Jemele Hill and Cari Champion on racism (and liberation) in sports

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Hey y’all, it’s Brittany. So I really don’t think that Carter G. Woodson went to the mat for what would eventually become Black History Month for us to spend the entirety of these four weeks talking about Joe Rogan and his relationship with Spotify. I’m frankly pissed that I even got to talk about this at all, and I can’t sit here and highlight the fantastic programing on that platform like “Jemele Hill is Unbothered” or some of our incredible Pineapple Street family or, you know, the Obamas’ Higher Ground imprint. That would make a much better use of our time. Rather than discussing a white man who is so mediocre, he can’t figure out how to be funny. So he’s just regular racist. 

But instead, I got to talk about this: how the podcaster that Spotify made a $100 million deal with doesn’t just spew vaccine misinformation, but is a veritable treasure trove of problematic isms. Among other things, a compilation has surfaced of him and guests on his show, using the N-word over and over and over and over and over again. It’s like they just couldn’t get enough. I keep hearing people say that Spotify did a bad job vetting Joe. I’ve even heard some folks go further saying that they did vet him and moved forward despite what they found. Y’all, all of that is way too nice. 

Spotify wouldn’t spend even one thousand dollars without vetting someone, and they didn’t ignore Joe Rogan’s racist, sexist, patriarchal transphobic behavior. They cut a $100 million check because of it, because Spotify understands that deep American floor that enslavers cemented and Trump reminded us of: hate pays. If a corporation spends one hundred million dollars on anything, it’s because they expect to make far more money back. Spotify didn’t ignore the hate, they invested in it, and a podcast that makes the dominant class feel safe and secure in their dominance is highly profitable. Morals be damned. 

So what’s left in the wake is a never ending cycle of frustration for the rest of us. The old and new clips get dug up and shared on Twitter, educating plenty of us, myself included, on just how deep and vast this hatred goes. Workers, creatives who write music and host podcasts and depend on Spotify to reach their audiences, are left with an impossible and false choice. And the consumers are led to believe that using Spotify makes them the guilty party instead of blaming the executives who made the choice to promote this rhetoric like it’s, I don’t know, legitimate political discourse. 

This is the flaw of capitalism. And of course, no platform is perfect. There is problematic rhetoric on them all. Spotify made a direct investment and knowing what I know now, I can’t get with it. So I made the very personal decision to pull UNDISTRACTED from Spotify. There may be a day when once again we can find ourselves on that platform, but for right now, we are in the process of saying goodbye. 

So if you’re listening on Spotify right now, here’s what I want you to do: Take out your phone right now and subscribe to us somewhere else. Tell your friends too—your mama, your cousins, your aunties, everybody. There are plenty of amazing platforms out there where you can find us also for free. Try Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Stitcher or Audacy, Spelled A., U., D., A., C. Y. We are literally everywhere else you get your podcasts. Now, let’s get back to the business at hand, because all I refuse to spend the rest of this Black History Month talking about white dudes. We are UNDISTRACTED.

On the show today, journalists Jemele Hill and Cari Champion. I’ll be talking to the hosts of CNN’s new show “Speak.Easy.” about the Winter Olympics in Beijing, whether or not Brian Flores can have a future in the NFL, and how athletes can aid in the fight for our collective liberation. 

Jemele Hill They have more capital and by capital, I mean cultural and I mean financial than they’ve ever had in history—ever. Okay? And there are many of them who are intent and being intentional about disrupting the system that’s been working as effectively as it has. It’s a Brian Flores that will burn the shit down. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That’s coming up. But first, it’s your UnTrending news. On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that Alabama’s congressional district maps can stay as it is at least for the 2022 primaries. Now that’s a problem because, according to a lower court, the map likely violates the Voting Rights Act. The lower court had ordered Alabama to go back to the drawing board and create at least “two districts in which Black voters either comprise a voting age majority or something quite close to it.” Here’s the NAACP’s Janai Nelson speaking on MSNBC. 

Janai Nelson It allows a map to stay in place that a three-judge federal court found to be discriminatory against Black Alabamians.  

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Black folks make up just over 25 percent of the state’s population and only have one majority Black district out of Alabama’s seven. The math is not mathing. The voter suppression these days is insidious. This is why the GOP has made an end run on the courts and packed the highest one in the land so they can always have a failsafe. The GOP knows their policies to concentrate power and money in just a few hands are ridiculously unpopular, so they rig the vote because they know that if we all have equal access, they lose. You got to admit, it’s some seriously evil genius. 

So like so many of y’all on Twitter, I am watching “Euphoria.” Now, no spoilers, but I am obsessed with the show, including and especially Zendaya’s portrayal of Rue. I think it’s time for that second Emmy. All right? I’ve been so moved by the way she’s spoken about her character. Here’s Zendaya talking about that shocker of an episode. 

Zendaya I love Rue and I care about her, but watching her hurt all the people that she loves, that broke my heart. Episode five shows I think the devastation addiction can cause, not only on the person who is dealing with it, but also the family that has to get them help. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I am all at once overwhelmed by this show in the best and worst ways, so honestly, hard drugs scare the hell out of me. I’ve watched it threaten to destroy so many lives that I love, and yet I don’t know that we’ve ever seen such a powerful and humanizing depiction of addiction. Zendaya’s commitment to portraying Rue with humanity and worth is powerful because, yeah, people who suffer from substance abuse disorders still matter, and I pray we apply that worth to real life. 

Finally, it’s been more than a year since Democratic South Carolina Representative James Clyburn introduced legislation to make “Lift Every Voice and Sing” a national hymn. The legislation got a hearing last week in the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. And yet, somehow, the three hour hearing did not solve systemic racism. I know, I know you’re shocked as I am. You may know, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as the Black national anthem. Here’s one of my favorite renditions from Queen Bee herself. 

Beyoncé Lift every voice and sing. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham The hymn was originally a poem written by James Weldon Johnson. The NAACP used it frequently during the 50s and 60s, and since it’s become synonymous with HBCU’s, Black History Month and most certainly Black culture. All due respect to Congressman Clyburn, nobody asked for this to be made a national hymn. And just like I don’t really need Mother Harriet on a dollar bill or for white members of Congress to kneel in some kente cloth scarves. We don’t need this, either. The brothers Johnson wrote a song for and about Black people, and it is perfectly okay if some stuff is just for us. I love this song. I grew up knowing all three verses, which is a particular feat, but there are many more important things to fight for, and the longer we settle for symbolic change, the easier it is for Congress to dismiss systemic transformation. 

Coming up, I’ll be talking to Jemele Hill and Cari Champion about what it means to build systems that are for us, by us on the field, on TV and on the international stage right after this short break. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham And we are back. So  I’m going to be honest with ya’ll, I forgot the Winter Olympics was still a thing. Yeah, I feel terrible because the athletes worked so hard for this moment, but there is so much happening in the world and with this Olympic Games and I just ya’ll, I straight up forget. I mean, to be fair, there is police violence, climate change. We are still in a panoramic and I haven’t even finished the new season of Ozark. This Olympic Games itself comes with a ton of baggage. China’s human rights violations and repression of athletes has been a far greater topic of conversation than the games itself. The last time we had a chat about the Olympics, which wasn’t even a year ago, my friend Jemele Hill and I discussed everything from the courageous choices of star athletes like Simone Biles, to whether or not the Olympics are even necessary anymore. So who better to continue the conversation than Jemele and our homegirl Cari Champion? From NBC to ESPN to Vice, they have years of sports and culture journalism between them. I had to ask them if anything has changed since the last time we chatted and if it’s time that all of sports had a true revolution. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham My homies, Jemele, Cari, thank you so much for being on UNDISTRACTED this week. Before I get into gold medals, though. Let’s talk about the winning y’all have been doing. We’ve got a new show coming from the two of you all “Speak.Easy” and it’s just been announced that you all are inaugural Essence magazine Women in Sports honorees. Deservedly so. Congratulations. 

Jemele Hill Well, thank you. 

Cari Champion Thank you. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham My whole team is flourishing, winning. That’s what I’m talking about.

Jemele Hill In abundance, right, in abundance. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That’s right. That’s right. 

Cari Champion Abundance, more, more, more.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That’s we want to see. 

Cari Champion I mean, we’re just all winning. Life is good right now for us Brown girls. We’re doing it. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham And that’s how it should be. Listen, life has been trash enough for us. It’s time for us to be winning and experiencing abundance. But I want to get into this Winter Olympics that, I’m a be honest, I forgot was happening for a little while. I was like, Oh, let me get with it, OK, so we just had an Olympics, but we now have the Winter Olympics. Opening ceremonies happened on Friday, February the 4th at the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing, and China was on their like not so humblebrag. They were like, this will be historic. So in your opinion, did it live up to the hype? Is anyone watching this thing or were they like me and they all forget? 

Jemele Hill Well, you know, it didn’t feel like it snuck up on everybody, and I think that has a lot to do with the other things we’ve been dealing with that are of great concern. We got a pandemic. We fighting racism every day. We’re fighting to be heard like it’s a lot that is going on. And when I started seeing the promos, I was just like, Oh shit, I forgot there is an Olympics coming up. But I also think this is a very complex Olympics. You know, the thing that is both beautiful but also very complicated for people who are avid sports fans is that now you’re finding that sports, there’s a ugliness to it and the ugliness is more in front of your face. Everybody is very aware of China. There are gross human rights violations and that has actually taken more of a center stage than I thought, because what usually happens at the Olympics is that people forget about transgressions of the country that it’s in, they forget about some of the scandals. Everybody just practices cognitive dissonance and puts that aside because we want to enjoy the games we want to root for Americans. We want to feel a sense of pride in our country that has actually not happened. I don’t think, this year. It does not feel as flowery as the Olympics tend to feel. I’ve read several columns, like one I just read recently, which was why are we still having the Olympics? And that was based off. What I said is that the Olympics have, you know, we’re not required to have them, necessarily. They’ve always been sort of a world showcase. And so now I find that more journalists are asking the hard questions, even though there’s always going to be beautiful stories and beautiful moments. The feel of this Olympics feels a little grimy. 

Cari Champion I have a really good friend and she’s there now, and she’s even said in DMs it doesn’t feel right. Not only because they have artificial snow, right? But it doesn’t feel like there’s any type of camaraderie. It doesn’t feel like people are really rooting for them and they’re in their bubble, if you will. The problem with the Olympics is, is that what was once the concept of this amateur sport where everyone can come together and really represent their country really has changed because the IOC, as we all know, is very not honest and-

Jemele Hill  dirty as hell Cari, you can say it, 

Cari Champion Yeah, they yeah, you know what I’m saying?

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Might as well. 

Cari Champion It literally is about them and making business deals. And so that’s what this was, right? This was a business deal that they made with China. And so that’s why they said it’s fine. We’re going to go there, we’re going to play. But this love for your country and its love for your sport is no longer the case. I sit there and I look at these people and they think, Well, how can I make money off of it? And always at the end of the day, unless you’re one of these top tier athletes, the athletes never make money. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That’s terrifying, right? Because a lot of people are getting paid. And in the backdrop of that business deal, as you so rightfully called it Cari, we’ve got the other half of what Jemele was talking about. These extreme human rights violations on the part of China. And I want to get really specific, right? So we are talking about a zero COVID policy that we know has kept the death rate really low. Fifty seven hundred people that died in China of COVID, according to the World Health Organization, as compared to our pushing 900,000 in America, right? And yet, Western countries have definitely criticized these really draconian approaches, what some people are calling Orwellian level surveillance. And athletes and media are being subjected to that same strict monitoring through an app, right? So how does specifically this level of surveillance sit with you, especially knowing the advantages and disadvantages that are happening on either side of this business deal? 

Jemele Hill So this is what I wonder, not just for, you know, sports, but also American interest overall. We saw a lot of this when the NBA’s relationship with China came under scrutiny, and the thing is when you choose to do business in China, you have to choose to do business with China and under China’s rules. And that runs counter to obviously how we operate in this country. So while it’s disturbing as a journalist, it’s one of those things where this is the cost of doing business. And I’ve wondered, like many other people have wondered, is that cost worth it? I understand that they represent an enormous consumer market that American sports would love to be a part of. That American business, it’s not, it’s not just sports overall, but considering the level of oppression there considering how freedom of speech is nonexistent in China, considering how journalists are treated in even, you know, recently when I just was reading a story before we came on about the tennis star whose name I don’t want to mispronounce. The one who accused the Chinese diplomat of rape.

Cari Champion Peng Shuai.

Jemele Hill Peng Shuai. And then she went missing. And now she’s back saying that no, she never said that. It’s okay to see these glaring instances of where people’s rights are being violated. People are being oppressed, threatened. There’s violence and that is a hard thing to take. But I’m supposed to be happy about these Olympic Games being there. So, I think basically American sports, a lot of them, not all of them, have just made the decision that they’re just going to hold their nose and suffer through it and continue their business relationship, 

Cari Champion Which is unfortunate. But you make a good point about at the end of the day, this is about money, and I wish we could dance around it and say it’s about anything else. But I will say we’ve seen small, for instance, even in tennis, you know, the WTA when they were trying to defend Peng Shuai, as she tried to say it didn’t happen. They removed their tournament from there. That was their way of saying, We’re fighting against you all, but obviously that’s going to cost them a lot of money. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham But this is curious to me, right? Because there’s this really careful dance. We’ve got these athletes who have been working their whole lives for this moment. We’re also questioning whether or not we really need it to happen in a place like China. And so we’ve seen several countries, including the US, Canada, Britain, Australia, deciding not to send any officials to the Olympic Games right, but still sending the athletes in what’s called a diplomatic boycott. Because of these human rights abuses, right? There is the actions in Hong Kong and Tibet. There is the treatment of the Uyghurs, an ethnic minority group. Can you explain for folks both what a diplomatic boycott actually means people who don’t kind of eat, drink and live sports, but also like whether or not that’s really symbolic because to the naked ear, it doesn’t really sound like anything. The question is, is it? 

Jemele Hill It’s not. I mean, it just basically saying, we’re not going to go there and officially be a part of this dog and pony show. It’s sort of like somebody’s getting married, and maybe their parents aren’t there to say no, but they still get married. The wedding still happening. So it really doesn’t matter. I mean, 

Cari Champion Or your distant cousin is not coming to the wedding because I don’t even know if it’s your parents. Your parents is kind of significant. It might be the distant cousin. 

Jemele Hill Yeah, you’re right. It’s not even your parents. A significant statement is pulling on the athletes. That’s the statement, right? 

Cari Champion Right.

Jemele Hill Pulling the diplomats, it’s kind of like. All right. So Joe Biden ain’t coming. Big deal.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Okay, but here’s the thing so China didn’t even come back and say, we won’t miss you. China came back and said, You are ideological hypocrites, right? This is ideological prejudice. You’re engaging in lies and rumors. They called it a farce, and they warned that these countries will “inevitably pay the price for their wrongdoing.” So China came back like, Oh, you want to skip out? I got thoughts on that. 

Jemele Hill Oh they with the shits. They with the shits. That’s kind of how China operates. 

Cari Champion I have a question – is it with the shits? Are not with the shits. I’ve been trying to debate this forever. 

Jemele Hill I feel like you could use both interchangeably.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham OK? It sounds like China is with and not with the shits is point. 

Jemele Hill You’re right. Both. It’s like we with ‘em and not with ‘em. So what are you gonna do? But here’s the thing, and this is where the International Olympic Committee has to come under question, because thinking about so many young people who have sacrificed so much of their lives to get this moment. Sure, the shame of it is that the Olympic Committee doesn’t have enough guts, doesn’t have the stomach, the courage, the morals to prevent it from being in countries like China, so that we don’t have to wager our morality by watching sports right. It didn’t have to be in China. It doesn’t.

Cari Champion What was pure what its initial purpose was has been so diluted.

Jemele Hill It doesn’t exist. 

Cari Champion It doesn’t exist anymore. Very much like the Rooney Rule, its initial purpose of what it was intended to do no longer serves it. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham And for people who don’t know, Cari, the Rooney Rule, you’re of course referring to football, but help us draw this comparison. 

Cari Champion The purpose of the Rooney Rule in football was to make sure that minority coaches had at least an opportunity to be interviewed to be considered for head coaching jobs, right? Because there were so few minority head coaches. I’ll just be very specific— Black head coaches. And so I think you’re required to interview at least two. Right?

Jemele Hill Right. It used to be one. And then they expanded it. 

Cari Champion For certain positions. And there’s a certain amount of time you’re supposed to spend with said interviewee to make sure that you really are giving them an opportunity to sit and understand who they are and see where their head is and if they are a good fit for the team. Now it’s become this process where you’re just checking a box, right? What they’re doing now is let’s bring in, you know, Eric Bieniemy, let’s bring them all in because that’s what we’re supposed to do. But we already know who’s going to get the job, right? And so the idea of the Rooney Rule was really, I think, in the beginning, something that was smart, and I thought there was something that would actually at least we’d see some sort of uptick, if you will, in minority head coaches. But you look around and it’s still just Mike Tomlin. And that’s unfair. So then if you compare the two, right, the IOC is coming together initially to bring all these amateur athletes across the globe to celebrate what they do best to represent their country. And I don’t know if that’s what it is anymore. I can’t quite say that I know athletes feel that way, not all of them anyway. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I don’t know that athletes feel that way. I don’t know that viewers feel that way. I think that a lot of this is transitioned over time, and as it is transitioned, Jemele, I’m thinking specifically about the role of the athlete, right? I mean, athletes speaking out has been an integral part of sports throughout time. And yet we see in this Olympic Games, China has warned athletes against speaking out while they are there and they’ve said quote, they believe that this is against the Olympic spirit and that athletes are subject to punishment. What have we seen so far in terms of athletes speaking out and potentially defying that edict? 

Jemele Hill Well, one, they were warned even by American officials, to be careful and not just be careful when you have a microphone on you. But because of the issues with surveillance, they told pretty much all the American athletes, treat your room like it’s bugged. Like, so even in just conversation with your family, if you want to go off about something that’s happening, don’t do it. And so that’s how deep the levels of suppression really are there when it comes to free speech and all of that. But the thing is the games, we’ve certainly seen tremendous moments where athletes have used this platform once they’ve had it to speak out. Of course, the most notable being John Carlos and Tommie Smith when they did it at the 68 Olympics, the raised fist. But even though we know they were on the right side of history, look how long it took for the American Olympic Committee to apologize to them. It took 50 years, basically. Right? So they’re not wrong about the spirit of the game. The spirit of the games were to bring athletes together, but it was always meant to be a show that was supposed to hide some of the more hideous things happening in the world. When you think about American history in particular, it is amazing, but yet not surprising, given our global positioning that America was never called to carpet in the 60s for how we were treating African-Americans in this country. That never even was ever an issue. I mean, we had all that smoke for Germany. We had all that smoke for all these other countries. But nobody ever looked at Jim Crow, the vestiges of slavery. And so when China brings that up, even though, you know, obviously is coming from a bad faith place, they ain’t wrong, OK. They ain’t wrong. And so I think, you know, it’s unfortunate, but I think China has put forth such a threatening message that I do not expect to see any athlete make the kind of statement or make any statement that would be counter to what they want the narrative of these games to be. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yeah. Cari, do you think that there’s a responsibility to speak out about repression in China or given the stakes, it’s an unfair choice? 

Cari Champion I don’t think they have any leverage. I don’t think the athletes that are in the Winter Olympics have any leverage. I don’t know that these particular group of athletes feel compelled enough to say anything for obvious reasons, for fear of losing whatever bit of money they could have, whatever sponsorships they have, whatever little bit of leverage they have. They don’t want to lose that because you ever think of the other sports. Let’s go NBA. They make all the money, right? These players get these big, huge guaranteed contracts, and a lot of times they don’t have a problem speaking out and saying what they feel because their money is secure and protected. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham But I mean, you brought up Peng Shuai, right? And this is their own countryperson. This week, she gives her first interview to a non-Chinese language outlet. Of course, back in November, she had posted these allegations of sexual assault against a high ranking Chinese official on social media. And then they quickly get removed. She disappears from the public for like a month and then suddenly reappears, looking supposedly happy. This week, she gives this interview, but it’s heavily controlled. There are questions submitted in advance. There is a whole Chinese Olympic official that translates for her. I’m wondering what this really signals that if they’re willing to do this to her, like where do the rest of the athletes from all of these other countries actually stand if they do decide to speak out? 

Jemele Hill Well, and that’s just a taste of it. And understand, too, that you also have to think if you’re an American athlete in particular, how much is my own country going to have my back? Because we have made it kind of clear with our business dealings that we are willing to tolerate a certain amount of pushback from China, a certain amount of authority and control just to maintain that business relationship. We all know that if try to cashes a check on on the United States, we have trouble. So then you have to worry about like, what, is my own country going to be able to save me? And that just makes the stakes that much higher. And the situation more dangerous. And you’re right, Britt, if this is how they would do somebody in their own country, imagine what they would do to us who they don’t even have the smallest, the smallest bit of allegiance to, if you want to call it that. And that was just for them about making – China is very good at making examples of people, and they don’t care. So I would advise this is one of those times where I really don’t think that it’s worth it for any athlete to speak up. It’s just not, like it’s just too much at stake. I’d be very concerned about physical safety. I’d be very concerned about getting out of the country should something be said. And I understand that this is an important stage and for a lot of the athletes who’ve been witnessing the things that have happened in our country are happening in our country. They view it as an opportunity to maybe get the world to notice this is a fish you’re going to have to let swim by because of where you are. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yeah. This actually, though, brings me to something that I want to ask you all about because we’ve been having, I think, a very long overdue conversation about the expectations the culture places on athletes. I would say especially athletes of color, I would say especially Black women. You know, six months ago, we were having this conversation as it related to Naomi Osaka at Wimbledon, Simone Biles and the Tokyo Olympics, when she withdrew from competition, deciding intentionally to put her mental health first. Jemele, you were here with me talking about it and what you said was what I love about what both of these women have shown is that they have chosen to protect their peace over being used for entertainment. So here we are six months later. How are we, sports viewers, Americans in general, these giant leagues, how are we doing at giving athletes their peace? 

Jemele Hill The leagues don’t give them anything. I mean, I think the athletes just have to reach a conscious decision to take it and not just as it applies to mental health, but to hit on something that Cari said. All three of us have reached this sort of level of consciousness in our lives and in our careers where there’s just certain things we won’t do. I was mostly impressed with Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka because of the point at which they reached this at. They reached is at the height of their powers. Right? And that was to me, very inspiring, and very admirable to do it at a time where they could be out here making. I mean, Naomi is still making a lot of money. Don’t get me wrong and so is Simone. But they could be really out here getting every bag in sight. And they were like, You know what? It’s got to be something better for me. You know, I got to do this a little more intentionally and with a certain level of purpose. They were not willing to wage their soul. And it’s funny because I was thinking about them recently because I had this conversation with Spotify about Joe Rogan. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That’s the one.

Jemele Hill  The one thing I told them, I’m not going to use me to keep like, I’m not keeping it for you. I’m not doing none of that shit. So it’s like y’all got the fry on your own for Joe Rogan. That’s all I got to tell you, but here’s what you can do. I’m all about a financial apology. I’m all about it. All right. And I don’t mean to me, yeah, the question I posed to them in this meeting is that when are you going to drop a hundred million dollars on somebody in Black media? 

Cari Champion Yeah. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham This is the question. 

Jemele Hill You know, not content wise, like a comparable to Joe Rogan. What are you going to drop 200 million dollars on a Black centered group like you did with the ringer? That needs to be the conversation you need to be having right now is are you going to invest these hundreds of millions of dollars in Black people the way you willingly just did it in somebody who like to say the word nigga more than Trinidad James, that’s the only thing I got for you. All right. And so I do think that, you know, reaching that level of where you’re willing to assume that cultural responsibility is important. Hence why I don’t think our athletes are obligated to do it. I think when you do it and with the intention you do it, and with the ambition in which you do that with can be extremely powerful. We don’t need 500 athletes to do it. sometimes just need one. Just need one or two, we need one Colin Kaepernick we need one. Naomi Osaka. And that will spread a wave of consciousness throughout the rest of the culture where everybody may not do it the same way they did it, but they will feel inspired to be a part of it. And that, to me, is extremely powerful.

Cari Champion And everybody’s not built for it. I think now we do ask athletes to have opinions. But here’s what’s interesting, right? Their messages are being misconstrued. Used for whomever I think of Kyrie Irving, right, how everybody now who just last summer told him to shut up and dribble like he for his body, his rights, you know? His choice. He doesn’t want the vaccine, his body, his rights. And they were just telling him to shut up in dribble. So sometimes what I find is when we put these athletes in these positions to quote unquote be messengers, the message often can get diluted and misconstrued and turned around, and it’s not necessarily fair and it doesn’t help the cause. You know what I mean? It just doesn’t. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Well, speaking of stepping up and taking it on, we got Super Bowl weekend coming up. I have to ask you all about former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, who is Black. Now, I had to sit and read this, this situation because I haven’t watched football in a long time. I’m one of those people who was like, I can’t boycott something I really wasn’t watching. However, this is an important moment for the entire culture. So Brian Flores is Black. He files a lawsuit against the NFL, basically charging systemic racism, referring to that Rooney rule that you were talking about earlier, Cari. Jemele, you wrote in The Atlantic:  In a league where roughly 70 percent of the players are Black, owners have no real interest in seeing Black coaches thrive. So here he is, calling it out. I mean, letting the text messages fly, coming with receipts. I mean, he’s really all in to finally make this statement. Just how bad is it? 

Jemele Hill Oh, it’s bad. And by the way, Brian Flores, used my column in his lawsuit.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham  Yes. 

Jemele Hill Which I appreciate. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yeah, it’s that bad that I need all the reinforcement. 

Jemele Hill Right, exactly. We’ve seen flickers of hope. But the reality is like of the last 3,3 head coaching hires, only three have been black. All three of them were fired. Brian Flores was one of these coaches that was fired. And when you look at the reasons behind it, Brian Flores, you know, Miami had his first back to back winning seasons since the early 2000s and, and he got fired essentially as he provided the receipts, because the owner wanted him to purposely lose games to get a better draft pick and he wasn’t with it. And of course, when he got fired immediately, you saw the stories come out saying Brian Flores was difficult to work with. And whenever they say something bad about somebody Black, I’m like, I’m calling bullshit about

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Red flag.

Jemele Hill Red flag. Real bad because I don’t even know what that means because you can’t tell me Bill Belichick is is roses and fucking rosy every day to work with. You just can’t tell me that. So the problem is very pervasive. I think the NFL in general, they see Black men as labor, not as leaders. That’s why it’s so few of us that are in front office, so few of us that are coaches because we went through the same thing with Black quarterbacks. Black men were not considered intellectually capable of playing that position. Yeah, they were not considered to be leaders of men. And I think the extension of that has just shifted over to black coaches is that it’s not just about owners hiring people they’re comfortable with. It’s not a comfort thing. It’s a deep down, they don’t have faith or any confidence in Black men as leaders. They don’t want them to attain that kind of power. 

Cari Champion The sad part about the Brian Flores lawsuit is that this man has hope. He still has a sliver of hope that he is going to get a job while suing the NFL. I hope that’s gone away now, because I feel like he effectively ended his career and he stood in the gap for all of us, right? I think his career in the NFL is over. I don’t know if you agree, J., but I just do. 

Jemele Hill I go back and forth, though, because wouldn’t that prove his point? 

Cari Champion But who is going to make him a head coach? Who, who has the balls to say, this man really aired out all of our inside business? What NFL owner can trust him not to tell, because, like they say, if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying. What NFL owner can trust that this man will not share their business? I don’t see it. But the hope that he has this is what I would like to talk about. The hope that he has is the same hope that all Blacks have. I’ve had this conversation with Jemele. Why do we still believe that this country, which has never done this right, will ultimately do right? Why do we still hold on to that hope? It’s a question I ask all the time because I want to believe he may get a job. I want to believe that somebody will say yes, that’s not right. I want to believe that one of these owners will say, You know what? It’s been far too long. Let’s let some minority ownership in, we’re doing too much. I want to believe that I kind of have that hope. But why do we have that hope is the question? Because time and time again, they’ve always done us dirty.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yeah, I think it’s a real question, and I know J always jokes with me because I’m like the hope dealer in the group, because part of me recognizes that my hope is not in America, right? It’s not in systems and structures that I know were never built for me. My hope is in myself and my people. My hope is in recognizing that liberation is, do us whether or not America wants to concede that. We will have to go and create it ourselves, right? My hope is in the things that we are building. My hope is in the things that we are creating. My hope is in the community that we find with each other and the space that we make when there is no space given to us, right? The space that we go and carve out for ourselves anyway. 

Which really does bring me, though, to the last question that I want to ask the both of you because between the NFL, the NBA, the Olympics, just in this conversation, we have identified a number of flaws embedded in the system, right? I mean, Jemele, the last time we talked about this, I asked you about the “Cursed Olympics” as people were calling it and this question about whether there’s any hope for Olympics, for the structures and systems of sporting in general. Or do we need to like burn it all down and start over? And I’m just curious as to where you all stand with this because clearly there are deep problems. Can they actually be reformed and resolved? Or do we need to build something anew? 

Cari Champion That’s a tough question. 

Jemele Hill That is a tough question because I often hear from our people in particular like this why we need to start our own league. And I’m like the know what it takes to have your own league. And I’m not saying is impossible. What I am saying is that that’s not just like I’mma go outside to start selling lemonade like this is got to be. Well, why don’t all the Black billionaires just get together and buy their own team? I’m like, It’s the club. And the reason why we haven’t been led in that club is because of these structural existence. The one thing I will say I will be the hope dealer that you are bringing their sports gives us a unique opportunity. Unlike other things in our society, politics divide us. Religion divides us. Sports actually don’t. They’re the one vehicle that actually does it because we could be from completely different socioeconomic backgrounds, completely different neighborhoods, completely different races. But we both love the Lakers. But we both love Kobe Bryant, but we both love enter, whatever team sport, whatever. 

And through the achievement of athletes, we are actually able to see the best in ourselves and what we could be through hearing their stories. So sports has a very powerful tool, which is why sports has often led society. Jackie Robinson integrated baseball in 1947. That’s a full 20 plus years before it actually happened in our own society, right, because of the opportunity that sports presents you. You can then start to see the humanity of all of us. So I hold out the hope that because of these things, it will allow transformative change. And not to mention, I think there’s an awakening that’s happening in athletes that’s different than it was previously. They have more capital and by capital, I mean cultural and I mean financial than they’ve ever had in history, ever. OK. And there are many of them who are intent, and being intentional about disrupting the system that’s been working as effectively as it has. It’s a Brian Flores that will burn this shit down. That’s what will happen. It’s a Colin Kaepernick that started to burn the shit down. And I just think we just need a few more people who are willing to be accomplices for this to be fully accomplished. Like, I’m all about shaming people, embarrassing them into doing the right thing. I think that’s totally OK. If it takes a boycott and and y’all want to boycott, boycott. Burn it down, who cares. Like the structure, it will be fine. We will still be able to enjoy sports. But I think that there is going to come a reckoning. This is the NFL’s time. College football is going to go through the same thing. With athletes now getting more power, they’re seizing it. So the sports that we have today and what they look like, I really do believe in 20, 25, 30 years, they will not look the same. I think they will look actually better. That’s all the hope I got for all of 2022. I just want you to know that, Britt.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham She just spent it all!

Cari Champion It’s interesting. First of all, we’re hopeful people. I don’t know why, but we are. And you explained it so eloquently, Brittany, as to why we are. Our hope is in us. It’s not in this country. So I will say I have hope. But “One night in Miami,” anybody watched that beautiful film in this film? The guy who plays Jim Brown goes to this white man’s house as a very powerful white man, and they were so excited to see Jim Brown. They went, Oh my God, you know, you run fast, you this year. They were so kind and they were sitting outside on his porch and the white man got up and he said, All right, I’m going in the house and look for something. Jim proceeded to follow him and he says, Oh, we don’t let niggers in the house. He spent five minutes being effusive talking about how amazing he is, but it was clear that he wanted him to know, no matter what you do, you still are a nigger. You still, I don’t care if you run, you’re a Black man and you can’t come in the house right now. And I’m not saying it’s universal. But that moment to me in that movie was such an example of what we deal with consistently in sports, in life, period, but especially in sports, because we were talking about, will it ever change? I do have hope, right? I’m not dealing it, but I do have hope. There is hope that things will change, but they can’t truly change until we create some form of our own, you have hope in us Brit. I have hope in us, but we have to start really, truly looking at ourselves. I know it’s hard to build an NFL team or a league Jemele or a network, but we really, truly have to make that our purpose. We can’t get distracted by the stupid shit. And I think sometimes we just do as a culture, we get distracted. The focus should be in building our power because they can’t take that away. Once we have it.

Jemele Hill But here’s the thing, and I think Britt was getting to this. We can’t depend on the goodness, of white people to get us to liberation. That’s not going to happen ever, 

Cari Champion Ever. 

Jemele Hill Like, that’s not gonna happen. You gave the example in the movie, right? I think the difference with today’s athlete, is that today’s athlete would just push his all white ass, is that a walk in the house? These technology advances are allowing them to build power without depending on white people. And so that’s why I say like, I don’t know that it’s going to be the motto anymore. I think our motto has always been, we got to convince these good white folks to see us as human. Like, fuck all that, we don’t have to do that. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Whoever leads the change, if is an athlete or the two of you, I’m down for it because it’s far past time. Cari. Jemele, I’m so grateful to you all. Thank you for spending the time. I’m looking forward to more conversations like this on “Speak.Easy.” And I will talk to you all soon. 

Jemele Hill All right. Thanks, Britt. Look, leep leading a revolution of hope. I’m a draft from your hope and get some hope. I have some more for the rest of  2022. I just spent all my hope in your podcast. I need to get some more.  

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Okay, well, I’m I have to get you some more outstanding via ups. 

OK, no problem too. 

Thanks. Yeah. 

Cari Champion Thank you for having us. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Jemele Hill and Cari Champion are journalists and the hosts of “Speak.Easy” on CNN +. Sports have been a powerful unifier in challenging times that hasn’t come without that complexity. I mean, Jackie Robinson bravely broke the color line of America’s pastime, but he was chosen in part because white fans wouldn’t accept less refined baseball player like James Cool Papa Bell or Satchel Paige, who far outshine Robinson in the Negro Leagues. Like Cari, I remember the pride I felt as my mom and I. We held that Olympic torch in 1996. But just 30 years before Ali was considered an unpatriotic draft dodger due to his principled stance against the Vietnam War. He lost everything. So how much of that Olympic moment late in his life was due to him growing older and somehow more acceptable to mainstream audiences? Sports will always be subject to the smog of oppression. You know why? Because we all are. But as a former athlete myself, I can’t deny the joy it all brings. So the question remains how do we preserve the good of sports and the triumph of the athlete while we dismantle the systems that no longer serve them or us? The hope, I think, isn’t found in the systems as found in our own capacity to create something new. 

UNDISTRACTED is a production of The Meteor and Pineapple Street Studios. 

Our fantastic new lead producer is Rachel Ward. 

Our associate producer is Alexis Moore. 

Thanks always to Treasure Brooks and Hannis Brown. 

Our executive producers at The Meteor are Cindi Leive and myself, and our executive producers at Pineapple are Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky. 

You can follow me at @MsPackyetti on all social media and our team @TheMeteor. 

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Thanks for listening. Thanks for being. Thanks for doing. I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham. Let’s go get free.