From its humble roots as the upstart sports-only network from little Bristol, ESPN has risen to become the omnipotent Worldwide Leader in all things sports – for better and for worse.
This is why most sports fans, including myself, have strong opinions, good and bad, about almost everything to do with the network. Some people love Chris Berman, some people can’t stand him. Some people love Stuart Scott, some people – Boo-ya! – do not. In fact, I dare you to find a serious sports fan who is ambivalent about ESPN or its cavalcade of personalities.
The network’s indefatigable exposure, ubiquitous access, and roster of ex-jocks-turned-talking-heads, have created a scenario in which is difficult for any of its prominent on-air stars to fly under the radar.
Difficult, but not impossible.
One such person who has flown under the radar is the articulate, versatile, and exceedingly competent Rachel Nichols. On a network that often seems to favor style over substance and even ratings over right (Exhibit A: The Decision), Nichols and her work consistently stand out.
Nichols does it all for ESPN: from stadium reports on Sunday mornings, to plum assignments like covering the NBA Finals, to riveting feature stories on E:60, and even, yes, covering Brett Favre’s offseason soap opera. In a business where women unfairly but inevitably face an uphill battle for respect, Nichols has earned it, quite simply, because she is very, very good at what she does and so clearly loves the sports she covers – all of them.
She is also unpretentious, yet another quality that makes her unique in the Around the Horn era of shouting sports media. Athletes and the people who cover them for a living sometimes seem to forget that without the fans, who buy the tickets and consume the news, neither group would be in business. Nichols has never forgotten this because she herself is still just a sports fan at heart.
Recently, Nichols, an East Coast native but a graduate of Northwestern, took the time to answer some questions so that you and I can get to know her better. Without further ado, I present to you our exchange.
What sports did you play growing up?
A little bit of everything – mostly lots of soccer teams. My mother probably had to cut up an unfortunate amount of orange slices when I was a kid.
What ultimately made you decide to study journalism and when did you know that you wanted to pursue a career on the sports side of it?
I knew pretty early. I was on the school paper back in junior high and never really stopped. From the beginning, sports seemed like the best gig to me. As a kid, the idea that people got paid to follow sports for a living seemed like getting paid to go to recess. Actually, as an adult, I still think that sometimes.
You graduated before the Internet was anywhere close to what it is now. How would your education as a journalism student be different, do you think, if you were at Northwestern today?
I would have had a better sense ahead of time of how cold it is in Chicago!
Of course, the Internet has changed everything. It’s made us better reporters in so many ways – so much more prepared for interviews with the amount of research materials available, so much more information at our finger tips. However, it also lets people be lazier with fact checking if they want to be, and because there are fewer barriers to publishing – you don’t need a whole printing press or television station anymore – there are fewer people responsible for the information that gets published, and that in turn means fewer checks and balances.
I hope all of that means that in journalisms schools today, professors are trying to give young journalists even more of a sense of responsibility than ever before. The words in their reports now travel faster, get repeated more often…and yet have fewer people backstopping them to make sure they don’t make mistakes – that’s a heavy burden, and it’s a tough thing to teach, I’m sure.
Your old Washington Post bio is still online and it says that one of the lessons you learned in Evanston was “how many layers of Gortex are required for a garment to officially be called a parka.” Since many of our readers suffer through frigid winters, please tell us the empirical results of your study…how many layers?
So I guess it’s obvious I’m a little obsessed with the weather, right?
Here’s the background: a couple years before I attended Northwestern as an undergrad, I attended a several-week summer program there, for high school students. I fell in love with this beautiful, leafy school on the shores of Lake Michigan…it even had its own beach and sailing/windsurfing facility right on campus. I mean, how cool was that, right?
Therefore it became a family joke when in January of my freshman year I called home, upset that not only was it frigid but I hadn’t seen a single ray of sunlight in more than a week – apparently I was smart enough to get into Northwestern, but not smart enough to know ahead of time the latitude of Chicago on a map.
Of course, I very quickly fell completely in love with Northwestern, Evanston and Chicago – and toughened up enough to even start enjoying the winters – but it’s been a fun punchline ever since.
In one sentence, why is a Big Ten education the best experience a college student can have?
I can only speak for my Big Ten school, but it was a great combination of academics, fun social stuff, and then everything Big Ten athletics has to offer. (Plus, my brothers went to Michigan and Wisconsin, which has given us lots of opportunities for name-calling on football Saturdays in the years since.)
Where does your versatile sports knowledge come from? Have you always been able to speak competently about all sports or is it something you’ve had to develop because of your varied assignments?
This is the stuff I’m genuinely interested in and curious about – so it hasn’t taken any real ‘cultivating.’ I’ve always read as much, watched as much and talked as much sports as possible – so it’s a nice bonus that all that has led to me being better at my job.
Earlier in your career, was there a story or series of stories that you look back on as your “break” or the moment where you felt, and others felt, that you’d arrived?
Covering the Olympics always seemed like a very romantic idea to me when I was younger – I guess the way news journalists feel about being a foreign correspondent. The folks at the Washington Post were generous enough to send me to several, and those were all pretty amazing. Standing on top of a mountain in Nagano, Japan, or by the sea in Sydney, Australia, as the Games went on around me felt like real markers to me.
When I hear Washington Post, so many big names come to mind. Was there anyone in particular that mentored you or that you learned the most from? Any specific words of wisdom that come to mind?
Everyone. Seriously. I can’t say enough good things about my experience there, and it was solely because of the people. It was a family environment, period, and I consider it one of the great fortunes of my professional life that I got to be a part of it.
What is your personal view of sports blogs and the role they play in the overall sports conversation? Is it a net positive or negative?
Blogging as an idea is a good one. Just like books as an idea…definitely good. And there are some great, great books. That being said, there are definitely bad books. Some people supposedly write non-fiction books, but it turns out they have a heavy hidden agenda, their sourcing is crappy and they distort the facts. Same with blogs. But I wouldn’t ever not want there to be books…also same with blogs.
You are an avid tweeter (@Rachel__Nichols), as are many of your colleagues. How has Twitter changed how you personally do your job? Has it made things easier or more complicated?
One of the goals in journalism is to present a story with as little of a filter as possible…so the viewer or reader feels he/she is right there at the game, or alongside the athlete as he goes about his day. With Twitter, there’s no filter at all – I’m a big fan of that.
E:60 is one of my favorite shows that ESPN has ever done and you’ve been a major part of its success. How did the idea for E:60 come about? What feature that you produced did you enjoy the most?
Thanks! It’s a terrific show to work on. E:60 was the brainchild of John Skipper (he’s ESPN’s executive vice president). I can’t really pick a favorite piece – we’ve done so many great ones. But one of the things I like the most about E60 is that the guy who runs the show, Andy Tennant, has such a genuinely open mind. That definitely doesn’t mean he greenlights everything – far from it – but none of the doors are closed before you even start walking down the hallway, so to speak. And I think that’s reflected in the rich variety that ends up on-screen.
Photo source: ESPN via AllAmericanPatriots.com
What sporting event would you recommend to fans as one they absolutely have to have on their bucket list?
There was a time when I would have said a big-time heavyweight prizefight in Vegas – and I’m not even particularly a boxing fan. But I was at the Tyson-Holyfield fight where Tyson bit off Holyfield’s ear, and the thing is…it was a million-watt night even before the ear thing happened. I do think the “it” factor of those fights is gone now, though – and a lot of times even the Super Bowl can be a dud once you get to the game itself.
So I guess I’d say if you’re making a list, make it as much about the places as the event…see Wimbledon. See Wrigley. See Madison Square Garden and Augusta and yes, the new Cowboys Stadium, if only to watch that scoreboard.
Once again, my thanks to Rachel for taking the time to answer my questions.
In closing, I will leave you with a series of recent E:60 reports showing Rachel’s versatility in action. The first is an E:60 profile about Jeb Corliss, a wingsuit flyer who wants to land a jump without a parachute.
Next, we have Rachel’s report on recent Nationals #1 pick Bryce Harper, back when he was just the greatest high school baseball player in the world.
Here is Rachel’s report about the intensity of Larry Fitzgerald’s offseason workouts:
And finally, the riveting story of Kaleb Eulls, a 14-year old football player from Mississippi who disarmed a girl with a gun on a bus full of kids.