Back, oh, a decade or so ago, Bomani Jones and I both served as columnists for ESPN’s Page 2.
I’m pretty sure no one actually read ESPN’s Page 2—but I did. And even though he was young and inexperienced and relatively obscure, Bomani’s words soared from the screen. I know … I know—that sounds sorta goofy cliche. But it’s true. The man could straight-up write, and before long I considered his pieces weekly must-reads.
That’s why, as I welcome him here as the magical 325th Quaz, I’m hardly surprised by Bomani’s emergence as one of sports media’s grandest stars. Not only does Bomani host a weekly ESPN Radio show, The Right Time With Bomani Jones, but he’s a regular on both Around The Horn and Dan Le Batard is Highly Questionable. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Evening Jones.
In other words, Bomani Jones isn’t one for sleeping.
Bomani Jones, you are this week’s Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: So Bomani, I was just reading your bio, and I truly wonder whether anyone has spent more time talking over the past decade and a half than you have. You’ve always hosted one show, two shows, three shows. Just this endless string of shows. And I wonder, truly, what the joy is. Like, what is it about speaking, talking, conversing on air that does it for you? And do you ever tire of hearing yourself speak?
BOMANI JONES: I’d definitely say I get tired speaking, though I’m not so sure I get tired of hearing myself. I also don’t necessarily enjoy hearing myself speak, but I do like the act of it. I like playing around with different ways of saying things, flipping up what words are used to describe what situations for maximum effect. In a technical way, that’s a draw for me. But in media, I truly enjoy being able to connect with people. Radio has been my favorite medium, and it’s because it’s the most intimate one. It’s the place where the presenter and the audience typically know each other the best, and each is most comfortable. Time is tight on television, and there’s so much one must get done before the next commercial break. Writing requires a certain perfectionism, and everything is meticulously chosen in a way that makes it difficult to be natural.
But in everything I’ve done, I’ve wanted it to come across as being sincere and earnest. I don’t think I could have a career without conveying those two qualities. And by doing so, I’ve met so many incredible people. Not the people I’ve interviewed or worked with necessarily, but those who truly connect with my work. Many people in my audiences have become my true friends, and the shows were our point of connection. That creates more joy than anything else for me, the ability to truly affect people. Through sports, I can demonstrate both how big and small the world is, and make points I think are important for an audience who may not hear them otherwise. I’m not changing the world with this, but I do think I can make it better in small moments for a large number of people, and that truly makes me feel good.
J.P.: You and I wrote for ESPN.com at the same time for a while, and you’ve been with the company for many years. So I wonder what you make of the layoffs, and the state of the network. Can it survive relatively intact? Does a sports network in 2017 need to completely rethink what it’s been doing for nearly four decades? Is there a risk, with 1,000,000 viewing options, people ultimately simply no longer need a place to watch sports programing?
B.J.: I start with the reminder that I don’t work in the department at ESPN that makes any decisions. At the risk of sounding like a company man, I do think people should wait and see what happens after the layoffs before determining exactly what they mean. I’d also look at layoffs across the industry to see the similarities in who got cut, as I think that broader look is more illustrative than just looking at ESPN.
I would say, though, that there are very few television properties that any consumer truly needs. The most needed cable channel ever was probably The Weather Channel, and it’s one that truly has to deal with the fact that consumers don’t need it in the era of apps. But I’d say everyone in sports has, for years, tried to woo consumers by making this something they want. I imagine ESPN is studying what its consumers want and the best way to reach them. But anyone in this industry banking on surviving because their property is necessary is doing this wrong.
J.P.: So I know you were born in Atlanta, then relocated to Houston. I know you graduated from Clark, then earned a pair of master’s degrees. But how did this—sports media—happen for you? Was there an ah-ha lightbulb moment? Something or someone specifically who pushed you this route?
B.J.: Now this is a long, circuitous story, but the long of the short—my senior year of college, I started freelance writing with the goal of becoming a music critic. I managed to achieve that, though I also realized in that process that anyone can be a music critic just by criticizing music. I got lucky because I reached a point of making a livable wage doing so. While I was doing that, I was in a Ph.D program at the University of North Carolina studying economics. Well, in the 2004-05 academic year, I both flunked out of the Ph.D program and saw a decent-paying column turn into a low-paying blog, and the little bit of security I thought I’d found was gone.
I’d done some sportswriting by then, and I had been walked up to the door at Page 2 by the late, great Ralph Wiley. After everything in my life got shaky. ESPN.com asked for more of my work. Some was sports commentary and some was based on the interplay between sports and pop culture. It was weird because I started doing things that were an expansion of the sportswriting paradigm of the time, but was also trying to learn, yanno, how to be a sportswriter. I was covering events for the first time and trying to learn to navigate locker rooms and media relations departments and everything else. I had no idea what sportswriting really was. I just loved writing and wanted to write and thought I had things to say about sports that were worth hearing.
But I don’t think there was really a eureka moment about it. Circumstances threw me in this direction, but it’s not like I’m saying circumstances threw me into working in a factory or anything. I didn’t have many options…and then ESPN called and I tried to make the best of it. But it was making the best of a dream-like scenario. Once I was in, it was clear that this was what I did. I went from writing to radio to the Internet to television, but it was always in sports at that point. This was my world.
J.P.: I recently engaged in a pretty heated spat (from afar) with Stephen A. Smith. I wrote that I hate the brand of media he and Skip and a bunch of others bring forth. He thought my take was sharpened by an unspoken racism. And, off of that, I’d like to ask—as an African-American man, who do you see when you look at the sports media landscape right now? Do you feel represented? Do you feel marginalized? Have things improved? Gotten worse?
B.J.: I feel marginalized by some, but I don’t think I take that personally. The people I work with have demonstrated that they respect me as a person and they respect my work, and I don’t think there are too many “for a black guy…” caveats to that. There are some viewers who will always see me as whatever black guy they’ve decided I am. I might be the “ghetto” guy with bad grammar to some, the arrogant jerk to others and, of course, the angry black guy. But that’s got less to do with the sports landscape than being black in America. I guess I feel no more marginalized at work than I do anywhere else, but it’s been a while since I let the perceptions of strangers affect my day-to-day.
Now, do I feel represented in the industry? Probably not, but that causes me less of a problem when I consume sports media than, in my career, when I’ve dealt with decision makers. The lack of representation feels more problematic when trying to sell my vision to someone with the power to help make it happen, but who can’t get beyond the fact that I’m a little younger and blacker than he’s used to. I would like to see more black, non-athletes in visible positions, but I’d also like to see more women and Latinos in those places, too. Part of that is a simple notion of fairness, but I also think that would improve the quality of the overall product. How can we, as an industry, properly cover baseball when so many players only speak Spanish and so many around baseball only speak English? How can a writer understand the players without having a real understanding of the factors that led many of them into athletics in the first place? That’s not something that is innate to a person of color, but it’s something a person of color is more likely to be familiar with.
I suppose, though, I would say things have gotten better. That said, it’s not like they could have gotten worse than they’d been at different points in memory. So yes, better, but not good enough.
J.P.: I don’t know what to do with myself about Donald Trump’s presidency. I’m angry, I’m agitated, I often feel helpless. Bomani, what to do?
B.J.: Not really a great answer for this one. I do think a lot of people have become informed on how much there is to do to affect politics beyond voting, and how simply casting a vote can only do so much, no matter one’s ideology. I think a renaissance of informed citizens is under way. We’ll have to see how much power those people will have and for how long.
J.P.: God, I hate Around the Horn. It’s not you AT ALL, it’s that format, and the loudness, and the goofiness. I ask, sincerely, what don’t I see? What am I missing?
B.J.: I think you’re missing how knowledgeable all the panelists are. I started doing ATH after the show had been on the air for nine years. I had my impressions of everyone because I’d watched them for years. What I found after doing a few conference calls was that the panelists were so smart and knew so much. I’d sit in my house amazed, at times, that I got to listen to Bob Ryan give his thoughts on whatever we were talking about on a given day. The panelists on ATH are truly some of my favorite people.
I’d say, though, that the complaints about loudness and goofiness are a bit outdated. Everyone who’s been involved with the show for a long time laughs at how far things have come as they got their legs under them, and that process legitimately took years. But I truly believe that you can get more insight and information in an episode of Around the Horn than you can on any other show, just because you have four really bright people approaching sports from four different angles. You should give us more chances. I really think you’d find us worth your time.
J.P.: You’ve served as an adjunct professor at Duke and Elon. What are we supposed to tell journalism students in 2017? Do we guide them toward the profession, even with all the problems? Do we encourage them to go elsewhere?
B.J.: I would tell them the same thing I told journalism majors before things seemed so dire to people—don’t major in journalism. And that’s less a knock on journalism than my belief in the value of a liberal arts education. I think you should learn to think, then apply that to a vocation of your choosing. Going all-in on any job as a major seems like a bad idea to me, especially when that industry changes as rapidly as journalism has. I also think, should you decide to become a journalist, you need to be a more sophisticated thinker than ever. With so much content available, differentiating yourself requires as much talent as it ever has. You’ve got to be able to make connections that weren’t quite as necessary before. Thing is, that’s probably the case in dozens of industries. So prepare your mind to jump in and out of a few things, because there’s no telling when circumstance may force you to find something new.
That said, media has always been something for those who love it. It’s the sort of business that will weed out those who only like it. The perks that make it worth it are really only for those who are totally into this work. The perks that anybody in the world would want are available to only a few, and there’s a lot of stuff you’ve got to go through to get there that probably aren’t worth it if this is just something you sorta like.
J.P.: I feel like everyone in journalism has a money story—that craziest thing that’s ever happened to them, and it winds up being a great party story for years. Bomani, what’s yours?
B.J.: Now this is interesting. I feel like my best stories are peripheral to the industry, like things seen at parties, than specifically on-the-job stuff. The best on-the-job one, sadly, isn’t one I can share. Damn, neither is the second. I do, however, like telling a story about interviewing Mystikal when I was in college. It was the first in-person interview I’d done with an artist, and I was doing it as he rode in his limo from the airport in Atlanta to the barbershop (he was performing at the homecoming concert for Clark Atlanta University, my alma mater). It also happened to be the day his album “Let’s Get Ready” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts.
So we get in the limo. I’m fumbling trying to get my tape recorder going, and the dude representing the university tried to lean on me about it, as if I wasn’t going as fast as I can. He also didn’t seem to notice that Mystikal didn’t mind the delay, as that allowed him to whip out a blunt and fire up. I’ll always remember what he said—”Am I charming y’all or boring y’all?”—and what he didn’t say—”Anybody wanna hit this?” We all said we were fine, as you don’t get in a limo with a musician if you draw the line and someone smoking weed. The interview went from there and was pretty ordinary for that sort of fare.
The best part for me that day, though, was that Mystikal left his seafood platter in the limo. He has seafood on his rider, so he clearly wanted the food, and I imagine he was really gonna want it, with munchies and whatnot. I took the seafood home. That seafood was so good. And, at 20-years old, a free plate of seafood and the privilege of inhaling a rapper’s secondhand cannabis smoke was more than enough for me.
J.P.: How do you feel about social media interaction? What I mean is—BOMANI, YOU’RE A FUCKING WHORE. Do you respond to that Tweeter? Ignore him? Block him? Mute him? Do you think we in sports media have any sort of obligation to engage? Should we?
B.J.: Well, I think my social media presence indicates that I reply to that guy, and then I block him. Maybe not all of them, but lots of them. I don’t know if I engage most of them, though. I like to knock them around a little, then go on about my business. There’s not much back-and-forth to be had with trolls. They do the back. I do the forth. The cycle is complete. I just tend to do it with probably more people than I should, but I admit I enjoy the sport of quickly coming up with a retort. I can do it in my sleep. So, I do those things and retweet them for those who enjoy the show, fully understanding that many people don’t enjoy it as much as I do.
But no, you don’t have an obligation to engage someone who simply hates you. I’m inclined to engage those with good points, but I don’t owe everyone a response. Hell, I don’t owe anyone a response. But I do owe it to myself and my audience to engage anyone whose perspective can better inform my own. That’s the way you get better. Back when e-mail was the primary mode of feedback, I’d reply to lots of people because lots of people made good points. There were haters, but fewer of them. Social media has absolutely increased the level of senselessly negative feedback. You don’t have to reply to anything senseless.
J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
B.J.: Hmmmm, greatest moment of my career is tricky because I don’t know if I’ve done anything truly great yet. But I think the most gratifying moment of my career was when I got a midday radio show in Raleigh, N.C. in 2008. What made that great, for me, was that I was less than a year removed from being let go by ESPN.com. After that, I started doing a Saturday show and every shift I could pick up before working all summer on afternoon drive. My career was in the balance, and I focused on becoming a good radio host. And in a relatively short period of time, I got good enough to do a show that jumpstarted everything that’s happened for me since. That was make or break time, and I haven’t broken yet.
Now, the lowest? Probably that same job, when I read in a press release that the time slot I had would be filled by someone else, after a pending sale would be completed. And this was shortly after finding out I did fantastically in the previous ratings book. It happened because of a miscommunication, but it felt like unnecessary humiliation in a situation where I was getting the short end of the stick and most people knew it. It was a miserable feeling, and I had no idea where my career would go from there. That was 2009.
But here’s the thing—the next job I got paid more and was on Sirius, which was technically “national” and allowed me to do things like appear on “Around the Horn” within a year. Things have a funny way of working out sometimes.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH BOMANI JONES:
• Your name is Bomani Babatinde Jones. Which is awesome. Please explain the background: Bomani means “warrior” in a handful of languages, but I think my parents specifically got that one from Mali. Babatunde means “return of the father,” a name I received as I was the first male Jones born after my grandfather died. Jones … I’ve actually never looked that one up.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Roy Williams, Peaches & Herb, “Fences,” archery, Aquaman, Ryan Reynolds, Sam Perkins, Coke Zero, Wendy Williams, Debbie Gibson, the number 12, eggs and toast with a side of bacon: Sam Perkins, Roy Williams, Peaches and Herb, “Fences,” 12, eggs and toast with a side of bacon, Aquaman, archery, Ryan Reynolds, Debbie Gibson, Coke Zero, Wendy Williams
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: I have never thought I was going to die, but I’ve definitely been on alert. Then I quickly realized I couldn’t do anything about it and if the plane crashed, I wouldn’t remember what I did right before.
• One question you would ask Lionel Manuel were he here right now?: What’s the craziest thing you ever saw Lawrence Taylor do?
• In exactly 16 words, make a case for Alan Henderson’s Hall of Fame credentials: Somehow, some way, he managed four full years at Indiana without plotting to maim Bobby Knight.
• Three memories from your first-ever date?: 1. Picking her up for the date; 2. Her realizing we were going to a different theater than she expected; 3. Finding out she’d actually planned to meet someone else after our ride dropped us off.
• What concerns you more—climate change or the unemployment rate?: Climate change. Unemployment rates tend to go up and down. Climate change seems to be going all in one direction, and that’s all bad.
• What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received?: “I’m becoming a big fan of yours.” — Ralph Wiley