ESPN’s The Undefeated is Taking on Sports, Race, Culture, and Defining Modern Journalism
ESPN may be the best known brand in the world of sports. But they do more than simply report the nightly scores. Their commitment to covering sports and athletes of all types from around the world has transformed not just how athletics is covered, but how stories are told and how sports journalism is defined. So when ESPN commits itself to opening a dialogue on the issues facing African-American communities in America and how those issues intersect with sports, it’s something worth paying attention to. That’s where we get The Undefeated, ESPN’s new website dedicated to race, sports and culture, and where the voices of prominent African-American athletes are heard loud and clear on the issues that they care about most. Far from being general interest media, The Undefeated produces storytelling focused on the African-American community. And as many of its staffers say, The Undefeated couldn’t have come at a more perfect time in America’s history.
As Barack Obama prepares to leave the Oval Office, as Colin Kaepernick takes a knee during the National Anthem, and as Muhammad Ali passes away leaving a huge hole in the sports landscape, The Undefeatedhopes to use sports as the vehicle that opens up conversations on the African-American experience in America; the challenges, the struggles, the victories and the inspiring moments. “Before President Obama, I don’t think anyone thought this, what we are doing, was necessary. No one saw the need to separate a site dedicated to the African-American experience,” said Martenzie Johnson, a senior researcher for the website. Some question if The Undefeated would have survived just eight years ago. But with print media’s decline, general interest media is also on the way out, making it all the more fitting for The Undefeated to enter into a digital media era that’s all about catering to niche interests and communities.
The Undefeated Editor-in-Chief Kevin Merida
The Undefeated will continue to define its role as an important platform for discussion as it hosts a student forum (tonight) with President Barack Obama at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, N.C. (it will air on ESPN). A Conversation with the President: Sports, Race and Achievement is set to hold up The Undefeated as the new premier space for discussing the roles sports, culture and race play in America by sharing stories that help people better understand the African-American experience. “I see us as conveners, and as thought leaders,” Editor-in-Chief Kevin Merida said, which is exactly what The Undefeated plans to do tonight for the summit.
Even as the platform makes headlines tonight while hosting the President, its real ability to make headlines was set soon after it launched this past May. In July, Michael Jordan penned a personal essay for the website on his thoughts on the recent shootings of African-Americans and the targeting of police officers. The essay marked one of the few times that the former basketball superstar has spoken out about current events involving race, and The Undefeated was the perfect outlet for it. And when Muhammed Ali died shortly after the launch, The Undefeated created a photo gallery of inspiring portraits of the boxer that spanned key moments in his life.
Muhammad Ali came from a time when other prominent African-Americans were speaking out against the Vietnam War and playing a part in the civil rights movement. Senior Editor Danielle Cadet described him as being a part of a wave of athletes that have come and gone in terms of their comfort levels in speaking out on issues outside of their sports. The next wave had the Michael Jordans and the Shaquille O’Neals who remained somewhat quiet on the tough issues of their time. “But now we have a new generation of athletes – the Carmelo Anthonys, the LeBron James, the Colin Kaepernicks – who are really getting involved. There are also those who may not be kneeling during the National Anthem but who are still having the conversations [around race and diversity] and working in their communities. Take that whole formula and it makes for a perfect setting for The Undefeated,” said Cadet.
“The Undefeated represents the spirit of the African-American culture. We get knocked down and we get back up,” explained Brent Lewis, senior photo editor. The name itself explains the mission and defines what makes a story right for The Undefeated. Editor-in-Chief Merida commented that it’s not always obvious what an “Undefeated story” is from afar. “Something might seem like an ordinary profile of a black athlete, but we show you a different side of the athlete. We get you to understand that athlete differently. To me that’s part of what needs to happen to change the conversation around race in this country. We need to see each other differently,” said Merida.
Take Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who first sat, then kneeled, during the National Anthem and caused a stir around the country. The Undefeated covered Kaepernick differently than other outlets who mostly wrote about the controversy. The Undefeated distinguished itself by going deeper into Kaepernick’s roots. “We went into why he did this, and asked what’s the thinking behind this. Police brutality, and the many reasons he did what he did, and how it started a movement,” said Lewis.
The other defining characteristic of an Undefeated story is the “swagger” that accompanies it, explained Cadet and Culture Lead Danyel Smith. “It’s easy to get comfortable in the news, so we have charged ourselves with being nonconventional and never boring,” said Cadet. And while topics like policing, incarceration, and deep racial tensions are important conversations to be had, The Undefeated also recognizes that people need positive, fun, and lighthearted news too. To keep the overall content balanced, The Undefeated publishes “The Uplift,” a column dedicated to good news. African-Americans have a tough history, we all know that, explained Smith. “The fabric of being a black American is being able to find the time to laugh even when times are painful and hard and you feel like you’re always turning on the television and hearing bad news,” said Cadet.
But that’s the bonus that comes with covering sports.”We’re affiliated with sports, and in sports, someone always wins,” added Cadet. There will always be an inspirational story out there. The site also goes so far as to incorporate subtle visual elements to align with its motivational messaging. When Serena Williams competed in the U.S. Open, The Undefeated held ‘Serena Williams Day,’ even after she lost, to emphasize that “defeat does not change greatness,” said Merida. Every author’s byline included a photo of Williams as a tribute to the African-American athlete who has accomplished so much in the sport of tennis.
And thus, it always circles back to sports. But while ESPN dominates in the athletics world, it didn’t necessarily have a hand in culture and politics. “People aren’t expecting ESPN to go there,” said Merida, which is where The Undefeated comes in. Though the journalism venture takes advantage of the distribution platforms the network has, it also plans to keep growing from there and to find new audiences – readers interested in the racial and cultural discussions who then take a new interest in sports. Because, as Lewis explained, “Sports is a link to many things.” It’s a unifier. And in this case, The Undefeated provides that link and unifier for ESPN, for athletes, and for diverse audiences across the country to have the tough conversations around race that are needed to move our country forward.
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