- Programming note: Watch "Race in America: A Candid Conversation" Friday, Nov. 13 at 8 p.m. on NBC Sports Bay Area.
From the need for a cogent global pandemic response to the all too vivid illustrations of racial injustice, the alarms of this dreadful year have shoved America before a mirror in which its true reflection, long denied, finally is being acknowledged.
And confronted. Most of us detest what we’re seeing, which is what some experience on a daily basis. And sports, an alleged meritocracy, is susceptible to the toxins of inequality.
But it’s changing. When the NBA opened its 2019-20 season, there was one Black TV broadcast team, Eric Collins (play-by-play) and Dell Curry (analysis) with the Charlotte Hornets. Thirty teams. Seventy-five percent of the players are Black. One Black play-by-play announcer.
That number will be at least tripled when the 2020-21 season opens on Dec. 22. Within the past two weeks, both TV veteran Mark Jones (Sacramento Kings) and relative newcomer Jordan Kent (Portland Trail Blazers) will be the primary TV play-by-play voices.
It’s progress long overdue. Jones will work alongside Kings analyst Doug Christie, a former Sacramento star and a friend dating back to the 1990s, when Christie was a member of the New York Knicks and Jones was with ESPN.
Jones and Christie shared their thoughts as guests on “Race in America: A Candid Conversation,” seen Friday night at 8 p.m. on NBC Sports Bay Area.
“From a cultural standpoint, to be able to have so many different shared experiences,” Jones says. “When Doug and I talk about a certain player in the league – a league that consists of 75 percent African American/Black players – to know what they've been through what they're going through, and what they are carrying onto the court and beyond the court. To be able to live what they are living and to be able to verbalize that alongside Doug. To be able to have that kind of cultural synergy is really priceless.”
Jones will maintain his association with ESPN, which has lasted 30 years and for most of that time as one of only three Black national play-by-play voices, along with Gus Johnson and Greg Gumbel, in major American sports.
Jones seems particularly pleased about a future with more people who look like him.
“It's noticeable,” Jones says. “There are a lot of times where you walk into a media room or walk into a certain NBA city and you are the singular, sole person of color in the room. At times, it will give you hesitation. At times. Through the years in my 30 years of broadcasting, you learn to work through that. And there are times where there are feelings of intellectual isolation, cultural isolation, where you may want to bounce something off of somebody regarding a story that might be intrinsically or culturally African American and there might not be anyone to bounce it off of.”
The additions of Jones and Kent, who previously was a studio host for NBC Sports Northwest, is a clear attempt by NBC to address the lack of diversity across its platforms. Building a workforce representative not only of its subjects but also the broad demographics of America seems a wise and reasonable objective.
Christie is looking forward to working with a partner and friend who doesn’t flinch at expressing progressive views on air and on social media.
“We got to know each other really well; I know his family,” Christie says. “But from a cultural standpoint, it is tremendous because of the conversations, understanding where Mark has been, Mark understanding where I've been. Those things are vitally important. Is it important to have it on the other side of the fence? Yes, because now I can educate at the same time. But now, Mark and I can educate together.”
Jones and Christie in short, accomplish three goals: To deliver quality broadcasts, to eradicate any latent bias within the audience and to show the possibilities available to aspiring announcers of color – and maybe even eliminate barriers such as that faced by Jones as a fledgling sports anchor in the late 1980s in his hometown of Toronto.
“In late May of 1990, I met with one of my bosses at TSN,” Jones recalls. “I said, ‘Hey, here's my play-by-play tape. I want you to listen to it.’ And he listened to it. The next day we had lunch and he said, ‘You’re not ready. I don't think you're ready to play-by-play. I don't think you're ready to be an anchor at ESPN and ABC.’ And I nodded my head and I listened. I said, ‘OK, thanks.’
“And two weeks later. I had signed my contract with ESPN and ABC.”
Jones didn’t mention his old boss by name. No need to. All too often, for far too long, opportunities were denied not only by individuals but also entire industries.