Detroit's Jemele Hill departing ESPN’s 'SportsCenter'

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Jemele Hill

Jemele Hill never grew up dreaming to be on TV. She certainly never had aspirations to host ESPN's flagship show, "SportsCenter."

But that's where life ultimately took her, to the profession's mountain top, if you will – even if the ride will be short-lived. Sports Illustrated first reported Friday morning that Hill is leaving "SportsCenter" to focus on other projects for ESPN, including writing for "The Undefeated" website, and ESPN later confirmed the move.

Sports Illustrated, in a report by Richard Deitsch, said it was Hill's request that is leading to the change, and said she will depart next month. ESPN said Feb. 2 will be her final show.

Hill, a Detroit native and Michigan State alum, didn't immediately return a message from The News on Friday, but said in an ESPN release: "There is an old adage that says, the heart wants what it wants. I started at ESPN 11 years ago as a columnist and while I have worn many hats in the time since, my true love always has been writing, reporting and commentary.

"While I have grown in every way imaginable this last year on the 6 p.m. 'SportsCenter,' deep down I knew it wasn’t my calling. I approached (ESPN executive vice president of content) Connor Schell recently and asked if they would consider re-thinking my role. And as has been the case throughout my 11 years at this company, ESPN graciously worked with me to determine the best way for me to continue to do meaningful work."

What ultimately drew Hill to the gig, she told The News in an October 2016 interview, was the willingness from ESPN's brass to let her and co-host Michael Smith go beyond just the typical sports highlights and dig deeper into subjects. That included delving into social issues when the time called for it.

It was those social issues, though, that put Hill under fire multiple times during her brief run at the anchor desk – especially from the White House, which suggested her firing when, this past September, she went on a Twitter rant that culminated in her calling President Donald Trump a white supremacist.

She subsequently issued an apology – not necessarily for her comments, but for making them in the wrong arena, under her official Twitter account, which apparently violated ESPN's social-media policy for employees.

A month later, Hill was suspended by ESPN after going after Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, saying fans who disagreed with his stance on players' protesting during the national anthem boycott the NFL's sponsors.

In November, she was at it again, criticizing Papa John's pizza, whose then-CEO, John Schnatter, said his company's earnings were down because of its hard-line stance against the NFL players' protest.

“While Jemele’s unique array of gifts as a journalist, storyteller and critical thinker has already enriched 'The Undefeated' on a number of occasions, today is an exciting day,” said Rob King, ESPN senior vice president of original content, in a statement. “We can’t wait to see all of the new ways in which she brings her experience and perspective to all of our platforms.”

Hill attended Detroit Mumford High School, and later covered Michigan State football and basketball for the Detroit Free Press. She also has worked at Raleigh News & Observer and Orlando Sentinel.

"The Undefeated" is a site operated by ESPN, and focuses on sports as well as race and culture issues. Hill also will do occasional work for "E:60," the network's newsmagazine show, as well as providing commentary for such shows as "SportsCenter," "Outside the Lines," "Around the Horn and "Pardon the Interruption."

Smith – Hill's co-host on "His & Hers" before they got the 6 p.m. "SportsCenter" gig – will remain on the show.

In a statement, Smith praised Hill.

"Jemele and I created something special, and I will always be proud of her and our work together," Smith said. "She will continue to do amazing things here at ESPN."