• The Star Staff

Kaepernick’s deal with Disney includes a Jemele Hill project at ESPN

By Kevin Draper

Colin Kaepernick and The Walt Disney Co. announced a production deal earlier this week that will see the activist quarterback produce “scripted and unscripted stories that explore race, social injustice and the quest for equity” for the media giant’s various platforms, including ESPN.

Work has already begun on a documentary series that will explore the past five years of Kaepernick’s life, as he began kneeling during the playing of the national anthem before NFL games to protest racism and police brutality, and later accused team owners of colluding to keep him out of the league.

It is a first-look deal, meaning Disney has the right of first refusal over projects that Ra Vision Media, Kaepernick’s company, comes up with.

The deal announced Monday is just one of many Kaepernick has signed in the past year to produce media about himself and the topics he cares about, even as he has remained silent publicly.

He has started a publishing company and plans to release a memoir. He partnered with writer-director Ava DuVernay for a Netflix series about his teenage years. He has a shoe with Nike. He plans to write pieces and conduct interviews for Medium, a blogging platform, and joined its board of directors.

Since the killing of George Floyd in police custody in May and the renewed national conversation about racism and police brutality that followed, Kaepernick’s kneeling protest has taken on new life. Joined by only a few dozen athletes across all sports in kneeling in 2016 and 2017, the last month has seen hundreds of European soccer players, Formula One drivers, tennis players and many other professional athletes take a knee. In some sports now, it is choosing not to kneel during “The Star-Spangled Banner” that stands out.

Still, even during a cultural sea change in how Americans view police behavior and the Black Lives Matter movement, Kaepernick’s partnership with ESPN signals a shift for the network. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the announcement was the identity of a producer on the documentary series: Jemele Hill, who left ESPN in 2018.

Hill’s career has become very much entwined with Kaeperick’s. She was employed by ESPN for 12 years, and in 2017 she began hosting the 6 p.m. Eastern edition of ESPN’s highest profile show, “SportsCenter.” Alongside co-host Michael Smith, their version of “SportsCenter” unapologetically celebrated Black culture in a way that was rarely seen on ESPN previously.

The show immediately encountered both internal and external pushback, with ESPN being accused of being “too political.”

In September 2017, days before President Donald Trump demanded that NFL owners fire those who protested during the national anthem, using an expletive to describe the players, Hill tweeted that the president was a white supremacist. Hill was rebuked by the White House, which set off a firestorm both within ESPN and across sports media. Six months later, she was off the air, and ESPN later bought her out of her contract despite still owing millions.

“There’s been a big debate about whether ESPN should be focused more on what happens on the field of sport than what happens in terms of where sports is societally or politically,”

said Bob Iger, who was Disney’s chief executive, in 2018. Iger said that Jimmy Pitaro, ESPN’s president, “felt that the pendulum may have swung a little bit too far away from the field. And I happen to believe he was right.”

Since the death of Floyd — and no doubt influenced by the limited number of live sporting events taking place because of the coronavirus pandemic — ESPN has covered stories of race and police brutality with a vigor that would have been hard to imagine when Iger made his comments. It also would have been hard to imagine Hill working with her former employer so soon.

After the deal was announced, Hill alluded to her history with ESPN. She wrote on Twitter that Kaepernick “was adamant that his work be surrounded by Black and brown voices. It also was important for me to use my influence to elevate these voices, particularly inside of ESPN.”

As for Iger, who two years ago thought ESPN’s coverage had strayed too far from games? On Monday, he said that Kaepernick’s “experience gives him a unique perspective on the intersection of sports, culture and race, which will undoubtedly create compelling stories that will educate, enlighten and entertain.”