This is a tale of courage; personal and professional. It explains how a skinny kid from North Carolina, not named Jordan, disrupted and changed the dominant sports network. It describes two ways of dealing with a similar issue: one effective, one, not so much. This is my tribute to Stuart Scott of ESPN, who died last week at age 49. Booyah!
First, though, I have to explain the use of the word to the unfamiliar. Booyah, like Hooah, is a word used by land soldier, Army and Marines, to exclaim, among other things, “Mission Accomplished”. However, it is used widely by the warrior class to express excitement. It has since been brought home by returning troops to a wide swath of cultural groups. How else do you explain its embrace by revelers in a Kentucky tavern, by “ballers” in the Rucker League in Manhattan, by Jim Cramer on his stock picking show on MSNBC and by Al Pacino on the dance floor in The Scent of a Woman? And, Booyah became the signature catch phrase of Stuart Scott.
In the late 1990’s ESPN was beginning its explosive growth arc and establishing itself as a cultural anchor. Its signature property, SportsCenter, was becoming a “must watch” for the sports cognoscenti and fans. The formula included in-depth coverage of most sports, a stable of talented, mostly white male, smart-alecs as anchors, and lots of irreverence, inside jokes and boyish horse-play. It was not very welcoming to outsiders.
Recognizing that there was an urban audience of color that was under-represented on camera, in 1993 the network honchos hired a glib, talented former Tarheel to anchor periodic five minute look-ins called SportsMash. And Scott did not disappoint. In an era when broadcasters used trite clichés or cute catch phrases like “Holy Toledo”, or “Whoa, Nellie” Scott brought in marginal playground trash-talking and the urban patois. He said some athletes were “cooler than the other side of a pillow”, and “just call him butter ‘cause he’s on a roll”. I had to smile once when I heard him channel Public Enemy’s Chuck D and cried out “hear the drummer get wicked!”
As important to the words he used was his cadence. Only those of us who have needed to communicate orally to publics truly can appreciate an artist of spoken tempo and pace. You could detect in his presentations the rhythms of black churches and their preachers; the call-and-response of Christian catechism; the verbal jabs of one-on-one basketball; the argot of urban barbershops and beauty parlors in the basements of private residences. And, he changed the on-air descriptive vocabulary of sporting events and athletes. And, it was beautiful.
When we were introduced in the lobby of ESPN’s studios, we fist-bumped and I told him how much I enjoyed the way he plied his craft. He smiled ruefully and said not everyone shared my view. By then he had been promoted to the SportsCenter anchor desk and partnered with Rich Eisen.
While I was trying to steer Major League Soccer through the shoals of the late 90’s, I wound up in a confrontation with some top executives of ESPN. The network was one of our broadcast partners in the early years, yet, I could not get them to cover the sport or our league to the degree I thought warranted. A particular irritant was the lack of coverage on SportsCenter. After one of my tirades I remember someone at the network commenting that didn’t I know that Latino men didn’t watch the show and there was no interest among “real Americans”. My view that they had an internal bias was reinforced when, in their inaugural issue, ESPNtheMagazine ran a tennis story by Curry Kirkpatrick where he called a Latino player a “greaser”.
This mini-feud peaked when DC United won a major international competition against a top South American team. ESPN did not cover the match. I personally called the network from the stadium and offered a video melt-down of the highlights for airing. I was totally ignored.
That week I let my anger get the best of me and wrote an incendiary letter that I revealed publicly. My choice of words could have been more temperate. It, of course, only won me greater animosity, a rebuke from some of my Board members and only a minute increase in coverage. In short, the only thing I did was to vent my spleen and wounded ego.
Around that same time Scott was called in to the office of an ESPN network executive and was criticized for the way he was anchoring the show. The executive told him he was “using language that most of his audience did not understand”, and told him to “tone it down”.
Scott then took to his weekly written column [I think it was called Holla] and wrote an amazing tongue-in-cheek piece commending his bosses for having the courage to let him express himself in the language of the young and the disenfranchised. Instead of attacking them he praised them! He wisely understood that after writing that laudatory essay there was no way they could shackle or censor him. Check mate. Booyah! He then continued his remarkable career.
In the last seven years Stuart Scott has given us a gift. He has allowed us to watch him die. He has taught us a thing or two about dignity. We saw the ravages of cancer on a daily basis as his body and voice weakened, as he lost weight. Yet he dragged himself to the desk, whether in the studio or on the Monday Night Football sideline and gave us a periodic dose of beautiful prose. Three bouts of the ravages of this awful disease, sapping therapies, remissions and setbacks. And, through it all, his character and spirit shone. Stoicism through adversity is still one of the characteristics I admire the most. And, he taught me lessons.
About Doug Logan
He was also the CEO, President and Commissioner for Major League Soccer from 1995 to 1999.
To read more about his background and involvement in Track, Soccer, Rugby and the Music industry, read my Freelap Friday Five Interview.