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My Conversation with ESPN Anchor Stuart Scott

I had a feeling my story about Marcus Smart, Jeff Orr and The Machine would generate some important discussions, but I never imagined it would lead to a phone call from one of the most iconic SportsCenter Anchors around.

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

It was almost 3:30 on Wednesday morning when my wife came into the office and made me go to bed.

I’d started working on the Marcus Smart/Jeff Orr piece soon after I got home from work on Tuesday evening. I dabbled, wrote, rewrote and struggled mightily in an attempt to create a thoughtful yet somewhat controversial article on the subject.

Regular readers of Viva The Matadors know our philosophy. We’re not bomb throwers. We don’t sensationalize events and stories in order to generate more page views.

Many of you know that Seth and his wife are the proud parents of Fitsum, a baby boy they adopted from Ethiopia two years ago. Most are also aware that Seth and Miranda are in the process of adopting again, this time a beautiful little boy from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

For that reason we pay attention.  But, in addition, the VTM staff and community is very careful, and chooses to avoid issues related to race. This is a sports blog. We leave it to others to hash out life’s more difficult conversations.

But on Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning, I was working on a story that I knew would spur some uncomfortable conversations, and I wanted to get it right.

The idea was to lay out a timeline of events immediately following the incident between Mr. Smart and Mr. Orr and describe how the story slowly evolved from Jeff Orr: racist, to Jeff Orr:  ridiculous old man that has no right to act like an idiot at a college basketball game. The larger point being that this pivot in narrative was inconsequential in the coverage of the story on the national scene.

Rather than fading away in the 24 hour news cycle, the story actually gained steam and Mr. Orr was now the face of all that is wrong with fandom in America. No matter how vehemently I disagree with Mr. Orr’s conduct, I felt strongly that he doesn't deserve to have his life ruined.

As I was putting the story together I came across a series of tweets from ESPN SportsCenter Anchor Stuart Scott and included them in my story. I wanted to show how quickly things can snowball in this world of social media with a few seemingly innocuous tweets from a national figure. In his defense, he prefaced his remarks with "IF TRUE," but it’s my belief that the public at large will ignore caveats and go straight to the meat.

The story was posted at 10:30am. Just before 1pm I received this:
I immediately agreed. We exchanged phone numbers and set a time to talk. In the meantime people all over Twitter saw his message to me and felt obliged to chime in. Some were encouraging Stuart to smack me down. Some guy called me a coward. Another said it’s a sad world because guys like me hide behind my keyboard.

But on the flipside, I got several tips and pointers on questions I should ask and how I should conduct myself during the call.
You should let your youngest answer the phone and just say "booyah" to him.
End the call with "Prestige Worldwide wide wide"
And don’t stop saying wide until he hangs up the phone
Be super serious and maybe get VTM mentioned on ESPN and tell Wikipedia to suck it
Tell him to punch Tim Legler in the face for banging my ex-girlfriend
End the conversation with hugs and hand pounds
Sign him up for "Random Cat Facts"
I bet you $100 you end up buying him a beer
Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to use many of the suggestions.

He called me a little after 9pm, less than an hour before he was set to host SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt. I answered and he greeted me with a curt, but not terribly unfriendly "Travis, this is Stuart Scott." There were a few seconds of awkward silence as both of us waited to see who would take the lead. He said he wanted to talk to me about the story and how I came to the conclusions I did.

I did my best to walk him through my thought process. I explained  how I watched as people immediately began to claim that racism had to be a part of the story because Lubbock is racist and Tech fans are racist and there’s no way Marcus Smart would shove a fan unless Jeff Orr had shouted a racial slur.

I described how I followed the story on Sunday and when the video was released and the Marcus Smart press conference concluded that most of us assumed the story was done. But then on Monday it gained steam and was now a national story being covered by the major opinion/news channels, which is a dangerous place to be. I reiterated my contention that I’m not out to defend Mr. Orr, but I will defend my hometown and my school and don’t think Mr. Orr deserves to have his life destroyed.

Then it was his turn.

He told me he doesn’t initiate a conversation with those he disagrees with often, but he respects me as a journalist and wanted to have this discussion, which I appreciate greatly.

He was obviously upset with me. He had my story pulled up and read the passages back to me that bothered him the most. At one point I tried to interject, but he cut me off (I don’t blame him for it, he let me speak so it was his turn)

This passage is what he took issue with:

But never fear, ESPN's own Stuart Scott (age 48, black) immersed himself in the most recent, egregious display of horrible fandom late Saturday night and into early Sunday morning.
Perhaps it was to make up for the lapse in coverage of the verifiable racists in Missouri, or perhaps he just smelled blood in the water with an already injured Jeff Orr, but "Twitter Verified" Stuart Scott weighed in. In the process he forever tarnished Mr. Orr.
No sorrow though in this business. The Machine churns. Mr. Scott has a duty to provide made up news to his 440,000 followers. It's part of the job.

He was particularly bothered by the very last sentence where I said its part of the job. His contention is that Twitter is not part of his job. When he tweets, he’s just a regular guy. He's not a SportsCenter anchor, but just a guy talking about his kids and movies and stuff.

He said if he’s working on a story in an official capacity at ESPN he checks his sources and verifies information, but Twitter isn’t like that for him.

He said that’s why so many of the ESPN anchors enjoy Twitter, because they don’t have to worry about their official capacity as ESPN employee and can just be themselves.

I told him I could understand that line of thinking, but the public at large doesn’t see it that way. When they see a tweet from Stuart Scott or Scott Van Pelt, they aren’t looking at tweets from regular dudes. They are reading information from "ESPN’s own Stuart Scott or Scott Van Pelt."

This difference in view was our biggest disagreement during the call, and we never came to a mutual understanding. My takeaway is that we as consumers need to realize that Twitter has to be compartmentalized and not used a source of fact in most instances. Stuart Scott has every right to feel the way he does about what he chooses to tweet. It’s an escape for him, and for many I suppose. So I think that if the public begins to understand that, we might see a reduction in these runaway stories that often prove false.

We then had a lengthy discussion on race, and whether he injected it into the story. I told him the tweet I had the biggest problem with was the supposed report from a news station in Oklahoma stating that Mr. Orr shouted "Go back to Africa."

He was adamant that because he used the caveat "IF TRUE" then he had no further responsibility on the reporting of the story.  He made an analogy (which was a rather good one) that he could’ve tweeted "News Station in Oklahoma says Orr shouted "Your mama is a ho" and IF TRUE he could understand Smart’s reaction.

Now I know that this will likely stir quite a bit of conversation, but in this instance I can somewhat understand his stance. The tweet he sent had racial overtones, but does that mean he was injecting race into the story? Does a tweet have racial implications if no one thinks it has racial implications?

Or vice versa—Does a tweet not have racial implications if everyone thinks it does?

I know this is really splitting a fine hair, but it’s something to think about.

We then talked about words and the power they hold. He gave me some advice (which I absorbed like a sponge) about choosing every word meant for public consumption in an official capacity very carefully. I was surprised to learn that the SportsCenter anchors write their own copy and he shared with me how careful he is to get the story out while remaining objective. For example, he’s a huge Derek Jeter fan, but he can’t just write I LOVE JETER and make that a segment on the show. He read to me what he had written about Jeter’s retirement announcement as an example of how to write an informative, objective article, while letting your natural fan emotions seep through a bit.

It was coincidental because I’d experienced the same emotions with a Tim Duncan piece I’d written at Pounding the Rock earlier in the day and gotten called out by a commenter for dropping my objectivity on the matter.

He told me to never feel bad about that.

We began to feel more comfortable in the conversation and the tension slowly faded.  We talked about our kids and some of the challenges raising them. I asked him about his health and he said it’s not perfect but he’s dealing with it every day. His cancer is not in remission, but he’s doing everything he’s supposed to do to beat it. I think you will all join me in saying a prayer that he does.

After the call I sent him a message to make sure he was ok with me writing about the call and told him I’d buy him dinner when he’s in town for the NBA Finals.  I was watching him on SportsCenter when my phone buzzed.

He answered me while doing the broadcast.

He said he enjoyed our talk, and he was ok with me sharing the story. He'd definitely take me up on dinner when he comes to town, and then he wrote something that really touched me.

He told me to take care of my three little angels.

There will be those that continue to disagree with Stuart Scott and ESPN as a whole.  I don’t think I can ever fully be a fan of ESPN again after everything that’s happened over the past few years. From Craig James to the events of last Saturday make it very difficult for me.

But for Stuart Scott to reach out to me and ask if we could talk things through, man to man, speaks highly of his character. We don’t agree on everything, but we agree on the most important things. And at the end of the day that’s all that really matters.

If more people would stop fighting on Twitter and starting food wars on Instagram and actually talk through their differences, we might find ourselves in a better place. If I learned anything from our phone call, it was that.