“Are we ever going to see the end of these senseless deaths?“ ESPN host and reporter Maria Taylor asked herself that question after watching a police officer kill George Floyd. She felt wounded earlier this year by the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in her home state of Georgia, and Floyd’s death left her close to hopeless.
Still, she was hesitant to appear on “First Take” on Friday, when the show would be discussing protests. She was not often the one providing commentary on hot-button issues. She knew the type of rage speaking openly about race could elicit, and she didn’t have to look deep into ESPN’s history to see the potential ramifications of sharing one’s feelings if she veered too political.
When Dan Le Batard criticized President Donald Trump last summer, executives reiterated their desire for employees to avoid political commentary. Before that, pointed remarks from Jemele Hill drew a rebuke from Trump himself, and Hill ultimately left the company, even as she was hailed as an inspiration by fellow reporters on her way out.
“For a long time,” Hill said in an interview with Sportico, PMC’s media platform, “the ‘stick to sports’ crowd was really winning.”
But not last week.
Prior to receiving her “First Take” ask, Taylor heard her NBA Countdown colleague Jalen Rose say that he felt the black community needs him more than he needs a job. “I took those words to heart,” Taylor said. “They never left me.”
Thursday night she still felt anxious. She called NBA producer and 17-year ESPN vet Amina Hussein for advice, hoping for a promise that she wouldn’t get in trouble for what she might say the following day. “I can’t guarantee you that,” Hussein responded, “but if you speak from your heart, you will not be upset by what happens.”
Taylor’s words ultimately put an exclamation point on a different kind of week in the sports world.
“My patience left my body when I watched George Floyd take his last breath,” Taylor said in part of a viral clip that has now been viewed over six million times on Twitter alone. “For the first time, I feel like I can go on TV and say certain things. For the first time, people feel that they can tweet certain things, and people can be held accountable for the things that they are putting on display in the public. And I’m not going to apologize for that.”
Hussein called Taylor as soon as she was off-air, gushing like a proud parent. Compliments from ESPN higher-ups followed. LeBron James and Jamal Adams shared her message online along with countless others, while college coaches John Calipari and Shaka Smart expressed their support directly.
There was hate, too, but Taylor responded by posting a screenshot of one text calling her “a race baiter” to say in a tweet, “I don’t care how much you guys harass me, I will still use my voice passionately and decisively right now.” There would be no going back.
Earlier in the week, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison appeared as a guest on “First Take,” while activist Killer Mike spent time on FS1’s “Undisputed.” Marcus Spears spoke emotionally about the black experience in America on ESPN’s morning show, “Get Up.” The ‘stick to sports’ demand might not be gone, but for at least a moment, it felt defeated.
Monday, Jemele Hill’s perspective even returned to ESPN, in a way, as the network aired a pair of years-old conversations on race and sports that she had participated in.
“What you’ve seen, heard and read across ESPN outlets over the past week is a meaningful reflection of the profoundly intense and personal array of emotions sweeping through the collective consciousness of our audience,” ESPN senior VP of production Rob King wrote on the company’s communication site last week. “These conversations demonstrate a level of humanity and responsibility that is more definitive of our values than a departure from policy.”
As white quarterbacks supported their teammates online, and a diverse set of protestors hit the streets, Black voices seemed newly heard.
Working at the NFL, Jarick Walker certainly felt that way. On Saturday, May 30, the league put out a statement that was widely criticized for its tepidness. The next morning, he woke up with a headache that would last days.
“It felt as if someone was squeezing my head,” he says. As a member of the league’s social media team, Walker could directly see how executives had missed the moment, and as a Nike employee when that company stood behind Colin Kaepernick in 2017, he knew there was a better way. That Sunday, Walker directly contacted NFL’s chief marketing officer to express his frustration.
A series of meetings followed over the course of the week, and each time, Walker openly shared how his feelings had been hurt by the league, and how he hoped it would do better. The discussions started at the department level and slowly expanded. Each time, Walker heard honest reflections from colleagues and received backing from others.
“I was shaking, crying, trying to keep it together as best as possible,” he says. “The support that came from the rest of the team was unreal.”
Walker’s coworker Brandyn Minter was so moved by the messages he heard early in the week that he decided to break company protocol to directly reach out to Michael Thomas. While he fully expected repercussions, he thought they’d be worth contacting the Saints receiver in the hopes of creating a video featuring player voices that would put further pressure on NFL leadership. The result, which went viral Thursday, only bolstered Walker’s resolve.
Friday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell held a company-wide town hall. “At this point, I’ve practiced my speech like three times throughout the week,” Walker says. “Something about how the week played out made me think if I just go and I’m bold and very intentional in calling out specific things, maybe the rest of the people who work for the league will follow suit.”
Walker spoke first among the employees, wondering aloud whether a lack of Black employees contributed to the NFL’s weak message. He pointed out how the NFL helped the nation after 9/11 and rallied people again after Hurricane Katrina. “Here we are in another disaster, he said, and the NFL hasn’t brought the country together.” He concluded by echoing the requests players had made on the previous day’s video: that Goodell condemn white supremacy, apologize to players, and say Black lives matter.
Then Walker turned off his Zoom camera. He didn’t want the NFL’s top official to see him cry.
Not long after the 100-minute teleconference ended, Walker saw the words Goodell was going to share in a new statement. He would condemn racism. He would admit the league was wrong for not listening to players earlier. “We, the National Football League,” Goodell would say, “believe that black lives matter.” For the first time in five days, the headache that Walker had gone to sleep with and woken up with disappeared. He cried again, this time smiling, and prepared to celebrate with his team.
“I truly believe that the NFL has the influence to change the country and change the world,” he says.
Of course, last week’s words and actions represent just a step towards the sports industry — and the world — that Taylor, Walker, and others would like to be a part of. They’re also aware that none of it might have happened if not for the coronavirus pandemic.
“We learned through COVID that we couldn’t stick to sports,” Taylor says. “We had to cover the pandemic.” With sports still on a hiatus, there was also no possible distraction when Floyd was killed and the country responded. There was no counterprogramming for the horrific video of the 46-year-old’s final breath.
The question now is where sports goes from here. What will happen to the message when the games return?
“This week, seeing people — not only athletes, but people in sports media — expressing a lot of things they hadn’t expressed before or hadn’t been given permission to express, so to speak, to see that happen in real time was a relief,” Hill says. “That being said it is frustrating only from the standpoint of, we need to get out of this habit of doing things when they are convenient.”
For now, Hill is “cautiously optimistic” that the industry’s “stick to sports” era is behind it, though the true tests of that are still to come. Trump’s tweeted reaction Monday to Goodell’s statement was just a reminder that last week’s decisions did not end all debate. “We turned the vehicle into a different direction,” as Walker puts it. “Now I’m hoping we hit the gas and go, go, go.”
“I don’t see us turning our backs on racism anymore as a country, or as a sports culture,” Taylor says.
For decades, athletics have served as a forum to challenge society. It only took a total shutdown for its power to be fully felt again.