This is 20+ years of writing. This is published articles on platforms, such as ESPN, Washington Post, SLAM Magazine and USA Today. This is having a distinctive voice through writing. This is Kendrick Lamar. This is not giving a f**k. This is critiquing the culture. This is a Content King. THIS is African American sports journalist Scoop Jackson, untamed.
George Kiel: You have 20+ years of writing experience and have contributed to some of the most well-known publications, like USA Today, Chicago Tribune, SLAM and Vibe among many others. But in 2005 when you first began at ESPN, how did you approach contributing to there as opposed to the aforementioned platforms?
Scoop Jackson: When I first came to ESPN, my mission was to change the entire landscape and culture of writing columns. I wanted to turn columns into mini feature stories. I didn’t want them to be so opinionated as much as I wanted them to read like small features. Instead of writing 800-1,000-word columns, I was doing 2,000-3,500-word columns. I was really stretching them out. In my mind, I felt like I was brought in to ESPN to be that different dude because I am that different dude – what I represent, who I am, my approach to the craft – all of that is different. Now of course, I had to find my way and fill my role when I first got to ESPN, especially with my style of writing which was so different than what they were accustomed to. I always wanted to operate inside of the parameters that were given to me because it’s not my company. So I had to navigate my way in between that.
Kiel: I’m putting you on the spot early. Give me four of your the most memorable pieces you have written to date.
- There was a piece that I wrote on Etan Thomas for ESPN during Black History Month. It was my first, real opportunity I had at ESPN to deal with an issue rooted in race. So I wanted to be as creative as I possibly could in doing that because you have a lot of people at ESPN that have dealt with racism. And a lot of times, I tend to operate from the foundation of ‘Y’all ain’t never met no n***a like me before’ and the Etan Thomas piece was one of the first stories that I approached from that mindset. I was on some Kendrick Lamar sh** before Kendrick Lamar. And I was like, ‘They’re not gonna understand this.’ It was about 2,500 words on Etan Thomas. I was like, ‘Who the hell is gonna read this?’ But I flipped it. I don’t know what I was on, but I flipped it. And they actually ran it unedited. I had one person a few years back come up to me and said, ‘Man, what the f** was on your mind when you wrote that Etan story?’ He said it was one of his favorite pieces ever because it was so different. I didn’t believe that what I wrote came out of me and secondly, I couldn’t believe that ESPN ran it because it was so unlike anything ESPN was about.
- I did a piece on Latrell that, again, no one understood. I found out during the course of doing the story on him that he was a big Wu-Tang Clan fan, and so I wrote the entire piece as if I was Ghostface Killah. And this was early Wu Tang days – like right after 36 Chambers – so only New Yorkers knew about the lingo I used. If you weren’t into Wu-Tang, you couldn’t understand anything in that piece.
- There’s one I did on former NBA player Ricky Davis that SLAM Magazine still reposts on the website – probably once every two years – to this day. I wrote the entire piece in one-word sentences. It was 3500 words of one-word sentences. It was really different. I’m big on being creative and trying to tap myself to find another level of creativity to bring to the table. I like to challenge my readers.
- There’s also one I did on sports journalist Jason Whitlock for losing his mind and dogging me, publicly. To give you the backstory, I wrote a piece called the 1.3 Percent Doctrine that challenged the entire media and looked at the lack of black power in print media. I put that whole thing in a different perspective and gave it some context as opposed to a bunch of data. Whitlock totally disagreed with me and went on a tangent about me, publicly. ESPN would not let me respond at all. At the time, John Papanek was the VP of ESPN, and he was finally like, ‘Let’s do this.’ The first piece I wrote was a piece that never ran because it basically was on the level of Public Enemy’s “Welcome to the Terrordome.” I went at him in such a way that was extremely smart – it wasn’t reckless at all – but I came at him extremely hard. To Papanek’s credit, he came to me and said, ‘Okay now that you got that out of your system, let’s write the story.’ But that unpublished story is the one I stand strong by because I surprised myself by being able to use some controlled response. I don’t want to say ‘anger’ because someone has to mean something to you in order to make you mad, and he never had that moving power. As a writer, it’s sometimes hard to control that and create content that is worth something.
Kiel: Throughout your career at ESPN, have you received a lot of pushback from editors because of your edgy style of writing?
Jackson: Hell yeah.With how I attack stories, there’s always been some push back because they carefully protect their brand. And they should! To be honest with you, with the culture change over the last couple of years, there have been stories that haven’t been run at all. I have enough stories that have not run on ESPN to write a book. I did an interview with Charles Barkley about analytics. It was Q&A in which he was dogging the basis of analytics in sports. ESPN didn’t run it because they don’t agree it. Another one that comes to mind is the Duke lacrosse case. It was ridiculous. In the article, I didn’t take sides on who was right and who was wrong. I looked at the bigger picture where I thought the concern needed to be and that was holding the chancellor, the president of the school and the athletic director responsible for allowing the lacrosse team to behave the way they did over the course of their existence at Duke.
The majority of the 46 players on that squad, at some point, had either been arrested or had misdemeanor charges brought on them for their behavior on campus. If that had been a football team, the president of the school would’ve snatched scholarships and kicked players off the team without a doubt. But they didn’t do that with this team because they were rich, white boys. And ESPN, as having one of those we’re-all-in-bed-together relationships with Duke, would not run my piece until I persuaded them about it being my opinion and not of ESPN’s. I was like, ‘Hey, this is my opinion and you hired me to voice my opinion. Duke can’t get mad at you. They can only take issue with me. I am a columnist.’ So it took about a week of pushing back on that.
Another time, I did a story on Michael Jordan about not being as passive as people think he is when it comes to black history. There was a paragraph that I had in the article in which I mentioned the fact that he was one of the only two American black billionaires we had – him and Oprah. It was used as context for my points, but they removed that paragraph from the piece when it came time to publishing the article. When the piece came out, I went on social media and posted that removed paragraph. I was like, ‘Here’s a paragraph that was taken out of the Jordan piece that was critical to the story’s narrative.’ The editors at ESPN were pissed. I received multiple calls from the editors. They were like, ‘That was not intentional; it was a space issue. You should’ve come to us first.’ The thing is, I emailed them asking why it got taken out but no one got back to me. And even after that, they still didn’t put the paragraph back in there and that easily could’ve added it in because it was a digital story.
Kiel: You mentioned Kendrick Lamar earlier. Do you see some sort of comparison between you and him in regards to your writing and his lyrics?
Jackson: Since I transitioned over from senior writer at ESPN.com to senior writing at SportsCenter, we try to tell stories and connect them through video by creating small feature packages and utilizing my writing style to tell these stories differently. When Kobe was retiring last year, we were thinking of a way to do a small 2-3 minute piece on Kobe about what he means to the game. At first, they were trying to get Snoop to narrate my epilogue, and I was like no. Snoop is cool, but he’s too chill for what I wanted to write about. I wanted to get somebody that’s hardcore and really means a lot to the LA scene, not that Snoop doesn’t. They reached out to Kendrick and got him to commit, so initially I thought my job was done because, of course, I figured Kendrick would write his own material. But then, they came back to me and said that Kendrick’s camp wanted me to write the commentary. And looking back at it, if you didn’t see ‘Written by Scoop Jackson’ at the beginning of the piece, you would swear Kendrick wrote it. What’s shocking to me is that he fell into someone else’s writing so easily. He absolutely killed it. He memorized the piece.
With regard to your question, Marc Spears of The Undefeated said something to me that I really appreciate. He told me, ‘You were “The Undefeated” before The Undefeated. Even though I’m not an MC, in some vein, as a writer, I’d like to believe I was like Kendrick before Kendrick. I connect with him. With me being older, I’d like to think that part of what I’ve done over the years helped lay a groundwork for Kendrick to feel comfortable to spit some of the things he spits.