Friday, June 27, 2008

Give Jemele Hill some credit....

Photo: Jemele Hill [Photo from Michael David Smith's excellent interview with her at FanHouse]

Jemele Hill deserves a fair bit of credit for her lengthy public mea culpa [Page 2] after comparing cheering for the Boston Celtics to "saying Hitler was a victim". It's always difficult to own up to mistakes, especially when you're someone who's in the public eye as frequently as she is. Unlike many other internet, print, radio or TV personalities who have erred (see Pratt, David; Imus, Don [Minneapolis Star-Tribune and Hartford Courant], and many others), Hill offered a detailed and seemingly-sincere apology short on rationalizations and excuses and long on promises to improve. Here's an excerpt:

"The beginning is easy: I'm sorry.
I'm sorry for being thoughtless and insensitive.
I'm sorry for making a casual reference to something that should never be construed as casual.
Real apologies don't mix with rationalizations, so I won't insult your intelligence by offering you any.
This isn't about my editors because even if the word "Hitler" never appeared in the posted column last Saturday, that doesn't change the fact that I wrote it and, at the time, found humor in making a moronic comparison between a man who was responsible for killing millions to Detroiters who root for the Boston Celtics.
This is about my living up to a standard I expect of everyone else -- respect, awareness, honesty and accountability.
Rob King, the editor-in-chief of, once said something I've never forgotten. I'm paraphrasing, but if we truly want to see racial progress, you have to be willing to be the dumbest person in the room, a person who can admit to being in need of education.
I wish I'd raised my hand before writing that column last week."

In this apology, Hill seems to acknowledge the hurt her words caused or may have caused. There are still many people for whom the events of World War II and the Holocaust are deeply personal, and there's many more who are affected by those actions and comparisons to them despite not being around at the time. Believe me, as someone proudly of German descent, I've heard most of the insults you can think of: everything from outright Nazi references to subtler uses of goosestepping and salutes. Plenty of those still hurt me, and that's despite my grandfather fighting in the Canadian army against the Germans in World War Two: I can't imagine what it must be like for those whose relatives were on the wrong side. I don't have any quibble with most humour based around the war (see Rat Race and Fawlty Towers for excellent examples], but comparing rooting for a sports team to claiming Hitler was a victim goes way over the line. Fortunately, Hill recognizes this and admits she made a serious mistake.

Also to Hill's credit, she didn't try to place the blame at the feet of her editor for letting that through, however momentarily. Her editors certainly had a role to play in this situation and made their own mistakes, but ultimately writers have to take responsibility for the content they produce.

Hill isn't the only one to make a mess of this situation. In an interview with FanHouse's Michael David Smith, she said a Boston radio station gave out her home address and phone number over the air, which she described as "completely out of line" and said she was scared by it. I agree: that's downright low to give out that kind of information over the air, and I bet that station would be in serious legal trouble right now if some crazed Celtics fan had done something stupid with it. Can't journalists realize that we're all on the same side in the end? There's certainly room for disagreement and criticism, but effectively promoting crank calls and possibly worse against another member of the media because she wrote something offensive about your team is so far below the belt as to give any boxer a dramatically decreased chance of producing progeny.

In any case, it will certainly be harder for Hill to maintain her critical, often edgy take on the issues of the day after this, as many are likely to paint her future columns with the brush of intolerance she briefly displayed here. Here's hoping she doesn't let that bother her, though, and continues to provide her unique and provocative takes on the world of sport.

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