Cari Champion and Jemele Hill Talk NBA Protests and Colin Kaepernick's ESPN Docuseries (Exclusive)
By Meredith B. Kile
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Cari Champion and Jemele Hill are ready to take on late-night TV their way.
On their new weekly VICE TV series, Cari & Jemele: Stick to Sports, the journalists and former ESPN anchors do anything but what their title suggests, diving into everything from politics to dating, from cancel culture to Kanye West. And, of course, there's plenty of conversation about sports, too. As Hill deadpans in the show's premiere promo, "I'm just here to talk s**t."
The pair joined ET's Melicia Johnson for an extensive chat this week, opening up about their departures from ESPN, finding their professional voices as Black women in a male-dominated field, how the NBA protests could impact the upcoming NFL and college football seasons and much more, in a candid conversation that gives fans a fascinating look at what they're striving for every week on Stick to Sports.
"I think what Jemele and I have been able to capture with this show is honestly just two friends talking," Champion explains. "It's about the relationship, and what we've experienced, and we're just sharing that. I'm so glad that people are buying in and understanding, you know, that this conversation has to happen now in America."
ET: Stick to Sports launched this summer with a debut episode that featured LeBron James talking about the NBA playoffs and the league's voting initiative, as well as an interview with congressional candidate Cori Bush. What is the importance of now having a show of your own, where your opinions and interests get to be the sole driving force?
Jemele Hill: I think too often in our industry, usually the setup is you have women who are teamed up with other people and centering their opinion -- most likely, men. Especially in sports, it's pretty much always men. The reason this show is revolutionary is because, not only are we setting the conversation, we also are in the late-night space, which is not typically where you see a show like this. To have Black women driving the show with their opinion, on late night, all of those elements make this a really unique endeavor for people. I think now, where you have so many Black women stepping into their power, from the vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, to Black women all around the world... I think now we've gotten to a point where we're comfortable seizing that power and we're not asking for permission to do it.
Do you feel like this show was meant to be -- that both of your professional journeys led you to this moment?
Cari Champion: I definitely think so. I always tell people this, there's always a plan, you just don't know how it will all shape up. I found Jemele at her home one day, and I brought a camera crew to her house and I said, "Hey, we're going to film something." We didn't know what it would be, but that idea was supposed to be us just talking and while we were filming, a really good friend of ours said, "There's something here. It's very creative, I like the idea of you two talking and being really honest and being unapologetic."
I think what happened was that we knew we would work together, we just didn't know in what capacity. Because we've always been working together -- when we were at ESPN, we would do Periscopes, we would do Instagram Lives and we would just share our opinion, and people really appreciated it... It's just refreshing to see like, OK, this does exist. There is a space in which we can share our opinion and feel safe. I know, more than anything, work environments aren't always safe and I feel safe working with her. I feel like she will always protect me, and I'll always have her back... That just brings out the best in us and I wish that everyone could have that working environment 'cause I know it's new and foreign to me.
This is a time when many people -- especially Black people, especially Black women and especially people in the world of sports -- are being asked to find their voices and speak up. How do you think you went about finding your own voice and what was that process like?
JH: Well, there's a temptation to believe that finding your voice is just something that magically happens. But I think it's really a collection of experiences. It's living, it's time, it's wisdom, it's all of those things and then that has to meet the moment where you really stop caring what people think. And by that I don't mean that you don't feel the responsibility to family and community and whatever else is important. What it does mean is that you feel it's important to speak whatever is your truth or whatever truths that you see that exist without worrying about the condemnation of other people.
You get to that intersection and once you get there, it's just kind of impossible to go back. Like, I can't imagine now going back to any environment where I didn't feel comfortable and -- to borrow Cari's words -- safe in expressing what it is, because I've lived that life before and having lived that life, I realized just how unproductive and, honestly, how draining that is. I don't ever want to kind of return to that. So, finding your voice really means finding yourself.
CC: Some people find their voices as early as their 20s. I think this generation we're watching right now, as we watch these athletes, on and off the court, on and off the field, they are finding their voice rapidly. You have to be unapologetic, and as Jemele just said, be OK with someone saying you're wrong or that's dumb. You have to ignore that, but that doesn't come overnight. You have to be so passionate and determined and more importantly, you have to believe that you have a purpose to share whatever it is that you should be sharing.
Let's talk about the recent demonstrations. Athletes from the NBA, WNBA, MLB, professional tennis and more sat out in protest after Jacob Blake was shot seven times by a police officer. It definitely grabbed America's attention, but the games have already resumed. Do you think they accomplished what they set out to do?
JH: Oh, I think for sure, because it was already a conversation that they were doing their best to keep going inside of the bubble while they were playing. I mean, notice how vigilant and how committed they were to- after every game or during media availability, they were steering the conversation away from their abilities as athletes or the results of the games into talking about the lack of justice for Breonna Taylor, voter suppression, and all these other issues that have been at the forefront of our country.
I think they just got to a point where they were frustrated and tired. I mean, here they are committing themselves inside this bubble, entertaining America, when, frankly, given our response to this pandemic and our response to social justice issues, we don't actually deserve to be entertained, on some level. They were doing all of this and pouring their hearts and souls into trying to make substantive change, only for the reward to be Jacob Blake. Once that happened, it didn't break them, but it broke something in them, and they needed to take some time and they needed to show America that, like, we're not playing around. This is so important to us that we're willing to stop the playoffs, to stop the pursuit of championships -- which is what they've worked their whole lives to obtain -- we're willing to do that to make a larger point. And so, because they were able to get so much of the sports world involved, to me, that's what made it significant. I mean, had the work stoppage just stopped with just the NBA and WNBA, I still think it would've been significant but the fact that you had Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, tennis, all these other sports, willing to join them in solidarity, that meant that the message is starting to penetrate in places I don't think we ever imagined.
CC: We had [Los Angeles Clippers coach] Doc Rivers on our show, it's coming up this week, and he talked about how they realized they could accomplish more playing than not playing... [But] the players needed a break, in more ways than one. They were mentally exhausted, obviously, from their surroundings, and physically, you know, Doc Rivers said they play every other day. We might have been asking too much to try to keep the game going while the world was falling apart. So they did accomplish something, but the bigger message is that, we are fatigued. You will not use our Black bodies for entertainment if you can not respect our Black bodies outside of this box.
I think that was definitely a clear message, for fans in particular. What do you think will be the next steps for sports? What can we expect next from these athletes?
JH: Well, I think everybody is wondering, can they sustain it? How long are they willing to stay on message? I don't think the toothpaste is going back in the tube... And now we have another sport, the biggest sport in America, that's starting up now, which is football. Everybody is looking at the NFL and looking at NFL players to see what their response will be.
I don't know if there will be a massive walkout or massive strike that will be similar to what we saw [in the NBA] and some of the other sports. I do expect massive demonstrations, because when it comes to expressing their opinion, the NFL players have been much more suppressed. [Now], you've had Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL, say that Black Lives Matter, and that he's here to support the players and he wishes he would have learned more from what happened with Colin Kaepernick or listened to him specifically about these issues. So now you have somebody on the record, and you know that, in a way, that they will have to be held accountable. So if these demonstrations start, and there is resistance from ownership and resistance from the commissioner, now they're going to look like bigger hypocrites than they already are -- so it gives the players an access point to begin to express their disdain with this system.
We've already seen some of it. There were several teams that did not practice in the wake of Jacob Blake, because they wanted to make a team statement. The Baltimore Ravens released a comprehensive statement about what they wanted and what they expected from their government and from leadership... so I think you will see a much different tone, at least in the NFL, and I'd be curious as to see if that extends to college football as well. They're fighting two fights at once, which is one, whether or not they should play in this pandemic -- a decision that has been made for them by the people who have built an entire economy off their free labor -- and then they are also fighting this fight of systematic injustice and racism and figuring out where their role is in trying to voice what these issues are and how important it is to them. So I think it will definitely continue, and certainly as we get close to the election, I expect there to be a lot of attention on the sports world and a lot of convergence between sports and politics, more so then we are seeing right now.
CC: As she's explaining it, I just see it so plainly and I don't know if America sees it that way. Football, college football, sports in general are just a microcosm of what we're talking about in society. For so long, Black people have honestly been the workhorses of this country, and we've been underpaid and underappreciated and that has happened in different areas. When we talk about these college football players, when we talk about these NFL players, who don't have guaranteed salaries and only a certain amount of guaranteed income, there are other things to be concerned about which is why some of them aren't protesting, or aren't as vocal. But the time is now.
We often try to sanitize this country's history and act as if we don't think racism is that bad, but it is, and we're going to see a lot of it come to the forefront when these other sports begin to play, because I feel the temperature is right in terms of what everybody wants to talk about. There's no way around it -- I know people will try to get around it, but there's just no way.
In talking about the NFL, Jemele, Disney recently announced a production deal with Colin Kaepernick, which includes a documentary series at ESPN that you'll be producing. What can you tell us about this project, which is kind of a full-circle moment for you after leaving the network in 2018?
JH: Well, it's still in its infancy stage and it is the most unexpected but amazing opportunity I've ever received in my career. When Colin and I first started talking, it was not with the intention of me coming on as a producer for his incredible story. He just wanted to know the beats of what happened between me and ESPN, because he did not want to get in your business with somebody that could have harmed another Black person -- which says a lot about him and his character. And even though, you know, ESPN and I, we certainly had our moments of disagreement and tumultuousness...when I left there, I didn't leave on bad terms. I certainly left there with some feelings about certain people, but I didn't leave there on bad terms. I left there with most of my relationships completely intact.
So when he called me and asked for my opinion, I was honest but I was fair, and the reality is that the Disney platform, the ESPN platform, presents him an incredible opportunity to tell his stories the way they deserve to be told. My question for him was, "Can you get over the fact that ESPN contributed to a lot of the bad narratives that surrounded your story? If you can get over that part, I think you have a real opportunity to shift the culture in a place that needs their culture to be shifted," and I think he saw that.
I think he understood that it wasn't just about him. He went into it with the intention of amplifying other people, amplifying Black voices, both those that work on his particular story, but also inside of ESPN, and he's in a really unique position to do that. So I thought even though there probably would be some level of awkwardness there for both of us, that the opportunity was just too attractive and it was too big and it meant too much for him to pass it up. And also for me. I mean, there's nothing that happened there that would make me pass up on an opportunity to finally give his story what it's due.
Cari & Jemele: Stick to Sports airs Wednesdays at 10pm PT/ET on VICE TV.