When a beloved, iconic figure dies young, it’s easy for remembrances to slip into hagiography. This is especially true when the deceased is a journalist being remembered by other journalists with large platforms to embellish that person’s impact and cover up his blemishes.
There were times on Sunday that ESPN’s emotionally raw and extensive coverage of network mainstay and longtime SportsCenter anchor Stuart Scott’s death from cancer at 49 years old may have felt like a canonization. But the reverent sports broadcasters are right: Scott was a transitional figure for sports journalism, opening the door for a younger, blacker lexicon in sports media. He did so against pushback from critical (often white) network executives, audiences, and newspaper columnists.
“He talked on SportsCenter like me and my friends talked,” said current ESPN anchor and former NFL receiver Cris Carter.
“Looking at him and knowing that he was able to bring the hip-hop culture, that urban feel to television sports broadcasting—something that’s never been done before—gave me the hope that I didn’t have to be some corporate guy,” said NFL player turned commentator Keyshawn Johnson, near tears.
Fellow SportsCenter anchor Jay Harris said that before Scott came along, he didn’t feel his community’s voices were being represented at ESPN, or in sports broadcasting more generally. “[I remember] watching him, as a black man, hearing things that I talk about with my other friends who are black—who my white friends might not know—and feeling like, ‘okay, I’m part of the conversation now,’ ” Harris said.
When Scott started at the network’s then-fledgling sister channel ESPN2 in 1993, he understood this lack of representation because he felt it himself. In James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales’ oral history of ESPN, Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN, Scott said he “didn’t pay a lot of attention to ESPN” before joining the network, noting the limited number of prominent black voices on air at the time. According to Michael Freeman’s ESPN: The Uncensored History, Scott was even reluctant to work at the company because “[l]ike other people of color, there was concern about living in the harsh cultural blandness of Bristol.” (ESPN is headquartered in the very white town of Bristol, Connecticut.)
“He said things on the air that I knew when I heard them that the white producers who had approved it didn’t know what he was talking about,” former ESPN executive Keith Clinkscales, who is black, told Shales and Miller. “It was almost like, ‘If he’s cool enough to say that on the air, and no one’s stopping him, then this network is cool enough to watch.’ ”
Not everyone agreed. More than two decades after Scott first took the air—with ESPN now awash in on-air talent presenting sports news with the same sort of hip-hop patois that Scott pioneered—his idioms about “schwerve,” or about “getting a witness from the congregation,” or his signature “booyah!” may seem like quaint catchphrase clichés. But when Scott first took the air, there was significant pushback to the way he spoke. Much of it centered not on the silliness of his commentary, but the “urban-ness” of it.
Scott received what he described as scathing, occasionally racial hate mail. One black viewer complained that Scott was dragging “our race down and using improper language and talking street slang.” According to ESPN: The Uncensored History, network executives asked Scott to reduce his use of slang and one even asked Scott “not to ‘talk so black.’ ” Then there were the critiques from mainly white newspaper columnists, which often came with a racial tinge. Bruce Jenkins of the San Francisco Chronicle called him a “jive turkey,” while USA Today’s Michael Hiestand suggested he cool the “no diggity” references, and the Los Angeles Times’ Mark Heisler asked him to cut out the “ ‘gangsta-slapping’ references” because they somehow represented “gratuitous violence.” The scorn was typified by Chicago Sun-Times columnist Phil Rosenthal:
We were trying to think of redeeming things about Stuart Scott's work on ESPN's SportsCenter the other day. And, in the meantime, we invented a drinking game using the most common Scott-isms. Downing a shot every time you hear the following Scott-isms will make you so drunk you probably won't even mind hearing them: “Mojo,” “as cool as the other side of the pillow,” “as mad as the Wu-Tang Clan on steroids,” “I play my enemies like a game of chess,” “the truth,” “break me off something proper,” “the bomb,” “as mad as the Wu-Tang Clan in a bad mood” (clever variation, no?), “can I get a witness from the congregation?” “I think I'm going to get wicked” and “boo-ya.”
What Rosenthal and others missed was that Scott was employing the exact same sort of gimmicky catchphrases that had been mainstays of sports anchors for years, but in what he felt was his community’s voice. “Sports today has an incredible impact on everybody, but basically it's the white media reporting on the African American athletes,” Bob Ley, who is white and was one of SportsCenter's original anchors, told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1998. “There have to be other voices heard. And if people are uncomfortable with that, they better get with the program.”
In 2002, Scott was asked by the New York Post’s Andrew Marchand, a previously critical columnist, “what don't people like me get” about Scott’s on-air style. “I think people have their mindset about the way my job should be done, and if I'm not doing it the way that you, or whoever else thinks it should be done, you jump to conclusions—conclusions that I’m putting on an act or I’m trying to be something that I’m not without even knowing me,” Scott said. “There is a definite difference in African-American culture, Italian-American culture and Irish-Catholic culture.” Scott was merely trying to ensure that what he saw as black American culture was being represented for a change.
“I don’t want to commit hyperbole here, but Stuart’s delivery on SportsCenter—his willingness to stick with it despite getting complaints, and the producers letting him stick with it—is one of the great cultural moments that African American culture has ever had,” former ESPN exec Clinkscales said in 2011’s Those Guys Have All the Fun, citing his network’s No. 1 ratings at the time among black men aged 25 to 54 as part of its success in opening the door to diverse voices in Scott’s wake.
I don’t think Clinkscales’ claim is that hyperbolic. Because of Scott, black children of the ’90s, along with white children of the ’90s like myself, grew up hearing Scott not as “the black voice of SportsCenter,” but just “the voice of SportsCenter.” And Scott, along with other mainstream black icons of the ’90s like Will Smith and Arsenio Hall, really did help change American culture, so much so that eventually it was not only acceptable for a presidential candidate to reference Jay Z mid–stump speech, but was considered an asset.
For his part, Clinkscales accurately predicted that Scott’s then-outsider hip-hop affect would become the cultural norm during a 1998 interview with USA Today:
[Clinkscales] says Scott’s “patois,” with roots in hip hop and rap music, “appeals to young people today—not just black people.” And, he says, Scott's “patois” eventually won't seem so unusual on TV: “The idols of tomorrow—like Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods and Charles Woodson—are children of hip hop.”
Once Scott’s norm became the norm, the biggest criticism of him was that he was overly fawning—that he embodied ESPN’s approach to gaining access to star players with sycophantic coverage at the cost of journalistic independence. But even that legitimate critique can be seen through this lens of groundbreaking racial empowerment. In his tribute to Scott, Cris Carter said that, “As an athlete, you don’t like to think this, but in dealing with the media, you do have favorites. You do have people that you give them more information.” No doubt part of Scott being a favorite was his softball interviewing style. But there’s also a factor he himself once mentioned that shouldn’t be dismissed: “A lot of the black athletes tell me that I represent them, understand them,” Scott told USA Today in 1998. “That it's good to see a brother out there.”
Correction, Jan. 5, 2014: Due to a photo provider error, the caption in the top image previously misidentified Kristin Spodobalski as Kim Scott.