Ladies First: ESPN’s Cari Champion On Taking Charge In A Male-Dominated Industry

On a snowy March morning on the East Coast (March 6), Cari Champion is moderating a heated debated among Chris Broussard, Freddie Coleman and Scoop Jackson over the top contenders for NBA MVP this season on ESPN’s First Take (regular hosts Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless were both on vacation). When it comes time to wrap the discussion, Champion slams her palm on the table, screaming “Time out, time out” and neatly summarizes the argument (James Harden and Russell Westbrook are favorites) before cutting to commercial break.

Every day, the cameras show what Cari does best: handling fiery personalities (most of the time, they’re male) as the lone woman at the table. As a former Tennis Channel anchor and news reporter for various markets across the country including West Virginia and Florida’s West Palm Beach, Champion has been doing what her name implies: winning.

Making her mark while covering the come-up of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, she eventually made the leap to ESPN in 2010 and continues to stand tall among her male colleagues. VIBE recently called Cari and got all the goods on being a woman in sports journalism, pursuing your passions and why Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” movement is so necessary.

My MLK Moment (Realizing the dream):
I was 7 years old and watching Oprah on the television like a lot of young girls [have]. I didn’t know what she was doing but I felt like it was exciting. Something about her presence made me think she was doing something important. Then I started to watch a lot of local news women in my market—I grew up in L.A.—so there was a woman by the name of Angela Blackmon. I would watch her all the time and she was just so sweet, so good to me in terms of how she would make me feel when I would watch her show ’cause when you’re a kid, you don’t wanna watch news. Then as I got older, I shared what I wanted to do with my mother and family, and they were like, ‘Of course! You love to talk. You would totally be great.’ I didn’t know the impact it would have, where it would ultimately lead or the responsibility it would have but it felt right.

On finding my voice:
When I was a junior or senior in high school, I knew [journalism] was what I wanted to do and that I was going to pursue it because I wanted to be class president. I started running my campaign, and my mother was telling me about what it meant and the responsibility. I knew [it meant] galvanizing the troops. [The class] was trying to determine where we were going to have our prom. The establishment and administrators were suggesting we do it their way and we, as the students, wanted to do it our way. I knew I wanted to have a voice, help people who couldn’t be heard or couldn’t necessarily vocalize what they wanted. My dream and goals were always just to be a local news reporter. I would envision [myself] making a difference and I loved telling stories. The two just worked perfectly well for me.

On her personal inspiration and mentoring others:
It would have to be my mother. She’s one of the most amazing women I’ve ever met. She’s always said, ‘Do whatever you want to do. It doesn’t matter. You can always overcome the struggle.’ She has given me a good belief in self that helps me push forward even when things are very difficult. I hope that I can do that for others. I take a lot of people under my wing, invest in them and give them words of encouragement because sometimes it’s hard to see what’s next or the accomplishment in what you already have.

On managing multiple male personalities:
There’s no blueprint. It starts behind the scenes. There is always a double standard [for women] so we have to be comfortable—and that is such a tough thing to say—we have to be willing to, for lack of a better word, lean in. For Women’s History Month, we [had] Sheryl Sandberg come on First Take and her “Lean In Together” movement is such an amazing thing. We have to be able to speak up in the morning or evening meeting. We have to sit at the head of the table and give suggestions no matter what the outcome is [whether] they don’t like our suggestions, what we have to say or our words. We still need to be willing to say, ‘Hold on one second, I’m talking.’ A lot of my job is managing personalities and people and that goes on [or off] television. You have to become an expert in observation. I understand people, what makes them move, what doesn’t or how I feel they’ll react and I anticipate all of that. When I’m dealing with three, four guys at the table, it really is a barbershop and you have to know how men interact. It goes for the person you’re working with. It also has a lot to do with how they respect you and how you respect them, and just being able to prove you can sit with [the guys] and be okay with sitting with them.

Hardest story I’ve had to cover that taught me something new about myself:
Probably the Ray Rice [assault case]. I remember initially covering it when the story came out and we didn’t have the video yet, thinking, ‘Oh god, [Ray] did something wrong.’ The pushback was, ‘Well you don’t know what she did to lead up to that. Some women encourage batter. Women sometimes hit men,’ and I immediately said, ‘I don’t care what she did. She’s not a man.’ Everything in my spirit told me that it was wrong but as a journalist, you can’t go on assumptions, you have to go on the facts. The facts were [Ray] got in trouble, [he and his then-fiancee, Janay] were both arrested and [Commissioner Roger Goodell] gave him a two-game suspension. We all thought, ‘Well, that’s crazy. He’s only getting [suspended for] two games. There has to be more to this.’ Then when the video came out, there was all this retroactive outrage. I felt an obligation to be a woman but at the same time, tread lightly because I needed to be objective. But then I felt like, ‘What is there to be objective about?’ We’ve seen this man literally knocking out this woman so why do I need to be so objective?’ There was such a burden on my heart to be a woman, be emotional and be okay with being emotional but also to deliver a story. It’s such a delicate balance. I learned a lot [through] talking about it from what I thought was an objective standpoint. No matter what, domestic violence is a humanity issue and such a divisive topic. I learned a lot about who I was, what I was capable of handling and what my biases may have been. For better or worse, it made me a better journalist, made me more astute, made me ask more questions and see people’s circumstances in a different way.

The definition of a boss:
When I think of someone who’s a boss, I think of a person who is extremely powerful but doesn’t have to say it. They’re a leader but don’t have to show it. They’re completely comfortable in their skin. Herm Edwards would say, ‘When emotions were at a high [in a team huddle], I would purposely speak softly.’ A boss is someone who leads with a gentle hand by example.

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