Jemele Hill speaks to Brandon Contes on the Awful Announcing Podcast. Jemele Hill speaks to Brandon Contes on the Awful Announcing Podcast.

One of the many fascinating facets of the ongoing dustup involving Pat McAfee and ESPN is the involvement of Norby Williamson. Williamson, the long-time (since 1985) ESPN figure who is currently their executive editor and head of event and studio production, was specifically called out by McAfee last week as a “rat” conducting “sabotage” on the show. And McAfee then described Williamson as as an “old hag” this week. And McAfee’s complaints about Williamson have found at least some support from an unlikely corner; former ESPN figure Jemele Hill.

On Friday, Hill quote-tweeted Awful Announcing’s tweet of McAfee’s “sabotage” comments with “I can relate.” And that made sense, considering some of the past reporting on Williamson and Hill’s SC6 show.

This week, Hill appeared on the Awful Announcing Podcast to discuss McAfee and more with host Brandon Contes. And said she wasn’t surprised by McAfee’s conclusion that Williamson was involved with negative narratives about his show. The full episode with Hill premieres Friday on the podcast feed, but here’s a preview clip on Hill’s Williamson comments:

Here’s what Hill says there, starting with her comments on Williamson and narratives. She also discusses how Williamson’s lack of involvement in selecting her and Smith (when SC6 was announced, Rob King was in charge of the overall SportsCenter franchise, but Williamson regained responsibility for it later)

“No, it wasn’t surprising. There were certain narratives when Michael Smith and I were hosting The Six (SC6), we knew when Norby took over our show, he didn’t really want us to be the anchors. Had he had a chance to go back in the DeLorean, he never would have chosen us to host the six o’clock show.

“That doesn’t mean that we couldn’t have had a successful show in spite of us not being his first choice. But I do think us not being his first choice, or not being a choice, I should say, I think that hurt. It really did. And I don’t think, while there was certainly a level of professional respect, the narratives around our show, he didn’t help to kill those.

“And I don’t know how much he had to do with creating them, but I can say I certainly had my suspicions, especially when it came to certain narratives that our show was too political. And there were certain decisions that he made.

Hill then went on to discuss one specific facet of Williamson’s involvement with SC6 she previously addressed in her memoir: the role he played in taking down their personality wall, including a photo of her and Smith with President Barack Obama.

“You know, I wrote about it in my memoir. We had the personality wall behind us that used to be sort of a signature component of our set, and I already knew the picture that bothered him was probably the picture, especially given the climate, the picture that Mike and I both took with President Obama, who was a fan of our show. We had that on display every day, and he was the one who made us take it down. He was the one who engineered doing that.”

And she said that was far from Williamson’s only involvement with the show after he took responsibility for the SportsCenter franchise (and more) in a September 2017 executive reshuffle. After that, Hill left SC6 at the start of February 2018, and the show itself ended with Smith’s departure that March. After months of an interim approach with rotating hosts, it was replaced by a permanent Sage Steele/Kevin Negandhi team in May.

And there was a whole lot of ESPN PR effort put into promoting ratings boosts over the Smith/Hill version for both the interim hosts and then the Steele/Negandhi team. And that had many eyeing Williamson as an involved figure even at the time. And rare on-the-record comments he gave to Alex Putterman for a March 2018 feature on SportsCenter certainly contributed to that. Some highlights:

“We have to make it a little more relevant,” Williamson told me in his Bristol office. “It was an unbelievable necessity, then things evolved. Now we need to try to restore a little bit the need of it, the relevance.”

…“They did what they did and what they were good at,” Williamson recalled. “But I think the expectation level was a little tough, and the viewer reaction was, wait a minute, I used to get chocolate ice cream here, and now you’re serving me strawberry.”

…Williamson emphasized to me that he doesn’t fault Hill and Smith for the demise of SC6. In his view, the network put the duo in a position to fail — or at least to not succeed — by allowing them to deviate too far from the formula viewers looked for in their time slot. Whereas Van Pelt’s show retained its SportsCenter roots, Williamson came to believe, SC6 had become too centered on its hosts.

“When we went with the Six we didn’t really do our due diligence there,” Williamson said. “I think it got away from us a bit with Michael and Jemele, Michael and Jemele, Michael and Jemele.”

That certainly adds to Hill’s suspicions on Williamson’s involvement in negative stories about SC6. And she also went on to tell Contes in the above clip that there was more than media stories that had her skeptical of Williamson, including comments he made during meetings that she and Smith later learned of, and narratives on how their show was “too political.”

“And, you know, other things that got back to us about what he said about us in meetings and meeting with other people, we didn’t appreciate it. So when Pat McAfee talked about how narratives are spun about his show and the sabotage, I very much…when I tweeted ‘I can relate,’ that’s what I was talking about.

“Because people got this idea that our show wasn’t about sports, when 99.9 percent of the time we talked about sports. We didn’t talk about politics, we weren’t opening the show talking about, you know, immigration reform. Seeing where things turned, I was like, ‘Man, maybe we should have,’ right? Maybe we should have started off the top of the show, you know, talking about reparations. I don’t know, maybe that might have worked? (laughs).

“But we felt really undermined at a lot of different points. All of that was not on Norby, for sure. But I don’t think he helped, and I don’t think he stopped it.

“So I definitely can understand why Pat McAfee would immediately point to him as being somebody, knowing that he wasn’t a fan, knowing that maybe some things were said internally that he was not privy to that probably got back to Pat McAfee. And that’s probably why he said what he said.”

However, while Hill can empathize with McAfee’s comments on Williamson, she said his move of calling out an ESPN executive on ESPN platforms is something she never contemplated.

Here’s what Hill said to Contes there:

“No, no. Even at the height of the controversy I faced, that was never my first, second, third, fourth, or fifth thought. Because that’s a no-no. As upset as I was at the time with certain executives, and, you know, John Skipper and I remain close. And I was more hurt by Skipper’s response than I was angry.

“And we’ve long mended our relationship and got past that time. So, you know, it certainly is not a big deal now.

“But yeah, it just never occurred to me to do that. Because as tumultuous as that time was, the reality was that I had spent 12 years there. And they were good to me in many, in the majority of those years. And it was the best job I ever had in sports media. So it would have been disingenuous for me to come out and go on some attack spree regardless of the emotional turmoil that I was personally feeling, and feeling like the company didn’t have my back.”

It’s certainly notable to see Hill being so candid about both Williamson and ESPN executives overall. The full episode of the Awful Announcing Podcast with Hill will be released Friday.

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About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.