Let me begin with a touch of honesty: I was late for this interview.
An unnaturally early 10 a.m. breakfast at the Deece made for a leisurely, carb-filled meal drowned in orange juice, followed by a brisk stroll past Lathrop and Strong, which became a speed walk past Main and PB’s house, and, rounding the corner to the front gates of the Bridge Building, turned into a dead sprint towards the timeworn doors of Skinner Hall.
“Mack!” a familiar voice shouted from behind me, as Assistant Professor of Music Justin Patch flagged this intrepid reporter down from the parking lot. Accompanying him was none other than the subject of my big interview—ESPN sports journalist Bomani Jones—observing the scene from a safe distance, as if it were another sports folly primed for his critique.
The act of interviewing is one that requires, at first, a disarmament of the interview subject, the pseudo-manufacturing of familiarity between two newly acquainted parties. When done correctly, an interview smoothly shifts the power dynamic, as the interviewee goes from withholding to sharing. Yet throughout this give-and-take, the interviewer keeps their stance at a respectable distance, invoking an aura of professionalism and put-togetherness. This particular interview, however, presented an odd challenge for me, first as a fan of Jones, and second as someone painfully aware that Jones’ journalistic background leveled him clued in to any technique I could throw his way. My sprint towards Skinner left me dead in the water.
But Bo didn’t seem to care. The expression on his face did not shift past deadpan as he extended his lanky arm for a handshake. The separation between seasoned vet and wide-eyed reporter remained palpable as Patch showed us up to his office, where Bomani stopped unceremoniously to snap a photo of a sign: “Bomani Jones, Thekla, Room 400, Lectures will place at 12 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 30.”
As we sat down in the office, Bomani leaned back in Patch’s chair, relaxed and ready to answer any questions. In fact, here was a dude whose whole job description was to answer questions. When working under the umbrella of an elite four-lettered media company, preparedness is a skill that must become second-nature; a pundit must play back their mental tape recorder, standing in front of a camera with total confidence in their ability to speak eloquently about anything they’re asked, and at any time.
This goal of professional thought provoking, of spawning an audience reaction, of realigning the direction of a dialogue, is one that Jones, only 39 years old, has mastered. So much so, that in 2016, Jones sent shockwaves through sports media without even speaking. On the morning talk show “Mike & Mike,” Bomani donned a “Cleveland Caucausians” t-shirt, an inversion of the racist iconography of the Cleveland Indians.
While most famous people are often reduced to their greatest hits, my task was to wind back Bomani’s career in sports media to his first big break: “What was it like to work in such close proximity of Papi on TV? Was it sweaty? Did he smell?”
From his humble beginnings starting up a radio show with a buddy at Clark Atlanta University, Bomani would go on to host call-in radio shows out of Raleigh, NC, before eventually cracking into guest appearances on ESPN shows. That big break would come in the form of a large loud man and his affable father, on the highly questionable show “Highly Questionable.” Beginning in 2012, Bomani assumed space as the even-kilter straight-talker to Dan Le Batard’s bombastic, sensationalist persona, and as the counterpunch to Le Batard’s father, Papi, positioned in between them like a lost puppy offering up some young-spirited goofiness. All three sat crammed shoulder-to-shoulder at a kitchen table.
“You smell the cigar smoke off of Dan more than you smell the old man,” Bomani responded, sustaining his deadpan. “The thing is, it looks tighter than it is. Like, the table itself is tight like the one we all gotta use at home … I don’t know if intimate is the right way to put it, but there’s something about doing that show doesn’t quite feel like you’re doing a television show.”
Jones’ penchant for projecting an authenticity, a casual relatability and warmth, even through the often-inauthentic channels of televised mediation, is what has come to define his space in sports media. When sports fans conjure up their idea of a “personality,” what likely comes to mind is the bombastic, over-the-top preaching of Stephen A. Smith; the shape-shifting, Boston douchebaggery of Bill Simmons; the clown-car chumminess of Shaq, Chuck and the rest of the gang. Bomani, on the other hand, has built his persona, has built his career, around personal honesty. And not too many folks get to make a career out of being themselves.
“Me on TV is pretty much me everywhere,” Bomani said. “When I first started doing this I already had the approach of ‘I’m going to do this, I’m just gonna give you me, and if it works it works.’”
In his lecture later that day in Taylor Hall 102, Bomani answered questions from Vassar students the way he would if they were posed by one of his colleagues on television. Should college athletes be paid? “Nobody had the argument why not. I have never heard the argument that someone that works should not be paid.” Why aren’t Black people represented more in baseball? “Do Black people even feel like playing baseball?”
Bomani whipped through takes as easily as you could flip through channels, doubling as an opinions machine with an on and off switch. In his roughly 45 minute lecture, Jones touched upon a range of topics, presenting himself as a consumer of any and all knowledge, as someone simply interested in being interested.
But if you had to ask me how to myopically define Bomani’s work, or even just his lecture, I wouldn’t label it sports. In fact, Jones’ array of baseline knowledge, his self-education in culture, Black society and sociology, is what has shaped and informed his understanding of sports in the first place.
In an era where the mantra of “sticking to sports” has been increasingly weaponized as a way to delegitimize the voices of Black athletes, legitimize unsavory sports business practices with authoritarian regimes and strip sports media outlets like Deadspin of their heart and soul, Bomani offers a breath of fresh air. He spoke of sports as inextricably linked to life, as an outlet to “reflect where we are,” as a medium we project our values and experiences onto. Recent episodes of his podcast, “The Right Time,” included a conversation with author Bassey Ikpi about mental health misperceptions for athletes in the national spotlight, and some old-man, young-man banter with Chicago Bulls center Wendell Carter Jr. about how he’s earned some money, and some space, from his mother.
Bomani offers commentary that transcends genre, that speaks to greater society, and at “The Right Time.” He remains unbothered by the reaction, lying back in his chair with his deadpan glare. In person, he appears to recede into his mind, preparing his next take for television—a natural introvert, professionally extroverted. “There’s nothing that I can say in person that I can’t say on TV,” Bomani reiterated.
Sports media—and journalism in general—needs more candid truth-tellers, more realness in opinion and forthrightness in positionality, as a means of piercing through the safe disguise of writing and speaking with “objectivity.” For my part, as the wide-eyed reporter in this scenario, the best I can do is bookend this piece with my own touch of honesty.
Additional reporting by Dean Kopitsky