Over the past week, many sports fan friends have asked me about the late, great Stuart Scott, as I worked at ESPN for nearly seven years, two decades ago. I expected that response to his passing. What I didn't expect was the questions from a number of non-sports fan friends who have never watched a SportsCenter or even ESPN (yes they exist!). Who was he? What was he like? Was he worthy of all these tributes? Did he really deserve a presidential statement?
While Stuart and I worked in relatively close proximity on the same floor for about three years, we were involved in separate units and projects most of that time. We exchanged pleasantries in passing and talked enthusiastically about the various sports events of the day, but that was about it. He was a fledgling member of the talent corps; I had just been promoted into management the year before, the first woman in that position with my own challenges and insecurities. He lay on the "cool side of the pillow" in the ESPN newsroom -- and I did not. Still his impact on me in the years since has been significant for several reasons, some of which translate into lessons for all those in any professional workplace and not just those of sports journalists.
Stuart showed up at ESPN in August of 1993 bringing with him, as the anchor Jay Harris noted, the language of hip-hop as well as the "barber shop, the church, R&B, soul music." So was the sports world ready? Eight or nine months prior to Stuart's arrival, I worked with a group of ESPN journalists on an Outside the Lines on racism in sports, "Portraits in Black & White," which won an Emmy. It was a pre-Tiger, pre-Serena, and pre-Michael-and-Magic owning a team world. At that time, there were no Division I-A black football coaches (there had been a handful previously). No black person had ever been a General Manager in the NFL. Not one had held majority ownership in a professional team. No African American had won a major championship in golf, a career grand slam in Tennis or an Olympic Winter Gold medal.
And what about attitudes? Only five years before the airing of "Portraits in Black & White," the late Al Campanis, a Dodgers executive at the time, had made his infamous remarks on ABC Nightline that African Americans "may not have some of the necessities" to be a field manager or a general manager. In fact, in our show, the late Art Modell, the owner of the then Cleveland Browns, asked our viewers "to remember" that African Americans were only 11 percent of the population, in response to a query about their low numbers in the front office and managerial positions. And that's what was said on-camera.
So, while we reported on the challenges for African Americans moving into leadership positions in the dugouts, sidelines, front offices and owners' boxes, Stuart was shortly to craft his first copy in his unique voice on the same floor. While we were talking about individuals of one generation trying to get to the table, he was about to show the next generation that you could speak in your own language at that table. Once an individual arrives in most professional settings, the expectation is often "conform to the norm" as opposed to "inform the norm" with other influences and experiences. As a woman who has sat at various tables in my own professional career (and has conformed more than I care to admit), the difference resonates deeply with me. While some conformity may be necessary, too much can hurt the overall product and make everyone less rich for the experience. That "soul" which Stuart brought to his work and lives within so many others, can be erased.
I now work for a Silicon Valley start-up that builds digital communities for the enterprise around key initiatives (e.g., veteran hiring). The best online communities are those organized around content and topics of mutual interest with members from diverse backgrounds. Healthy conflict and unique perspectives drive the best engagement. In the sports world, that could translate into the "Who is better?" debates of LeBron vs. Michael Jordan or Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning. Where would we be if everyone came down on one side or the other?
Yet in our offline professional communities, we often expect such unanimity. In Silicon Valley, when a refugee from the Fortune 500 joins a start-up and draws on his corporate experience for examples or jargon, the reaction can be brutal. Or vice versa. To me, Stuart's legacy for all professionals shows that by allowing your colleagues to evaluate your product through their different prisms, it will make the product better as well as expand the market to new users. And perhaps make you a better professional in the process.
I saw Stuart in person for the last time several years after I left ESPN. I was working with a start-up that had the online rights to the Little League (it eventually became the Active Network). We were at the Bart Giamatti Little League Center in Bristol, CT, right down the street from ESPN. By this time, Stuart had become a popular and established presence. He showed up with his daughters (one just a baby) and watched a game, simply as a fan. The Little League officials were surprised and touched. Despite the proximity of ESPN to the facility, on-air talent did not just come to games on their free time. This occurred long before his cancer diagnosis as well as the advent of social media. There were no Tweets, Facebook posts or Instagrams to record that day. But I bet there exist a number of hard copy photos in albums and frames in the homes of those now-grown-up players.
So I say yes to all my friends, Stuart was worthy of all those tributes and statements and more. I wish that I had shared my challenges with him at some point when we passed each other in the hall. I didn't have his thick skin or confidence--and I certainly didn't have his "cool." Still, I believe that I would have received useful insights. He transitioned with amazing grace from the hip young anchor to the established presence to the revered institution in front of us all. It's just so sad that we couldn't see him make that final transition to elder statesman.