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Stuart Scott–sports, ESPN and racism

Stuart Scott accepting ESPY award in July 2014.
Stuart Scott accepting ESPY award in July 2014.

Though I love science, though I love learning about how science is smashing through the barriers of ignorance about our natural universe, sports is my first love. I absorb every statistic I can–I pour over scores, and I can’t wait until polls are out. And nothing feeds this addiction better than ESPN, a U.S.-based global cable and satellite television channel that is owned mostly by the Walt Disney Company, with the Hearst Corporation as a minority owner.

I first got ESPN on my cable system was in the late 1980’s. This was important, because I was just getting into a Fantasy Baseball League, and since this was the pre-internet era, getting sports information to beat your opponents was important. I stayed up to watch for late scores, lineup changes, injuries, and whatever else that might give me an advantage.

As some people may be addicted to the Walking Dead or Downton Abbey, I am addicted to all five or six ESPN channels. The sportscasters that anchored (or currently anchor) ESPN’s primetime show, SportsCenter, became almost part of my family. I loved their catchphrases, and I would share them with co-workers (sports is a big topic of conversation in the pharmaceutical industry, as everyone in management comes from a different area of the country with different colleges and pro teams as favorites).

One of ESPN’s most iconic sportscasters was Stuart Scott, who died of appendix cancer on Sunday. The cancer was discovered a few years ago during a relatively routine emergency appendectomy, where he actually had to leave a football broadcast to go to the hospital.

Over the past seven years, Scott had battled his cancer publicly. The cancer went into remission twice, and twice it returned. He tried to treat cancer like a dog. Sit! Stay. But I guess it didn’t listen.

When Stuart Scott started on ESPN over 20 years ago, I instantly loved his broadcasts. He anchored the 1AM (Eastern) show, which may seem like the backwoods of sports programming, but it was only 10PM on the west coast, so it’s the show many of us watched, because almost every game in sports was over by that time.

Scott was passionate about sports of all kinds. He was hysterically funny, with some of the best catch phrases in sports, some of which had become part of every day speech. “Boo-yah” was his iconic exclamation to just about anything exciting (usually good) in a highlighted play.

Scott was different, but for me, it was in a good way. He made hip-hop references that went over my head (though, because of it, there are literally hundreds of hip-hop songs on my iPhone). He was very brash, but anyone who reads this blog must know that I think brash is a superior characteristic of human behavior. He was intelligent. He made you want to watch sports that you never would watch.

I used to travel a whole bunch in my career, and I would sit next to many people who would be considered “famous.” Rock stars. Politicians. Sports figures. Porn stars (yes, that’s another story). Actors and actresses. Writers. And once, I sat next to Stuart Scott.

I have a policy about traveling. Don’t annoy your seat mate. Don’t talk about anything because they might be shy or tired or cranky. Or like me, I had a boatload of reading and studying to do, so I really had no time for conversation (even with the porn star). But I was tired of reading medical articles, so I opened up a sports magazine, and Scott immediately asked me about the article I was reading. We ended up talking for about an hour about sports. I never asked him about ESPN or anything, but we were arguing about the relatively merits of our two college’s prospects for the upcoming season. And even though I’m a devout fan of the sport, he knew more than I could ever know. I was humbled.

Stuart Scott was also black. I don’t know if I’m clueless or enlightened (or a little bit of both), but when I watched Scott on ESPN, he was just Stuart Scott, racial identity irrelevant. He was hip. He used a wonderful turn of phrase. He was unique. I noticed that in person and on the TV. If Stuart Scott was a friend of mine, he’d be the cool, hip, fashionable guy to my full-on nerd self.

But he apparently he was polarizing, something I didn’t know until yesterday. Yes, I’m clueless.

Unfortunately, while reading the obituaries and memorials to Stuart Scott, I read something disturbing. He was subject to racism and hatred from parts of the audience. In the early days of Scott’s anchoring ESPN broadcasts, there wasn’t much of an internet, so people would actually write letters, put a stamp on it, and send it by mail to ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut. How antiquated.

Much of the mail was sent in by anonymous racists who threaten to harm him for being on ESPN. Apparently, Scott would reply to every letter with an actual return address, trying to address the writers’ concerns, though I’m not sure if there’s an effective way to communicate with racists.

Since I took my first genetics class in graduate school many years ago, I knew that there was minimal genetic differences between the human “races” (a completely irrelevant, unscientific and arbitrary terminology). There are slight phenotypic differences between these so-called races, which are inconsequential. Racism is simply hatred based on nothing. Well, history is littered with that.

Sports should be one area of society where racism is irrelevant. Black, Latino, European, Pacific Islander, Caribbean, Asian and others play major roles in all of the major sports across the world. I could care less if my favorite team’s quarterback is black, white or martian, I just want him to hit passes accurately, and not get crushed by a 150 kg linebacker.

But I guess there are regions of the USA and probably the whole world, where people aren’t as enlightened. Southern US college football and basketball did not become integrated, with African American players, until the early-1970’s, just a couple of decades prior to Stuart Scott debuting on ESPN. It’s horrific that someone as talented, ambitious and respected as Stuart Scott was the target of racism and hatred.

Stuart Scott overcame it, because the best way to show a racist how completely irrelevant they are is by ignoring them and being successful. And Stuart Scott was that. In two decades, he grew to be one of the most highly regarded sports journalists at ESPN. He had interviews with two US Presidents, Clinton and Obama. He was lead anchor for ESPN’s NFL and NBA broadcasts.

In the end, we can define Stuart Scott not by his race, whatever it was. We define him by his love of his two daughters. We define him by his bravery in battling cancer. We define him by the outpouring of genuine love on camera from his coworkers and managers at ESPN. We define him by his knowledge and passion for sports. That’s how he will be defined by me, not by the color of his skin, which is nothing more than a random combination of genes with no relevance to anything important.

For me, I could not be more impressed by his ongoing quest to defeat his cancer. He did not turn to some strange alternative treatment, he stuck with standard ones, and even joining a clinical trial for a new drug. He had access to one of the most impressive group of cancer specialists, who sit on the medical board of the V Foundation for Cancer Research, one of the best cancer research foundations out there, who only provide funding to real cancer centers with real science based medicine research.

Jimmy Valvano, a popular college basketball coach and sports broadcaster, started the V Foundation, gave an awe-inspiring speech during the ESPY awards, a kind of self-congratulatory ESPN sports awards show for everyone involved with sports and ESPN, just a couple of months before dying of cancer. Some of his words (the whole speech is amazing), “Don’t give up, don’t ever give up,” form the motto of the V Foundation.

Similarly, one of my favorite quotes from Stuart Scott was not one of his iconic sports catchphrases (my favorite-“cooler than the other side of the pillow”)–it was about his battle for cancer.

During the 2014 ESPY awards, Stuart Scott was given a special ESPY, the Jimmy V Perseverance Award, named in honor of Jimmy Valvano. Again, Scott’s whole speech was inspirational, emotional, and genuine. At the end, he said:

When you die, that does not mean you lose to cancer, you beat cancer by how you live, why you live and the manner in which you live.

Stuart Scott beat cancer, because of the life he lead. He will be missed.


Michael Simpson
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