through our triumphs as well.
What else do you hope Black women get out of this show?
CC: I think cerebrally I hope they are okay with expressing themselves. So many times we feel we’re unheard, so there’s no need to speak up. I want every Black woman to know that, though we may be marginalised and overlooked, your opinion matters and so does your voice. I think that a lot of Black women can understand that, no matter their circumstances, they remain excellent. They remain the most educated, they remain the most professional, because that’s all we know. We don’t know anything else because we have to provide and we have to be an example.
I want Black women to walk away from this show and think, “That’s a great point of view. Let me own that power. Let me own that opinion. Let me own my opinion. Let me own my power.” And do it in a way that is unapologetic — and when I say unapologetic, I don’t mean like “Just f**k everybody.’ [I mean it] in a way that is just like, “No, this is mine and I’m gonna hold truth to this belief. This is a part of my foundation and what makes me me, and I should not be ashamed of it.”
I want us to show up as our most authentic selves as much as we possibly can.