WATERVILLE — Sticking to sports has never been a reality in America, Jemele Hill said. As an outspoken host and columnist at ESPN for the last dozen years, Hill has been at the forefront of the stick to sports debate.

“Sports, in many cases, was leaning in a direction society was not prepared for. Sports and social issues have always been there,” Hill said. “We tend to pick and choose when it applies and when it doesn’t.”

On Tuesday, Hill spoke at Colby College’s Ostrove Auditorium. The discussion, “Freedom to Speak” was a conversation on race, gender and politics in sports and journalism. Hill’s discussion was held in conjunction with the Colby College Museum of Art’s exhibit Game Time: The Sports Photography of Walter Iooss. Hill spoke with Justin McCann, the curator of the Iooss exhibition. Hill and McCann spent an hour discussing a number of social topics and how they relate to sports, as well as answering questions from the audience.

Hill spoke of going on the air with her SportsCenter co-host Michael Smith on the day after Philando Castile was shot and killed by police in St. Anthony, Minnesota, in July 2016.

“Mike and I decided we were going to talk about it… The Minnesota Lynx had decided to wear t-shirts, and that gave us the entry point,” Hill said. “Before I am an ESPN reporter, I am a black person in America.”

Hill said she recently heard something said on a cable news show that gave her pause.

“He said a journalists job is not to call out lies. That’s exactly what a journalist’s job is,” Hill said. “In this day and age, there’s been an assault on journalism, big time. Probably the two worst words I’ve ever heard in my journalistic career are ‘fake news.’ ”

On the subject of the #MeToo movement, and recent sexual harassment scandals in professional sports, most notable with the Dallas Mavericks, Hill said it’s only a matter of time before an even bigger scandal breaks.

“It’s so pervasive in sports, my instincts tell me that by the time that day of reckoning comes… They will have zero idea of how to respond,” Hill said.

In the case of domestic violence, Hill said professional sports leagues are often left shrugging their shoulders when the legal system does a poor job prosecuting cases.

“When the legal system doesn’t do its job people look to the NFL or a sports league to do what the prosecutor couldn’t do. They cannot ever maintain the moral high ground on an issue like domestic violence,” Hill said.

McCann brought up the problem of gender inequity in sports, citing the recent example of the U.S. women’s soccer team having to fight for equal pay and training facilities as the men’s team, which has been much less successful on the world stage. Hill said in terms of coverage of women’s sports, she and her ESPN colleagues often ask themselves a chicken or the egg question. If women’s sports were more popular, would they get more coverage, or if they got more coverage, would they be more popular?

“An unfair argument we often make is, we try to compare women’s sports in their infancy with men’s sports at their full maturity, and I think that does women a huge disadvantage,” Hill said.

In the question and answer portion of the discussion, Hill was asked a number of questions regarding social issues and sports. Hill was asked what role consumers and fans can take in trying to impact social change in sports. The NFL tries to suppress player protests by saying that’s what fans want them to do. Don’t buy it, Hill said.

“The NFL ratings decline has nothing to do with protests. There’s been research done and when you take a look at the numbers, a lot of people are yelling about not watching because of the protests but not actually doing it,” Hill said. “It has more to do with the unsexy story line of cord-cutting and people your age not wanting to sit down for three and a half hours and watch a football game. There are more and more things competing for our attention.”

The NBA’s ratings continue to climb, Hill said, and NBA players talk about politics frequently, Hill said.

“If it was really about politics, the NBA would feel that bite, and they don’t,” she said. “It has everything to do with the things the NFL doesn’t really want to acknowledge. Their game has gotten a little outdated. You can’t even figure out what a catch is.”

The hour-long discussion ended with Hill being asked how she handles negative feedback. Hill was in the national spotlight last fall when, after she posted tweets critical of President Trump, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called Hill’s posts a firable offense by ESPN. Over her two decades as a professional journalist, Hill said she’s developed the ability to distance herself from the negativity. Hill talked about reading a giant stack of hate mail she received at ESPN, in awe that so many people would take time to write to her with so much disdain.

“You’ve got to be real committed to walk to the mailbox and put something in it,” Hill said. “It was truly stunning… I’m more amused by the commitment to being so hateful. I can’t imagine hating something so much I would actually tweet somebody about it or write to them. I truly don’t understand it. Unfortunately as journalists, that’s something we just have to get used to.”

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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