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Sports Beat content is reported by Sports Journalism students in the Michigan State School of Journalism.

Michigan State sports journalism student A.J. Evans discovers his own path through self-expression

A.J. Evans

The old standards were rigid for T.V. sports journalists: no earrings, short hair…not natural, and facial hair was a no-no. But Evans is ready to change those perceptions.

Last year, I put together my first anchor reel, filled with work of me on sports shows and voicing over highlights of Michigan State sports. Aspiring on-air talent put together reels, a compilation of their best work of them anchoring and reporting live.

I was excited to put together a compilation of everything I had done over the year and a half. I was also eager to receive feedback on how I could improve, but for my first one, I felt mildly good about the work I had done.

A family member who has been in the broadcasting industry for quite some time watched my reel, and gave me a couple of pointers along with some words of encouragement. Unbeknownst to me, he sent the link over to a former sports anchor in the New York market who was now out of the industry. About an hour later, I was in a group text, with my cousin formally introducing me.

Later that evening, that anchor and I spoke over the phone. He was Black like me, and curious about my career aspirations and experience. He listened to my words, and then shared his journey through the world of journalism and television. He then told me he had a few notes.

I was surprised to find out that his thoughts had nothing to do with my cadence, readings, or mannerisms, besides an odd note about my smile. He recommended that I cut my hair, shave my facial hair, and “ditch” my earrings. Although he didn’t directly come out and say it, the message was clear: I didn’t have the right look for a black man in the sports television industry.

The man was incredibly discouraging, condescending, and pessimistic about the industry, and seemed more concerned with telling me about his career accomplishments than anything else. I sat on the other end in silence, waiting for any critiques related to the actual work itself. They never came.

An hour later, I sat alone in the basement of my house. I felt confused. I had wanted feedback, and gotten some - but it didn’t feel constructive. It felt like someone was telling me to get out of the industry because he didn’t like the way I looked, and that if I didn’t, I would spend years in a place where I wouldn’t belong. I struggled to find any alternatives to the ringing truth reverberating in my head from the conversation: this was the first time someone told me I would need to, in some ways, sell out to blend in in an industry filled with people who didn’t look like me. He made it clear to me that my earrings, my curly hair, and even my mustache and the small goatee I had would be a “major issue” in the industry.

A.J. Evans

It’s been about a year since then. I’ve gotten to call games, write recaps, features, and previews, and do production work. I’ve gotten to meet dozens of people within the industry, and brushed shoulders with some of the best in sports broadcasting in places like the NCAA Tournament, the Champions Classic in Chicago and more. It’s been a little surreal. Calling or covering any game is a privilege, and I’ve never taken it for granted. Most importantly though, I’ve done everything staying true to myself. I’m still in the process of finding my voice, no doubt. And that’s an everlasting journey for any broadcast journalist. However, I look back on that conversation that I had last year as a crossroads for my life. I had the opportunity to succumb to advice that would’ve boxed me into something I wasn’t comfortable with, or to stay on the journey of finding my voice being my authentic self.

Sports journalism and broadcasting is an incredibly competitive industry, and there are no guarantees. I have no idea where I’ll end up or what the future holds. However, I’ve made a choice to continue on this path being exactly who I am, as I’ve always been in every other facet of my life.

It’s fascinating to me how we often praise television stars and journalists for their individuality and their authenticity, yet we spend an inordinate amount of time doing the opposite to so many other talented people within the industry, searching for people who remind us of the ones whose work we admire, or boxing people in by way of comparisons, or relegating them to certain archetypes based on their race or gender.

“All you need is for one person to say yes.”

These were the words that echoed from my conversation with Jamal Spencer, the former sports director at WZZM, Grand Rapids’ ABC news affiliate, shortly after returning to campus from winter break last year, and a couple of weeks after my conversation with the anchor. I was feeling better, but still disheartened. Spencer reminded me that there were definitely still people in the industry with dated mindsets of how a Black man should look, no doubt. He shared he had faced similar challenges in his career. But he also asked me: would I want to work for someone that was more concerned with my earrings and hair than my actual work? That was all I needed to hear.

Thankfully, I had people like my mom and Spencer to lean on during this period. A funny thing happened though that also reaffirmed my beliefs, and discredited the recent advice I received.

I turned on the TV, and saw plenty of what I had been told was unacceptable for television.

Were some former players? Sure. But not all of them. And plenty had their fair share of beards, braids, and earrings.

This fall, I met one of those guys on TV. Rapheal Davis, a former college basketball player for Purdue, who is now an analyst at Big Ten Network. He was calling Michigan State’s first exhibition game against Hillsdale for Big Ten Plus. He and I spoke briefly, but our encounter stayed with me. We were dressed pretty similarly. Taper haircut, same facial hair, and earrings.

When Davis and I spoke a few weeks ago, I asked him what it had been like covering games and being in an industry where Black people and other minorities are still underrepresented. To my surprise, he said he didn’t really know. He reminded me that at Big Ten Network Stephen Bardo, LaPhonso Ellis, Trey Demps, are all consistently making appearances, along with the new additions of former NBA guard Evan Turner and Penn State basketball player Myles Dread. He attested to the vice president of BTN, Quentin Carter, as a one of the driving forces for their array of diverse on-air talent.

“He sees the value in that,” said Davis of Carter’s vision.

A.J. Evans

When I look in the world of sports media, I’m grateful to see a lot of people who look like me. People who are unapologetically themselves. Not carbon copies of what a studio, news station, publication, or any other media outlet wants them to be. I’m grateful that I received the advice that I did. It showed me that what I’m seeing now wasn’t always the case.

Whatever the future holds for me, one thing is certain: I’m going to be myself. At press conferences, games, practices, interviews, and everything in between. Pretending to be anything else is a waste of my time. I made a decision that evening, and every day since, that whether I fail or succeed in this industry, I’m going to do so being exactly who I am. I’m representing myself, my family, mentors and colleagues, and the people who look like me. There isn’t a greater privilege than that, and I plan on making the most of it.

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