ESPN's Stuart Scott, 49, died yesterday, finally succumbing to a long bout with cancer. The SportsCenter anchor was given a sendoff befitting a hero by the many friends he made over his two decades on the air, because to many, that's what he was.
Scott represented ESPN's first serious attempt at reaching minority sports fans. I was born in 1988, five years before Scott's first broadcast. And as long as I can remember watching sports, I can remember watching Scott. He was a trailblazer, and clearly an influence on other minorities who have risen through ESPN's ranks, like J.A. Adande, Bomani Jones, and Sage Steele, as well as men and women elsewhere. Adande published a lovely tribute to Scott yesterday, which is worth your time. An accompanying sidebar penned by ESPN columnist Jason Whitlock is, too, but for different reasons.
In the sidebar, Whitlock compares Scott to Howard Cosell and Rakim, two very different all-time greats who genuinely, fundamentally changed their respective fields:
He battled the cancer that ended his life as courageously as he battled the critics who failed to warm to his hip-hop-influenced broadcast style.
It takes courage and conviction to be different inside a large corporation. Stuart Scott didn't want to sound like everyone else on television. He didn't want to appeal to the same audience ...
His legacy and impact at ESPN are best defined in rap terms. Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann were the Beastie Boys. They were the white kids given the original License to Ill. Stuart Scott was Rakim, the black microphone fiend paid in full to move the crowd.
No disrespect to Chris Berman, Patrick, Olbermann, Mike Tirico, Linda Cohn and all the rest, but Stu is the greatest MC to hold the mic at the Worldwide Leader. He never sweated the technique. He's the leader young broadcasters follow.
Stu Scott ain't no joke. He used to let the mic smoke. He slammed it, he's done, and he made sure it's broke.
In a vacuum, this is Fine. We like rap well enough around these parts, and if you're going to rap in a sidebar, repurposed Rakim lyrics are your best bet. Still, it's hard not to think, when reading this, of a Whitlock column from 2007 that's been making its way around the internet, in which he called out Scott for "bojangling" and threatened to stitch him a clown suit. The relevant part goes like this:
Memo to Stu Scott: Dude, I like your work. I defend your rapping and rhyming on SportsCenter because it's harmless and you're just delivering highlights in a unique style. But you went too far with it at halftime Monday night with your Jay-Z intro and damn near set off bojangling alarms all over my house.
A broadcaster, a journalist, a performer must know his audience and service his audience above all else. Flavorizing highlights with a little hip-hop slang on SportsCenter is one thing, but using Jay-Z's alternate nickname – "Jigga" – at halftime of "Monday Night Football" is ridiculous and offensive.
Stu, you are not Big Tigger and you ain't on BET. It's "Monday Night Football." Look, the ESPN executives were stupid for foisting Jay-Z's latest video on football fans. If Roger Goodell had a brain, he'd check with David Stern about the damage done to the NBA's image by tying itself too closely to the hip hop crowd.
I digress. Stu, no one cares that you know Jay-Z's other name, and the "MNF" audience doesn't want to waste time wondering whether you just called him "N-word-a" or "Jigaboo."
Hey, you might've scored a few cool points with Jay-Z or Beyonce. Great. But you confused, irritated and offended 95 percent of your audience. And for what? A couple of fist pounds the next time you see Kanye and Jay?
There's a fine art to staying relevant, hip, cutting-edge and servicing a broader audience. Overall, I like your work, but consider this a bojangling warning. The next stop is a bright red nose, floppy shoes, green hair and a full clown suit. They're still talking about the one I stitched for one of your colleagues.
Like many of Whitlock's Takes, his Scott Take was shitty and unfair. At the time this was written, Jay Z was well-established as a safe-as-houses pop star and entrepreneur, the kind of guy who got to meet Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and in all about as threatening as a kitchen spatula. Writing him off as some kind of marginal figure whose mere nickname, coming out of Stuart Scott's mouth, could taint the broadcaster and the NFL just by association makes no sense outside the context of Whitlock's broader, ongoing project of marginalizing black culture.
Whatever, though. The problem isn't that Whitlock wrote a shitty, unfair thing years ago; it's that now, with everyone paying attention, he's changing his tune so completely. Years ago, when Scott made a tiny little nod in the direction of hip hop culture, Whitlock called him a bojangling clown for it. Now Whitlock is shamelessly pretending that all along he understood why those knowing little asides made Scott so beloved, and proclaiming him the greatest of all time.
The funny thing is that all of this reminds you of just how much impact Scott had on the way we talk about sports, and how he really did have to fight a lot of assholes who never liked it. Now, in the moment of truth, they all have to line up and pretend they did.