ESPN analyst Maria Taylor made headlines in June when she criticized New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees for quickly backtracking on his original claim that players who took a knee during the national anthem were disrespecting the flag. During a June 5 appearance on ESPN’s “First Take,” the Georgia native questioned whether Brees’ apology was because of the backlash he received on social media.
“If you had been educated and forced to confront the issues, and, like I said, had empathy in your heart, then you would have known the Black experience is not easy, especially when 70% of your league is African-American and these are the conversations that you should have had,” Taylor said.
As millions of Americans and allies seek justice for Black victims killed as a result of police brutality, Taylor is using her influence to not only bring direct attention to these causes, but also joining forces with athletes and projects that directly benefit the Black community.
Yahoo Sports spoke with the “ESPN GameDay” co-host about how Black women in similar positions can use their platform for good, her new endeavor with LeBron James’ “More Than A Vote” campaign and what to expect when her “NBA Countdown” show returns next month.
Yahoo Sports: It's been a few weeks since your remarks on “First Take” went viral. What are the major character changes you've observed from colleagues, athletes and even peers?
Maria Taylor: Well, let me start off by mentioning that everything I said came from the heart. Since that segment, I believe people are beginning to understand that certain behaviors are no longer acceptable. The point I was trying to make is no matter your status on a team, you can’t be a leader of men and be ignorant of the issues affecting the Black community.
Some leagues consist of mostly black athletes and when they enter a game, their jersey doesn’t void their skin color. Now is the time for everyone to stop and consider what they’re allowing peers to say around them and whether it’s constructive or destructive. As a former student-athlete, it’s imperative coaches listen to their players and evaluate their own behaviors based on the feedback received. This movement is all about accountability, no matter who you are and the position you hold.
YS: The current energy in the Black Lives Matter movement is extraordinary. If it already hasn't, how do you see it permanently transitioning to sports and what is your response to the "stick to sports" agenda?
MT: We’re seeing this wonderful surge of athletes steadily finding their voice and using their influence to enact change. We’re also seeing them leverage their social media following to bring attention to major concerns. Chuba Hubbard proved that you don’t have to be the most famous athlete in the world to use your platform for good. Changemakers like LeBron James, Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins gave way for that trickle-down effect and now NCAA players are discovering they also have an important role to play in the fight for racial justice. For so long, voices and feelings have been stifled. Now, players are holding these serious conversations and keeping decision-makers accountable.
YS: Being a woman, especially a Black woman in sports comes with criticism, as you experienced when you spoke out against Brees. What advice would you offer to a Black woman developing her own career in sports and how would you encourage her to speak up even if she might feel outnumbered?
MT: If you don't speak up for yourself, you're giving up on the next generation of Black women. Sometimes it's really hard because it may only be you taking a stand. However, keep in mind you’re fighting hundreds of years of oppression and prejudices.
Think of it in the context of a dam you're trying to break down.
I echo my colleague Jalen Rose who made this argument before my “First Take” segment: Right now, the Black community needs me more than I need this job. It’s never easy being the only Black person in a room, especially navigating who you can trust. Being a Black woman in corporate America, you feel like you're on a fence. You’re constantly walking that fine line of being too Black or perhaps not Black enough.
So, I wouldn’t focus on being outnumbered and instead concentrate on becoming a change-maker.
YS: The NBA is set to make a return later this month, along with the return of your “NBA Countdown” program. What sets your show apart?
MT: We spark constructive dialogue with strong athletes who are serious about social justice. Now more than ever, we believe it’s important to discuss how they manage to accomplish those endeavors while also playing. We’ll continue to hold the league accountable and ensure they practice what they preach for seasons to come. Of course, we’ll also be analyzing the game with special guests. This isn’t just a moment in time, it’s a movement. So, I’m extremely humbled to be a part of something driven by the energy of Black individuals.
YS: You signed on to participate in LeBron James’ new initiative More Than a Vote. Why was it important to lend your voice to this particular initiative?
MT: Being from Georgia, voter suppression hits very close to home since we’ve encountered issues with this in previous general elections and earlier this month during Georgia’s primary. From having enough polling stations to properly training volunteers to be prepared, there were several concerns. Through this campaign, we want to reenergize the Black vote and dedicate the time and energy to promising Black people that their vote matters. When suppression occurs, it leads to many in the Black community wondering if it’s even worth it to cast a ballot. Through More Than A Vote, we’ll continue to push the narrative that we can make substantial change if we all work together.
YS: You co-founded a non-profit, the Winning Edge Leadership Academy, five years ago. What was the reason behind starting it and what they do to help the next generation of diverse leaders in sports, entertainment and mentorship?
MT: This has been my brain child for half a decade and the timing of our mission couldn’t be more perfect. As both employees of ESPN, my co-founder Corinne Milien felt the same way about being the only Black woman working in these predominantly white spaces. Students who participated in our Academy felt the same way. When we developed the idea for our organization, we were set on collecting diverse talent and helping them develop a pathway to success. Some of the students we work with are first-generation college graduates who never received training or advice on how to build a resume or even do an elevator pitch. By partnering with brands and other leaders who look like them, we’re out to prove that representation matters.
Pass Her the Mic is a series by Yahoo Sports that profiles Black women at the intersection of sports and race, discussing various topics ranging from racial injustice to athlete activism.
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