Award-winning sports columnist William C. Rhoden picked the wrong off-the-beaten-path spot for our interview, so there is no video.
A columnist for ESPN’s theundefeated.com since retiring from the New York Times, Rhoden was here for the Super Bowl. I caught up with him far from the media scrum at the Mall of America but not far enough away from the noise, as our interview locale was too much competition for Rhoden’s soft speaking style. So you’re not going to hear the unassuming wit of the author of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves” and “Third and a Mile: The Trials and Triumphs of the Black Quarterback” while answering questions such as: How did you survive 33 years at the Times?
“Actually it was 34 and a half. I gained every yard,” Rhoden said, laughing. “I didn’t really think about it until I left, and then, given my body of work, I went ‘Damn, how did you stay there for so long?’ I was so into what I was doing; focused on writing my two or three columns a week, and at the time I was doing ‘ESPN’s Sports Reporters,’ I was working on books.”
Not just preoccupied with himself, Rhoden helps his media colleagues and nurtures the youngsters. His ESPN responsibilities include mentoring the Rhoden Fellows, an “ESPN ‘Undefeated’ initiative where I work with six students from historically black colleges and universities.”
Q: What do you do on Sunday mornings now that “The Sports Reporters” — the show that introduced me to you and which I watched religiously — is off air?
A: It was great fun. I did it for 27 years. I started in 1990. I remember my wife was pregnant with our daughter. It was a wonderful run. To answer your question, [laugh] wait for another show, another way to connect. Me, John Saunders, Dick Schaap — we were that second wave of reporters making that transition to television. I mourn its passing. In our business, 29 years, that’s a tremendous run.
Q: Did you arrive in Minnesota far ahead of the Super Bowl column about how the big game wouldn’t shine a light on Minneapolis’ racial and economic problems?
A: That was a phone interview [with Richard Howell, pastor at Shiloh Temple International Ministries]. I have been to Minneapolis before, [but] you know when you get here you’re going to get caught up in the glitz of the Super Bowl. I just wanted to do something to kind of set the tone: We have problems [in Minnesota], let’s remember that.
Q: Any new books in the works?
A: There’s a book tentatively titled “The Ethical Fan.” It’s about ethics, morality and the erosion of the American soul. Kind of looking at the erosion of the American soul through the prism of fans, who now in the past couple years have been exposed to not just the violence but this last year protests. It’s one thing to watch black men and women run and jump but once they start calling attention to their blackness, now you have to make a decision: Do you really want to listen?
Q: If you were a pro athlete, would you have kneeled?
A: Knelt. [He corrected my grammar.] That’s a hard question. [Some would say] Oh yeah but there’s a lot of pressure. You know that if you do kneel and you’re not a star player, they may not get you on the front end but they will get you [financially] on the back end. I’d like to think that I would be.
Q: One can’t always identify by race every investigative reporter from the Washington Post and the NY Times, but I don’t see what appear to be any people of color talking about the big story they broke about Trump and Russia on MSNBC and CNN.
A: In our industry in general, all you have to do is look around [at media covering the] Super Bowl and you can tell our industry is probably one of the racist, most exclusionary industries in the United States. The fourth estate; we have tons and tons of work to do.
Q: Advice for young journalists?
A: Study this multimillion-dollar industry [the way you would a pro team], from the front office all the way to the bottom. If you don’t know how to shoot, and edit and how to send it, you are like a dinosaur.
C.J. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and seen on Fox 9’s “Buzz.” E-mailers, please state a subject; “Hello” does not count.