Should the Worldwide Leader Stick to Sports?

ESPN’s Rachel Nichols on talking politics and whether the NBA champs will visit the White House.

Rachel Nichols attends the '2015 CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute' at American Museum of Natural History on November 17, 2015 in New York City.
Rachel Nichols attends the 2015 CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute at the American Museum of Natural History on Nov. 17, 2015 in New York City.

Larry Busacca/Getty Images

Rachel Nichols’ career as a sports journalist has taken her from the Washington Post to CNN to ESPN, where she currently hosts basketball show and podcast The Jump weekdays at 3 p.m. Eastern. Nichols has also covered a number of other sports, including football and hockey, but is perhaps best known for her willingness to spar with powerful figures, as can be seen in her confrontational 2014 interview about domestic violence with the boxer Floyd Mayweather and her testy exchange with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell that same year.

Amidst a very enjoyable NBA season, and with much commentary about the politicization of sports (and sports journalists), it seemed like an opportune time to talk with Nichols. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed varying responses to women in the sports world, the enormous pressure on LeBron James, and whether athletes will visit the Trump White House.

Isaac Chotiner: How do you think sports journalism has changed since you got into the business two decades ago, and how does that change reflect itself in your work today?

Rachel Nichols: Wow, that’s a huge question. [Laughs.] A good question, but a big one.

This is like a Trump press conference. You can just choose—

I can take out what I want to answer? If it’s really like a Trump press conference—well, I shouldn’t say this for on the record, but you know what I am thinking. I am just going to telegraph that to you.

Yeah, I mean, everything has changed. I went to journalism school thinking I was going to be a newspaper reporter for the rest of my life, and the idea of sports writers on television as a crossover—it was certainly happening, but it wasn’t happening in the way that we see it now. In my head at that time, you went to be a television person and that meant having one set of skills and one sort of focus, or you went to be a newspaper person and that meant having one set of skills and one sort of focus.

There was also a really hard line between reporters and columnists, right? Opinionists versus straight reporters. I think that changed a lot. I think there is a lot more room in the middle now. Not only has the line between newspapers and television blurred to almost unrecognizability, but then of course you have the internet come in and everybody has a television in their pocket. Everybody can be on television in that way if they “broadcast” to enough people on Twitter or Facebook. The barriers to entry for people who are doing things that people like are much lower. I think that everything has changed and everything’s going to continue to change.

Did print journalism change your approach to television or change your approach to interviews?

There’s no question that being a print journalist taught me how to do everything that I do on television today, and that’s part of why I don’t think there is much of a line. To me, it is all one big skillset. On the show that I am the host of, I write what is essentially a column every day and then read that as a monologue on the top of the show. If I didn’t come from a print or writing background, I don’t think I would have been able to wield that the way that I do. I think it definitely affects the way I interview people in a press conference situation, but also in a one-on-one situation. When I sit down with someone for an interview, it’s not just a random series of questions thrown at someone. You are building a story and a narrative and it’s a quest for information.

I am not building anything with this call.

Just a random series of questions? Well, I can’t vouch for everyone. [Laughs.] But to me that is something I definitely picked up in print and carry with me to television today.

How have sports—the players, the coaches, the teams, the associations—changed in the attitude towards female reporters in the past two decades, if you think they have changed?

Yeah, it’s definitely changed. It’s like anything else, right? People are comfortable with what they see and what’s around them, and the more women who have been in sports, the more women athletes and fans see and are around, the more comfortable they feel with us. And I think that has only made the profession and the sports world better.

What about in terms of the place you work, and you don’t need to speak of ESPN per se—

That is where I work, so …

I’ve heard that. I was just wondering how ESPN has changed, or more broadly men in journalism, and has the way they deal with women colleagues changed?

Yeah, I think what I just said for the previous thing. It’s the same answer. Easier to transcribe.

What have you made of the increasing politicization of sports, both in terms of your job covering sports and in terms of journalists themselves expressing opinions?

I think there are a couple intersecting lines that are all meeting up right now. I think one of the big things about sports is that it is one of the few places right now that everyone still meets and participates in. You can look at all the polls. The number of people who go to religious services every week has declined; the number of people who vote, frankly, is not as high as one might hope; the books we read, the movies we watch, the television shows. It is very diversified. Part of that is the separation of people in this country, and part of that is we have so many more choices now. Sports is the one place where you have people from all across the political and ideological spectrum participating. And therefore it is one of the few big tents where you can have this exchange of ideas between people who aren’t just echoing each other.

I think another thing you are seeing is a rise in athlete activism. Certainly there was a time in the 1960s and 1970s where we saw incredible activism from athletes. And then the tendency to do that went more dormant for a while.

As athletes have made more money frankly, and they are less beholden to any one sponsor, they have felt more freedom to speak their minds just like anyone else. I think LeBron James, frankly, has had a big role in that. Because he had been speaking more on social and political issues when he was with the Miami Heat, people thought, Oh, if LeBron can do it, we can follow his lead. And then you have the journalists, with the wave of more opinions in media. Those are three big pillars really coming together to build the building you are talking about.

How comfortable are you expressing your own opinions?

Well, I now have a job where I am supposed to do that. It is part of what I get paid to do, so obviously I am going to want to do that. There was a time in my life where I was a more straightforward reporter, and I wouldn’t have done that. I also think there is a huge distinction between commenting on social issues, or issues that have moral implications, and “politics.” So much gets shoved under that umbrella of politics. I still don’t think you will go on any sports television channel and hear any host or commentator or anchor picking out a particular politician or lobbying for a particular bill. It is not that targeted. It’s more big issues and things that target the moral fabric of our society.

After the Muslim ban, it seemed like there were a lot of journalists at ESPN and elsewhere who were making comments that were anti-Trump because they felt like the policy was connecting to larger moral issues.

There is a big difference between commenting on a policy, and the moral implications of it, and commenting on, “This person is an idiot.” Those personal attacks—you see that on your friends’ Facebook pages; I don’t think you see that on television as much from sports people. But yeah, when the Muslim travel ban was put into effect, it affected the NBA. You are talking about a league where people cross the border—the Toronto Raptors—all the time, several times per week.

You are talking about a couple players who have passports from countries that were on the banned list. And when the State Department put out its initial guidelines, there was obviously a lot of confusion, but there were several State Department officials telling reporters that people with dual passports would be not allowed to come back and forth, and one of those players was out of the country at the time because he was playing the Toronto Raptors. You just can’t say, “We can’t talk about it, it’s politics.” It’s actually affecting people who play the game.

Do you think the NBA team that wins the title will go to the White House?

I don’t know. I am curious to see. My guess is that it will probably be a lot like what is happening with the Patriots, where different people will make their own decision, and if enough of the team doesn’t want to go, then maybe you will see the whole team decide not to go. I imagine you will see sports organizations leave it up to their individual players, as by the way they [did] when the last president was in office.

Some quick basketball questions: Why does the media keep saying that Carmelo Anthony is so good at basketball?

Why does the media keep saying that Carmelo Anthony is so good at basketball? Uh, I don’t even know how to answer that question. Because he is good at basketball? [Laughs.]

Is he really, though? I’m a Rockets fan.

I’m standing 20 feet from Tracy McGrady right now.

He’s my hero, please let him know. Do you think the media has, broadly speaking, been unfair to LeBron James over the past 15 years?

I think LeBron is probably the most scrutinized athlete of his generation because he came up in an era of increased media and social media. I have always been impressed with the way he has handled it. I think this whole generation of athletes has a lot more on their plate, and when we compare eras, one thing I don’t always see being taken into account is that a guy like LeBron James has to play with the kind of scrutiny from much more media and social media and from Joe-on-the-corner chiming in in a way that Michael Jordan didn’t have to. It’s a lot, but hey, it comes with the territory, and they get paid a lot of money to do it.

If you are ever elected president and have to staff your Cabinet with one NBA player, who would it be?

If we ever come to that, I can give you an answer.