The Significance of Stuart Scott
The longtime ESPN anchor and UNC grad broke ground by being who he was
In 2002, five years before the cancer diagnosis, NPR’s “On the Media” profiled ESPN SportsCenter anchor Stuart Scott. The story’s hook was Scott’s distinctive writing and speaking style during highlights—”the language and rhythm of old-school rap,” as reporter Bob Garfield says on the show—and his explanation of how it came about:
BOB GARFIELD: Scott calls writing the most fun part of the job. Like many fabled sportscasters before him, Scott has Southern roots, but his are a little different. He was born on Chicago’s black South Side. His family moved to a mostly white neighborhood in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, when he was 7.
STUART SCOTT: Most of our friends were white. In the South we experienced, you know, some black kids who gave us a hard time because “you talk white.” We didn’t talk white. We talked fairly proper. Plus we had a Midwestern accent, so we didn’t have a Southern accent either. So it wasn’t really talking white; it was talking different.
BOB GARFIELD: Scott’s difference from expectations—white and black—have made him a standout, even among ESPN’s quirky anchor corps. It’s also made him a target. [SOUNDS OF ANSWERING SYSTEM]
STUART SCOTT: I got this the other day—
WOMAN: To erase this message, press 7.
STUART SCOTT: —just to hear—: [BEEP TONE]
MAN: You’re such a douche bag, man. Why don’t you stop being a nigger on the air, OK, brother? Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. West Coast calling you out, man. You’re a punk. Later.
STUART SCOTT: Had a black guy call me one time—he, he said, you know, he didn’t appreciate, you know, all you’re trying to do is drag our race down and using, you know, improper language and, you know, talking street slang, you know—we’re better than that. All right, man—we’re better than that. That’s not going to make me change what I do and how I do it.
Scott died this morning of cancer at 49, and the tributes are flooding in from all corners—from ESPN, where he worked for 21 years; from NFL Network, where his longtime SportsCenter partner Rich Eisen offered an incredibly raw and moving remembrance; from WRAL-TV in Raleigh, where the UNC graduate worked for three years before moving to ESPN.
They remembered Scott’s personal legacy—as a devoted father to two daughters, Taelor and Sydni, and uncommonly brave cancer patient and advocate—and also credited him with being “a new voice for a new time,” as the ESPN piece said without directly defining either the voice or time. “He had a very strong conviction about who he wanted to be on TV, the audience he wanted to represent, and the voice he was going to have,” said his ESPN colleague Suzy Kolber.
There’s no need to tiptoe around what that means. Scott was the first mainstream American sports broadcaster to reflect—unabashedly, unapologetically—the culture of young, urban African-Americans.
Scott wasn’t the first prominent black sportscaster—James Brown, John Saunders, and Bryant and Gregg Gumbel preceded him—but he was the first to openly embrace the style and attitude of his particular culture, one that hadn’t been represented in sports broadcasting before the early 1990s. And he managed to do it without compromising his dignity or professionalism or denigrating anyone else's style or attitude, no small feat. “Watching him as a black man, hearing things that I talk about with my other friends … and feeling like, ‘OK, I’m part of the conversation now,’” said Jay Harris, another SportsCenter anchor. Scott’s mere presence on the set announced to an entire segment of the American populace that they had a place at this table, too.
Which, of course, rankled in some quarters. Scott fielded criticism that he was a grandstander, that he tried to make SportsCenter about him, that his catchphrases—”Boo-yah!” and “cool as the other side of the pillow”—were demonstrations of flash over substance, that he was what the voice mail guy said he was. Even as social media made him even more of a target, he learned how to roll with the nastiness, as he explained in an interview for a photography website (!) two years ago (the relevant section runs from 6:34 to 9:16):
“‘I don’t know you. What do I care?’ Do you think something somebody says is going to bother me? I’m trying to raise a teenager! … I want to show [his daughters] that this is how you respond to negativity. You rise above it.”
And so he did—above the limitations of his disease, above the labels people tried to paste to him, above the hip lingo that for so long defined him to people who thought of him as just another sportscaster.
You can’t watch his ESPY acceptance speech from July without being moved by not only his bravery but his honesty—acknowledging his physical weakness, the real risk that he wouldn’t be able to attend the ceremony. “I’m not special,” he said that night, and while most of us now would surely disagree with him, he meant that the strength he found in himself and his loved ones was something we all could find in ourselves if we tried. There was no sense then and none now to paint him, or anyone else struggling through this world, as heroic; it’s good enough to be human, to be who you are, to keep it real.