ESPN’s LeAnne Schrieber writes that Page 2’s Jemele Hill is a less polarizing figure than Colin Cowherd — readers are torn between mild dislike of the columnist and outright hate.
“With alarming consistency, readers are calling for Ms. Hill to be fired,” wrote one reader, alerting me to the hostility toward Hill being expressed by commenters on ESPN.com’s conversation pages. “Her race-baiting, which had already been tiresome, has reached a new level of recklessness and unprofessionalism. Reader frustration with her is beyond palpable. Several commenters are asking how to ‘organize’ to complain to ESPN about Ms. Hill. I figured the best recourse was to write to you.”
The problem is, if I were to second the calls for Hill’s dismissal, I would have to call for my own dismissal as well, because I too saw the King Kong resemblance in that Vogue cover, as did half the random sample of friends I asked to look at the cover, as might anyone who watched “Black Magic.” The film reminded us that when first confronted with the fast, airborne style of black college teams — the style now spectacularly embodied by James — many NCAA stalwarts dismissed and degraded their play as “jungle ball.”
I had presumed photographer Annie Leibovitz and Vogue’s creative team would be steeped in the history of iconic movie images, and perhaps intended to turn the stereotype on its head, using LeBron’s immense mainstream popularity to transform a classic image of black sexual menace into a contemporary image of black chic.
Leibovitz declined to speak about the cover, preferring to let her photograph speak for itself. Clearly, it speaks in many tongues. The translation Hill offered made sense to me. But to another reader, her interpretation was “crass, racially indulgent, and just plain wrong.”
Significantly, both Hill and the reader who called her “just plain wrong” thought they were echoing what the reader called Barack Obama’s “brilliant speech on race in America.” The reader wished that Hill, like Obama, would “rise to the level of discourse that might actually lead us forward.” Hill had taken a different message from the same speech. “It’s like Barack Obama said in his much-talked about speech on race,” Hill wrote, “We know so little about one another. Even scarier, we know even less about the fallout of racist history.”
I asked Hill to respond to readers’ accusations of setting back race relations.
“I can guarantee you that when I write a column critical of black people — when I talk about how the black community should not make a martyr of Michael Vick for going to jail — readers do not see it as a racial setback,” Hill said. “I get glowing feedback for my ‘thoughtful criticism.’ But when I flip the coin and ask the mainstream to take a look at themselves, then I’m setting racial progress back.”