From Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem to the former St. Louis Rams players walking onto the field with their hands up following the Michael Brown shooting, sports seem to be more connected to events in the wider world than ever before.
But according to Jemele Hill (@jemelehill) and Michael Smith (@michaelsmith), the new hosts of ESPN’s 6 p.m. ET “SportsCenter” slot, sports have always been political — and shouldn’t be just an escape from what’s going on elsewhere.
Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson talks with Hill and Smith about taking over at “SportsCenter,” how they bring culture and politics into their show and why sports matter even if you don’t watch.
On what will be different about the show
Smith: “I guess I would say, they’re cutting out the middle man. When people think ‘SportsCenter,’ they think highlights, news and information, but the 6 p.m. ‘SportsCenter’ has always been something of a hybrid, or at least in recent years it certainty has been something of a hybrid, whereas your former ‘SportsCenter’ anchors — in order to carry on a conversation about the day’s news — may enlist the help of other analysts or ‘opinionists,’ as we like to call ourselves, such as Jemele or myself. But now we’re just hosting it… more talk, more conversation, more fun — not that they weren’t having fun before, but nobody has fun quite like us.”
Hill: “‘SportsCenter’ has really evolved a lot. It didn’t just start with putting us on the [6 p.m. show]. Over the last couple years, most of the ‘SportsCenters’ have become centered around conversations and discussion. But we’ll still figure out how to stick to our unofficial mantra, which was ‘doing one dumb thing a day.'”
On whether sports news is becoming more political than it used to be
Hill: “Sports has always been political, and I think we’ve either fooled ourself or conveniently forgotten how much politics have always interfered with sports. We spent, obviously last year, commemorating and acknowledging, celebrating Muhammad Ali, I mean he’s one of the most political figures to ever be in sports, and even just at every turn, it’s always been there — especially you look at worldwide events like the Olympics. But I think even more so now, sports is dragging us into this conversation whether we wanna be or not. So that ‘stick to sports’ stuff just really isn’t realistic or applicable — not only just with Colin Kaepernick, if you look at what’s happening in the country right now, I mean, we have a very polarizing person in office, and a lot of athletes are reacting to that. You saw that with this executive order with the [immigration ban], and how that impacted Olympic athletes. And even the NBA, who reached out to the state department to try to be reassured and to try to understand what this policy meant. So there are quite a lot of things happening in sports that don’t allow us to have that distance, as if this were, you know, not reality. Because we hear that from sports fans all the time, about how sports is their ‘escape,’ but that’s just not realistic, and it never has been that way.”
Smith: “It’s also a very privileged position to take, ‘Oh, I watch sports to escape from reality.’ Well that’s probably not your reality then. You’re probably watching sports to escape from the realities of the rest of the world, the bad news that the rest of the world is forced to deal with. Anybody that’s a member of certain communities that have been prone to more injustice than others realizes that whether you play sports or watch sports, when you turn it off or step off the field or the court, you still have to deal with the issues in this society. So the people who say, ‘Oh, stick to sports, if I want politics I’ll go somewhere else,’ you’re probably saying that because it’s not your problem. And that’s a big issue across the board, in our society, is that if it doesn’t affect you, it’s hard to conjure up the appropriate level of outrage, and I think that’s what a lot of people are missing who are on the wrong side of history or the wrong side of certain issues.
“And it’s not just about athlete speaking out about political issues — and as a brief aside, and Jemele and I talk about this all the time, we gotta stop talking about ‘politics’ as a catch-all. Because there are certain social and moral issues that ‘politics’ kinda trivializes. This isn’t about policy, this is about right and wrong when it comes to matter such as, you know, racism, brutality, domestic abuse. And those issues that I just ran down, a lot of those things end up coming out of the locker room. You think about the domestic violence issue, and primarily in the National Football League, but across all sports, that’s a societal problem, and sports was simply a reflection of that. So we’d be going out of our way to stick our head in the sand if we did not aggressively address a lot of these issues. And if people aren’t comfortable, that’s the point — it’s time to make people more uncomfortable. We’ve been way too comfortable turning to sports and turning a blind eye to issues that face our citizens every day.”
On what they’d say to people who aren’t interested in sports
Smith: “That’s a tough question, I’d have to stop and think about that… because sports has always been such a big part of my life, and everybody’s life that I’m really close with. Every time I meet somebody and they don’t know who I am, what I do or anything about what I do, and they say, ‘Well I’m not really into sports,’ I’m like, ‘That’s actually good (laughs), I’m glad you pay attention to technology and the stock market. Maybe you could educate me on some of these things, let’s discuss politics anyway.’ I just think there are so many lessons, so many forms of inspiration that can be drawn from sports stories, when it comes to people overcoming adversity and succeeding against all odds, or just coming together and working together. If our country, our government, our leaders, if they wanna find an example of people that can set aside differences for the common good, then you start with sports.”