Jemele Hill comes to Colby

Colby Echo

Jemele Hill courtesy of Getty Images

On his third preseason game in the 2016 National Football League season, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick turned heads around the nation when he chose to sit on the bench for the duration of the pregame Star Spangled Banner. When asked about the motive behind his action, he said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.” Nonetheless, it wasn’t until the following week when Kaepernick switched from sitting to kneeling that his actions were seen as provocative. Kaepernick would continue to kneel during the national anthem for the remainder of the season, which ultimately jeopardized his professional football career; all to amplify his same message each week through continued display of activism.

Enter ESPN journalist Jemele Hill, who at her talk Tuesday evening reminded us that history, of course, has a way of repeating itself. Hill, who currently writes for ESPN’s website The Undefeated and is known for her commentary on race and sports, noted that Kaepernick is reminiscent of many former athletes who used professional sports as a platform, such as John Carlos and Bill Russell. Most of Hill’s talk was centered around how often, political activism and professional sports work against each other. The NFL for example, is mostly concerned about viewership and public image than about supporting the players and their causes. When the league is controlled by owners and coaches rather than the players, Hill explained, it takes away the agency that players have to create a narrative for issues that are valued in their personal lives. At lunch with Hill earlier in the day, a select group of students discussed the nature of race and athletics at Colby, including a question that was later echoed that night: how can white athletes support these protests against issues that don’t directly affect them? Hill reminded students that it is important to always remain engaged, especially by calling people out on discrimination even when not people of color are not in the room. It was a robust conversation that left coaches, faculty, and students inspired to disseminate Hill’s ideas throughout Colby athletics, both on and off the field.

Hill seamlessly brought together themes ranging from fake news to equal pay to tell a story about how her industry has made her think more critically about the world around us, and the injustices that she faces everyday as a woman of color in the public eye. “[Hill] effortlessly examined the intricacies of race, activism, and gender inequality in sports, one of the most nationalistic arenas in the world,” says Cricket DiGaloma ’18. “She displayed the urgency and significance of truth telling in a media world that is dominated by accusations of fake news, and embodies commitment to social justice even in a job, industry and political climate that seeks to oppress her opinions.”

Perhaps one of Hill’s most salient points was when she was asked to elaborate on gender in athletics. After crediting the Minnesota Lynx for being the first team in professional sports to use their platform to raise awareness of police brutality, she went on to explain how with men, there is always positive rhetoric when it comes to athletic success; dominant teams are seen as dynasties, she pointed out. However, with women, rhetoric is consistently negative, citing the University of Connecticut’s basketball program. Why is there the assumption, she asked, that women’s collegiate basketball programs are struggling since one team appears dominant? People were never concerned about men’s college basketball at large when the men’s team UCLA went on its 88 consecutive win streak- they were simply seen as a “dynasty.” As the room full of predominantly women listened on, Hill explained that too often, women in sports are first and foremost consumed with getting basic respect. “Venus and Serena Williams are the most dominant American tennis players, for both genders,” she said. Hill pointed out that it took them being that great for that long for it to be rendered possible that professional tennis players get compensated equally. Kat Restrepo ’18, who had the privilege of attending both lunch and Hill’s talk, gravitated towards this message in particular. “It was so refreshing to get to hear about the world of sports journalism and entertainment — an industry that feels so male dominated — from a female perspective, especially someone as interesting and engaging and inspiring as [Jemele Hill]. From her personal experience and knowledge of the industry, she was able to touch on so many relevant issues of our particular cultural moment as they relate to athletics and activism, including racism, sexism, and domestic and sexual violence.” Whether or not you had the privilege to hear what Hill had to say first-hand, it should jumpstart the conversations about race, gender, and activism in athletics that need to develop here at Colby.