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Jemele Hill Talks ‘SportsCenter’ Exit, ESPN Future – and, Yes, Those Tweets (EXCLUSIVE)

Jemele Hill and Michael Smith launched a retooled version of ESPN’s 6 p.m. “SportsCenter” in February of last year, with no small degree of fanfare. The show got a new, Twitter-friendly designation, “SC6.” The duo’s first broadcast aired the day after the Super Bowl and included a parody of “The Golden Girls.” Personality was in abundance.

By autumn, however, Hill realized she preferred some aspects of her older jobs to her new one.

“The function of ‘SportsCenter’ is not necessarily built for anchor commentary. So much of my career at ESPN – almost exclusively at some points – has been in commentary,” she told Variety. “They hired me as a columnist. I’ve been giving my opinion since day one,” she added.  The “SportsCenter” gig, she says, “really wasn’t my calling.” In recent weeks, she reached out to ESPN brass, including content chief Connor Schell, to discuss next steps.

In a move that drew new scrutiny to a sports-media juggernaut that already gets plenty of it, Hill and ESPN announced Friday that she would leave “SC6.” “I requested this. They were more than happy to support me,” she says. “I was the one who wanted to do something else.”

She will move to “The Undefeated,” the ESPN outlet devoted to sports, culture and race, and, among other topics, “write about the intersection of sports and politics when applicable.” But she will contribute to a number of programs on the network. Hill says viewers are likely to see her turn up in documentaries, on the “E:60” newsmagazine, and, if she and Smith (who she says is like a “family member”) can work through logistics, a revived version of their “His & Hers” podcast that raised her ESPN profile.  There may be some other projects in the works, too, which she declined to detail. Smith will remain with “SportsCenter.”

“ESPN isn’t charity,” says Hill, who notes she is in the first year of a multi-year contract with the company. “They want a full return on this.”

Staying with “SC6” would have started to weigh on her, she says. “I’ve often heard people say, ‘Before you break up with somebody, think about it for at least a month.” She did, she says, but her feelings on the matter stayed the same. “I didn’t want to become resentful. I wanted to be a part of something I thought was more deeply aligned with the kind of commentator I had become.”

Her decision, she adds, was not influenced by the recent departure of John Skipper, the Disney unit’s former president, who left late last year. “I had those feelings while he was still president. And had he still been president, I would have expressed my concerns to him.”

Hill’s “SportsCenter” exit underscores some of the challenges the Walt Disney-owned unit has as it continues to try to tweak the franchise for the modern sports viewer. Executives have spent months reworking the show – the bread-and-butter of the network and one the largest occupants of its schedule – so that each edition is tailored for the time in which it airs.

“SportsCenter” can’t be a monolith. Viewers need different things at different times of the day. Scott Van Pelt has found success with a late-night version of “SportsCenter” that mixes a little humor with the sports news. “SportsCenter A.M.” airs earlier than any edition of the show has in the network’s history.

Even so, Hill says she found viewers still wanted their bread and butter from the bread-and-butter. The 6 p.m. crowd wanted its news and info. “At 6, there are different demands. Those demands aren’t wrong. It’s the nature of the time slot,” says Hill. The program, she adds, ended up being “more traditional than I think we all imagined it would be.”

The show “continues to evolve as our primary mission is serving sports fans no matter the time of day,” said Norby Williamson, ESPN’s executive vice president, production, and executive editor, in a statement. “We have clearly learned that viewers expect the most comprehensive news coverage and compelling analysis during the 6 p.m. hour.”

Some ESPN aficionados and critics might wonder if something else is at play. Hill sparked controversy in October after she tweeted about President Donald Trump, calling him a “white supremacist.” The comment drew the notice of the White House, which called for her to be fired. A few weeks later, Hill used Twitter to suggest people boycott sponsors of the Dallas Cowboys in response to comments owner Jerry Jones made about player protests during the national anthem. ESPN suspended her for two weeks.

The tweets “were not in any way related” to the decision, Hill says. “I get it. It’s very easy to link it to that, but if that were really the agenda, that would have been executed months ago.”

She feels most people “are going to get past” the recent episode, but recognizes some will not. “That’s OK. They are allowed to feel that way. The people that don’t want to get past it won’t. They made their decision not to. It’s not something that bothers me. They have a definite right to feel that way. I don’t really think about that when I’m on television or as I’m reporting or writing.”

Yet she feels her presence on “SportsCenter” may have amplified what happened with Twitter. “I’ve often wondered if the controversy would have been as significant as it was if I weren’t a ‘SportsCenter’ personality. I’m not saying it wouldn’t have been a headline. But would it have reached the White House? I’m not so sure about this.”

Shoe-leather journalism is the kind of work she says she craves. She misses the chance to talk directly to “athletes, coaches and people on the ground.” Hill spent years as a sportswriter for papers in Raleigh, Detroit and Orlando. One downside of an anchor job, she says, “is every day you get further from the action. You start missing being in the field.”

She expects to work hard. “This is not something to shuffle me off to the side,” she says. “They expect me to produce and they are looking forward to collaborating with me on content and ideas, and I think we are all excited about the potential possibilities going forward.

She will move to Washington for her “Undefeated” role. “If this was supposed to be a ruse to bury me somewhere in a corner of ESPN, I didn’t get that feeling,” she says. “I know it may not be the sexiest story to tell, but the truth is I miss writing and reporting.”

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