There are two sorts of people in this world. In one corner are the individuals who understand that sports, culture, and politics frequently bleed into one another, not because of any sort of agenda, but because culture and politics influence sport and the individuals who participate it, just as they would any other person. In the other corner are individuals who believe that — despite decades worth of evidence that this is not the case — participating in sports (as an athlete, coach, reporter, etc.) causes an athlete to give up a sense of personhood and instead be so single-minded that the only topic upon which they can speak is sports.
That second group has something of a rallying cry: “stick to sports.” In recent years, though, that line has become both ignored and parodied, with the latest example coming via Cari Champion and Jemele Hill on their new late night show on Vice, Stick to Sports. The two ex-ESPN personalities never shied away from commentary that existed at the intersection of sports, culture, and politics while they were with the Worldwide Leader. Even then, both Champion and Hill have long been comfortable venturing outside of the world of sports.
Now, the duo are teaming up to take on late night television. The first episode of their show — which touches on a wide breadth of topics and subject matters — debuts on VICE on Wednesday, Aug. 19 at 10 p.m. EST. But before then, Uproxx Sports caught up with the duo to discuss the show, being the latest voices in an increasingly-diverse late night talk show scene, and of course, what “stick to sports” means and why it is a failed concept.
I have a few questions, and I think the first obvious one is, how did the show come about?
Cari: In August of last year — we’ve been figuring it out right now. I knew that I was wanting to eventually make a departure from ESPN and Jemele had done so, and she had been living her best life when she moved to L.A. and I had already been there, and I said, “Jemele, why don’t we take some of our ideas from when we worked together and did,” — this is so old — “Periscopes together and we can just sit down and talk about some uncomfortable topics over some wine and I’ll have a crew there and we’ll film?” She was like, “Okay,” which is her approach to a lot of different things, so very easy. So we came in and shot a pilot. We didn’t know what it would be, it could have been just a talk show, it could have been just two friends doing a podcast.
But what we did know is that the conversations we were having were very honest and pure and uncomfortable, but really good because … Black folks are not a monolithic people, right? We all think differently. And Jemele and I, while we are very close and really dear friends, we have different takes on different topics. And we knew that we had something really special there — it felt special, it felt easy, it also felt just like what we do normally, when we just sit around and drink some wine and talk shit. And so we felt like this could be something. So we put it away, had different versions of it, it was edited and broken down by a really good friend of ours. And then it just so happens that one of our mentors knew someone at Vice, and then that’s when the conversation started going.
And the thing is that I feel like everything happens for a reason. No one could have told me when I left ESPN at the end of January I’d be doing a show with Jemele in less than six months. Someone could have told me either there was a pandemic or that you would be in such a very tense situation when it comes to social justice and equity for Black people in this country. However, it all panned out way before we even knew what we were going to do for our show. And at the end of the day, Vice was a perfect marriage, as I’ve said before, because they have the same goals that we did, and that was telling uncomfortable conversations, changing the way you see late night political conversation.
So why not call the show Stick to Sports and do anything but that, but also at the same time, show the commonality between sports and politics and culture and entertainment, because they do all go together, no matter how we’ve been brainwashed to believe they do not? And then that became the inception of the show, me knocking on her door with a glass of wine and the camera crew saying, “Hey, let me sit at your kitchen table and talk to you for a second.”
So at any point in your careers, has the thought of taking over and having your own late night show ever popped into your heads? Because I know you both have plenty of experience in so many television formats, but there’s a certain gravity that comes with the title of late night.
Jemele: Yeah. It is a little different, because it’s a different type of audience than certainly I’m used to. I mean, I did evenings at SportsCenter, I did midday. Cari’s done a bunch of different time slots. There is a different expectation, but I think it’s an expectation that aligns with who we are. I think people got to see a glimpse of who we are at SportsCenter, or rather, at ESPN. That’s not to suggest we were not ourselves, we’re always ourselves. But I think with this format and this time spot, people will get a fuller picture of who we are. And I think late night, because it automatically allows for a little more edginess, more personality, that it will give people an opportunity to see those things in us and also to appreciate our range.
We may be known for sports because the biggest platform that we’ve had was on a sports network, but there’s just a variety of issues that we feel really comfortable talking about, that we feel very well-versed on. So I think people are going to get an opportunity to just, I guess to say it bluntly, to see honestly how good we are.
For sure. And the thing that is so interesting to me is that late night TV is a really homogenous thing. Like, there are some exceptions — Desus and Mero, Lilly Singh — but for the most part, it’s a lot of white dudes making the same kinds of jokes. Do you hope that your show plays a role in further changing and really providing a springboard for more voices, more perspective, that we don’t always get to hear because, like I said, it’s a lot of white dudes.
Cari: You know what I think happened? I think that when people get too … they’re consumed with that “late night” title. And I think that people get in their ear and make them feel that they have to be or act a certain way. And then when you get there, you feel like you have to compromise and be what the traditional late night people be. Whether that be Carson, Letterman, Jay Leno, now the newer versions of them. I’m just talking about from over the years, the conception of it. And you feel like there’s some sort of gravity sitting behind that desk and you’d have to do that, or you have to carry out this legacy. The beauty of what we do and what we’ve always been true to is just ourselves. And that was all we ever wanted to be, was just be our authentic selves.
I think the late night is just a conduit. It’s just the place that we end up being, but it’s still going to be able to change, I believe, that perspective if you watch it for what you’re supposed to watch for. I don’t need to automatically always laugh when I watch anybody. So whether it’s Stephen Colbert or John Oliver, all great, nothing’s wrong with any of that, but they do look alike and they do all have the same theme. And I think we went in and even pitched a meeting about it. We went in thinking, “Let’s create some great content, have two dope ass black women drive the conversation,” and with some sensibility — we’re not just out here saying Kanye for president, you know that’s ridiculous. But we want to have a conversation that makes sense to a group of people, because more often than not, what you just described was the exception to the rule with Desus and Mero and Lilly. They are the marginalized ones, and we’ve often felt that way too, but it’s time to keep the door open and change that.
We are in a world of very many different people where the minority should be the majority, which they are. And I don’t even think that we walked in thinking late night. We walked in thinking excellence, and be ourselves, and have conversations that we quite frankly cannot find unless we’re just surfing the socials, and those are the conversations that we’ve been able to enjoy and laugh. I know a lot of the things I talk about are derived from things that — and the same thing with other late night shows — they’re derived from things they saw on social media. Why not bring a good conversation to the television so you could sit down and say, okay, I get it. And Vice does an excellent job of that. When I sit back and watch, I’m like, that’s great. I think tonight, okay, good, I didn’t know that. You want to walk away really enjoying yourself and feeling that the title of late night doesn’t necessarily have to fit the role of what we’re doing. That gravitas that you talk about sometimes becomes expectations that people can’t manage. And I don’t think we feel that way.
I certainly chuckled when I saw the name of the show, because it’s just so obvious that Stick to Sports works for what Jemele Hill and Cari Champion would want to do. When this was in development, was that kind of the no doubt name for this that it seems like in retrospect?
Jemele: Actually, it wasn’t.
Jemele: We were trying to think of something that was reflective of us. The original show title was something that had kind of been on the books with [Vice], a title that they had been flirting with. And while it was a good title, it was one of the things where it felt like it would be a stronger connection for us if we did something that reflected who we are. Then we came up with another title, because the news is going to get out there that we were doing this show. And so we kind of went with one, but we didn’t have a chance to really, really think about. And then so we kind of walked that one back. So we’re actually on title number three, but this was the one that universally everybody liked the most. [Laughs.]
Yeah, I mean, it just makes sense. I don’t know about you, but as I think of this, it seemed obvious that at some point someone was going to name something with this ethos Stick to Sports, no?
Cari: You know what, that’s interesting. You’re right, I’m surprised that it wasn’t done. We were even going to do a segment called “Stick to Sports,” and then we were like, okay, well, after a bunch of back and forth like J said, we were like, you know what, why not? It’s also, we didn’t want to overthink it. Because you obviously are a sports fan or you’re familiar with sports, so it makes sense, but there are those who don’t watch any kind of sports, right? So we’re in the network that doesn’t necessarily skew toward sports. So people may, believe it or not, need that explained to them. And we’ll do that in a way in which they’ll get it, but we probably will either make the phrase even more mainstream, because I do find that some people are like, wait, are you talking about sports? Like, if you talk to people who aren’t in our world.
Can I get in your own words why, in your experience, athletes and those in sports media have responded to being told to “stick to sports” as passionately as they have, because it’s so fascinating to me for so many number of reasons and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.
Jemele: I just want to make sure I understand your question correctly. But your question is about where that ethos came from of stick to sports, is that what I was hearing?
Basically, it seems like in recent years there’s been an increase in people very loudly saying, “I do not want to hear about anything other than sports from you.” And there’s just been this very fascinating response where it’s just straight up, “No, I’m a person that is complex. I am not just an athlete. I’m not just a sports journalist.” That sort of thing.
Jemele: Yeah. I think we have to be honest about who was saying it and who it was directed at. And if we’re just keeping it real, it was always directed at Black people. We were the ones being told to stick to sports. And whether that be Black athletes, people who were in the media, or other high profile Black people who had the types of platforms that when they didn’t stick to sports, people would kind of pay attention to what they were saying. And certainly what I noticed when we were at ESPN, is that as soon as people like Cari and me and others started to get more prominent positions at ESPN, there became an idea that we need to be quiet. And it wasn’t that we were talking about intersections between race, sports, gender, and politics every day, it was just that it was in the news.
And of course, us being Black people in this country, we understand the messiness of those intersections. And I just noticed as people at ESPN or in media period, as there started to be more diverse voices, as there started to be more inclusive voices, suddenly there was a movement to stick to sports. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that that mentality coincided with having people become more vocal about the reality of racism in this country. And so I think that the people who did it were always who started the stick to sports movement, if you want to call it that, were always bad faith actors, because there were plenty examples of when white athletes did not stick to sports or white commentators didn’t stick to sports, and speaking about issues that they agreed with, and they never got that kind of energy. And so as always, it’s less on the principle of sticking to sports and more on the fact that they disagreed with what was being said.
Even if you want to take Laura Ingraham, for example, the architect of “shut up and dribble.” She was trying to put LeBron James in his place for what he said, but on the same network they had Ja Rule and Fabio on there talking about politics, and I’m just trying to figure out how that was OK. But somehow having LeBron and Kevin Durant talk about issues that matter to them is not OK. And the difference was that those commentators that she agreed with were well outside of the realm of politics saying something, it was totally fine. But everybody else got to shut up because she does not want to be reminded of the reality of racism in this country. And so it was always an agenda that I thought was not disingenuous, but it was one that was clearly rooted in this deeper kind of pathology that Black people always have to be in the mode of being grateful.
Cari: Yeah. Yeah.
Jemele: Grateful for the bare minimum, at that. So if we remind people that, hey, we don’t need your gratitude or we don’t need to feel grateful, then it becomes a problem for a lot of people. So seeing how, to me, that was always a very loud minority announcing an even louder majority, push back against that and push back against that to the point where I just don’t even see the stick to sports really relevant anymore in terms of that being the mentality or possible, for that matter. It’s been gratifying to see the idea of stick to sports kind of have a very short life.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.