Q: Please describe the origins of the new ESPN-backed site, The Undefeated, which will launch this summer:
A: The origins for the name came the day Maya Angelou died. I was on the Internet reading about Maya and came across her quote: “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated…” The name The Undefeated just struck me as perfect. I think it crystallizes the African-American struggle and the struggle for athletes and really all Americans.
The story of the site’s origins is bit more complicated. I’ve always wanted a site that examined race and culture through the lens of sports. That’s what I’ve been doing with my column for 20 years. When Bill Simmons launched Grantland, I felt it was just a matter of time before someone got the opportunity to combine sports and race. John Skipper and I had drinks in Los Angeles and I got to pitch him on why I should be the guy to do it.
Q: Tell me a bit about the target audience for this project:
A: The target audience is anyone interested in the African-American journey and sports. I believe that’s most of black America and a really high percentage of the rest of America. There’s a reason Roots was such a highly watched miniseries. Our struggle is compelling. I believe it’s the single most fascinating narrative in the history of this great nation. It’s an underdog story of triumph.
What we hope people get from the website is an elevated conversation about our journey and celebration of our journey. Our target audience isn’t being served properly because black media outlets were gutted during integration and have been underfunded since.
Q: Why do you feel that the issues of race and sports needs its own site, rather than being incorporated into existing media coverage?
A: I think it is being incorporated into the existing media coverage. I think you will find the best of our work on ESPN.com. But I believe the Internet has made niche journalism the way to go. The Internet has trained us to look for specifics, specific things we’re interested in. If you can launch a site built around NFL coverage, surely you can launch a site built around race and sports. You realize race and politics are the two longest debates in the history of America? George Washington never discussed the NFL. He discussed race extensively.
Q: Could you give me an example of a sports story you’ve seen in the past that needed “The Undefeated” to have told it differently:
A: People have been writing about Charles Barkley for 30 years. There have been four books focused on Charles Barkley. The man is an interview machine. Jesse Washington framed Charles Barkley in a totally unique way for us. He explained Barkley’s authenticity in a way that made sense and connected it to Booker T. Washington’s uninterrupted influence on Southern philosophy.
Q: The Undefeated is being called “a black Grantland” by some. How do you feel about this comparison?
A: In an attempt to connect with his audience and be respectful of what he’s built, I said on Bill Simmons podcast that we were doing a “black Grantland.” It was an innocent comment not meant to define the site or what we planned to do. It was an organic comment said with respect. People ran with it because, other than his podcast, I said little else about the site for the next year. The site is going to be an examination of race and culture through the lens of sports. That’s quite different from a site about sports and pop culture.
Q: Do you have any concerns that your persona will overshadow the larger objectives you have for the site?
A: We’re going to be defined by the work we produce. Great journalism is never overshadowed by a single individual no matter how handsome.
Q: Describe the team you are creating for The Undefeated:
A: I’m looking for people who want to be journalists more than writers. Writing is fun. Journalism is rewarding. Journalism is about the subject and the issue. Journalists are comfortable in situations where everyone else is uncomfortable. I’m looking for people who don’t want to talk about what they’ve done in the past. I hope I’m hiring hungry people. I hope I’m hiring people with the necessary life experience, self-awareness and integrity to be fair. Journalism promotes fairness.
Q: Do you have any thoughts about the issue of diversity in the media and how we can more accurately portray the many cultures and perspectives that make up our audiences?
A: Require all journalists of any color, sexual orientation or age to be journalists. Require journalists to seek new information, follow the truth wherever it leads. Alex Haley (Roots) and David Simon (The Wire) are responsible for the two greatest narratives ever told about the African-American journey. Haley is black and Simon is white. They’re both great journalists.
Q: What do you hope The Undefeated will achieve?
A: I want the site and the journalists on the site to be part of America’s conversation on race and culture. I want the site to be an impactful leader in that dialogue.
10/5/15: Jason Whitlock, ESPN part ways