A Conversation with ESPN: How the Company is Elevating Their Diversity Standards

We spoke with ESPN executive editor Rob King and Director of DE&I Wokie Daboh

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When it comes to the topic of diversity, there’s always a lot of conversations and promises, but at a certain point it becomes less about what you are saying and more about what you are actually doing to have an impact. ESPN has put together the pieces to make sure diversity and inclusivity are a regular part of their hiring practices, along with working to provide an environment where conversations on diversity are ones that are regularly had. We spoke with ESPN executive editor Rob King and Director of DE&I Wokie Daboh for an in-depth conversation on what the company is doing behind the scenes to ensure diversity is always at the forefront.

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ONE37pm: Great to be chatting with you two! Rob, let’s start with you. You’ve been with ESPN since 2004. How have you seen the company evolve in terms of diversity since then?

King: I think during the time I’ve been here we’ve brought a lot of folks in and not only have we upped our game in terms of training and the way we speak about diversity and inclusion, but we’ve had a lot of work in terms of trying to be more representative in terms of the audiences we serve. I’ve been very close to a lot of conversations where it was clear that we all have a lot to learn from one another. I’ve had to point to things we’ve put on the air or online that were absolutely fantastic, and there have been things that were not so great. ESPN has always risen above things like that, and we’ve done a lot of work over the past four years—even before George Floyd’s murder.

We’ve had a lot of conversations not just about what we’re doing, but who gets to do the work, and how we can identify people that should be lifted up in the roles where they can make a real difference. Also when I first started here in 2004, I got a lot of questions about what we should or shouldn’t do because there were fewer of us, and that doesn’t happen so much anymore. There’s many people sharing the same space in terms of who can be there for one another as we try to tell stories that are representative of the world.

ONE37pm: How involved have you been in that process?

King: Well very! Sometimes I like to joke that it’s my full-time job that I can’t really take a vacation from. It’s the job that I have when I’m taking my kids to school, at the grocery store, and walking on the street. Directly there are things I’ve been a part of that have been a great assistance for us. We helped bring in a group called the Inclusive Content Committee, which is now up to 22 leaders of our content chair, plus people who volunteer across ESPN just to sit together, pitch stories, offer feedback, and be a resource for anybody who makes content here.

We have a lot people involved in both our smaller and major productions whether it’s the NFL or NBA Draft, or right about now where we’re getting ready to go into the NFL Combine where there’s all these words and tropes that our used to describe black athletes, or the inevitable comparisons between the White and Black quarterbacks. These are active conversations in terms of how we show up in ways that are thoughtful. The Inclusive Content Committee has been around now for two years, and it’s full of people who are committed to this, be it our content group or our marketing group.

They all love storytelling, love this place, and want us to be really good at what we do. It’s important to realize that this isn’t going to ever be something where we can give each other a high five and say we got it done completely, and the way people define themselves is going to change. You’ve got to sign up for constant learning.

ONE37pm: For sure. Wokie what does your day-to-day look like?

Daboh: I love this question! It looks different every single day. There’s a variety of things that we’ve been focused on over the past couple of years such as talent acquisition and how we’re sourcing talent. We’re looking at learning development experiences for our employees, talent management, and just a variety of things. From a DE&I perspective, this is the first job where I’ve had to have Google alerts as it relates to my organization, and there are so many facets of this work where my team and I really have a lot of different focus areas.

Any given day it’s really focused on moving this work forward, making our leaders continue to have a really strong spot at the top from a leadership perspective, and just really helping the organization reach the top overall. Everyday is different, but it’s exciting to see the passion and growth with this work for those of us at ESPN.

ONE37pm: Anybody can answer this one. What do you guys think of NABJ and the opportunities it provides?

Daboh: I’m actually in the midst of conversations with NABJ right now as we gear up for the convention in Alabama. We have a longstanding relationship with NABJ, and from an HR perspective it’s our Super Bowl as we get ready because there’s a lot of folks within this organization that came in from NABJ so there’s a lot of passion and commitment in that organization and how important it is for Black journalists. I think for us it’s not just extracting talent, but about pouring into the community as well.

We’re always thinking about how we can help shape how Black journalists view themselves in this space, and how we can contribute to that. Since I’ve been here NABJ has been virtual, and now it’s back in person. Last year we sent about 115 employees in our organization because that’s how passionate we are, and we continue to have really robust discussions with the team on a focus on behind the scenes. There’s a lot of folks that want to be in front of the camera, but it’s also the question of how do we start to influence and create a strong pipeline of writers, producers, and those other roles that are so critical to what we do. 

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King: My first convention was 1986 in Miami! There was an infamous boat party, but I wasn’t on the boat though! Most of what I do through NABJ is the sports task force, which is sort of like homecoming. I hired Michael Eaves when I was running Sportscenter, I hired Elle Duncan, and I think the sports task force is a point of real connection. We have a Stewart Scott fellowship that is incredibly meaningful to all of us, and I look at folks like Malika Andrews who is a rising star as a reflection of that connection point. 

ONE37pm: You guys have come a long way over the past ten or fifteen years, but where would you like to see ESPN go in terms of diversity in the future?

King: I just think we have to continue to think about how we’re representing the communities that we try to serve. For example, over the past three years we’ve coined the phrase “Black History Always” so that it’s not just about one month, but storytelling year-round. You will see Black History coverage appear completely separate from February, and by the same token, Women’s History Month is this month. That said, we’re also mindful that there is a performative nature to these heritage months, so we want to ask ourselves how we can shop up more regularly as we tell stories, go to cover events, and think about who we’re hiring.

We’ve gone to our employees and asked how we can show up more regularly. I think that work is going to be really important going forward. We’re going to be great in March, but I want us to be great in April, and through the WNBA Finals, training camp, etc.

Daboh: Just to add to that, for us we’ve been around sustainable DE&I work. We want this to be who we are and what we do, and not an afterthought. We’ve really been looking at our organizational infrastructure, breaking down systems, and things like that. We treat DE&I like any other business where you have measures, goals, and the desire to impact. When you look at us and see the talent on camera you see a good amount of diversity, but we want people to see the same when you step onto our campus at any of our locations. We want to consistently have an infrastructure and ecosystem of equity, inclusion, diversity, and belonging that will last and exist for a very long time.

ONE37pm: What are some of the things you guys do with your current employees to make them feel comfortable in their work environment?

King: Some of that starts with the leadership at the top. Our senior staff is more than a quarter of people of color, so just watching us sit together at the table is a good example for folks to see that acceptance starts at the very top. A lot of it gets down to how we conduct ourselves in meetings, and letting folks know that they can be heard. We have a great culture in terms of internal communications in terms of what people are doing, how they can help one another, who has a special project, and more.

There’s this constant flow of communication on our intranet sites, slack channels, and etc., and when something terrible happens like a shooting, we have created a system of conversations that allow people to be together and express how they are feeling. It’s a constant flow of interaction.

Daboh: Just to add, we’ve also been very aware of the signs and symbols in the African-American communities. They look at the investment in our business landscape, the investment in NABJ where we have been the title sponsor for a very long time, and our College Game Day Celebration Bowl. There are things we’ve done as an organization to really affirm to our Black employees that we are committed to them internally, the community, the imagery, storytelling, etc. The culture is incredible and there’s still a lot of work to be done, but we’re still externally very aware of what we show our employees in terms of our commitment to this work.

ONE37pm: Final question here. It’s tough to make it into sports journalism, and it can be even harder when you are in a category that is considered diverse. Both of you have a hand in talent acquisition. What’s your advice to journalists?

King: That’s a complicated question. The hardest thing about being a sports journalist is that it’s something that a lot of people would want to do, and it’s something that gets very competitive for the limited number of opportunities. First thing you have to do is standout and decide that this is something you would still want to do without the permission of a paycheck. If you want to blog, then share your writing and let people debate your points. A lot of the people that I’ve come across that have succeeded while hiring have had that mindset. There are ways of putting your work out into the world and getting feedback.

I had a guy named Max McGee send me his reel on LinkedIn and I thought he was good so I sent it to our talent head. Next thing I know Max McGee is hired. All I did was pass the reel forward, but the reel spoke for itself. And look at Malika. She was writing high level investigative journalism pieces so good that she got an internship at The New York Times followed by a job offer at The Chicago Tribune which meant we wanted to go after her ourselves. We had her here writing for about two years, and then it became clear that when you put her on the set magic happens. 

A place like ESPN is tough because it’s not on the job learning place and it is hard because there’s not a lot of seats, but by the same token when I find someone who I believe deserves one of those seats, I will move head and shoulders to try and figure out how to do it. 

Wokie: I’ll say a few things. One, you have to master your craft so you’re ready the day you do get that call. Two, you have to build your network and be present with that network, and then I think as a Black woman in particular you will have experiences that make you question whether or not you belong in this industry. We belong! It’s not easy to be in an industry where you don’t see a lot of people that look like you, but know that you belong. You see a lot of people who trying to crack the seal, and when you are in that position you have to remind yourself that this is what you want to do.

You can continue to keep up with all of the latest happenings at ESPN via their website.

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