ABC Anchor Robin Roberts on Keys to Success
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
Robin Roberts has lived several lifetimes' worth of excitement. She dominated as a college basketball player and dreamed of going pro. Instead, she took her court skills to ESPN. Roberts spent the next 15 years as a sportscaster and play-by-play commentator for WNBA games. And two years ago, ABC named her co-anchor of "Good Morning America." Now, she's written a book called "From The Heart: Seven Rules to Live By." She begins with a few lessons she learned playing basketball.
Ms. ROBIN ROBERTS (Co-Anchor, "Good Morning America"; Author): Oh, I loved everything about being an athlete. I loved running. I loved jumping. I loved sweating. I loved it all. Loved competing against myself, against other people. It's hard to explain. It's like part of my DNA, being involved in sports. And that was my first dream. My first dream was to be Venus and Serena. I want to be a pro-tennis player. But there's something called ability you got to have along with that desire and the heart.
And I was a good, average athlete. A little better than an average athlete, went to college on an athletic scholarship - Southeastern Louisiana. Played basketball, actually - technically, it was a tennis scholarship - but played basketball instead. I wanted to play both, but also had to, you know, spend some time in the classroom. So I had to choose one or the other. And it's just something that I've always enjoyed doing.
And so when I realized that I was not going to be that professional athlete and I started to panic a little bit, as we all do - we're trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. And I knew I wanted to stay involved in athletics. And I didn't have the patience to be a coach, which was about the only option at that time for a woman who wanted in sports and if you couldn't play professionally. And - older sister - I have an older sister in television and broadcasting - a phenomenal broadcaster in New Orleans. And she kind of planted that bug about, well, maybe broadcasting - maybe journalism, and then also combining that with sports and you could have that lifestyle - what you wanted - what you're hoping to obtain through being a professional athlete through a being network sportscaster.
CHIDEYA: To go into your book, you make a real point. You've got these seven rules to live by. And in talking about your second rule, you really talk about how a lot of people don't want to start anywhere. If I can put it that harshly, a lot of people want to be there.
Ms. ROBERTS: Right.
CHIDEYA: But they don't want to start there.
Ms. ROBERTS: Well put, Farai, yes.
CHIDEYA: Yeah. Tell me about your experiences - your early experiences in broadcasting. Moving from being an athlete - which I want to talk to you a little bit more about later - to being a broadcaster.
Ms. ROBERTS: Early on, my goal and my ambition was to be a network sports journalist - sportscaster. Right out of college, I was receiving full-time offers to do news, received one part-time job offer for sports - $5.50 an hour, 30 hours a week to be the weekend sports anchor in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. And I didn't hesitate to take that part-time job, even though it was less money, because it was kind of like the second rule that you were talking about - dream big, but focus small. You know, yes, I had that lofty goal.
I was still - when I took that $5.50 an hour job, I was thinking of ESPN. That's where I wanted to be. And my friends were, like, why didn't you take this job, because it pays more? And there's more prestige. And so I'm, like, no, no, no, guys. You don't understand it. I got to pay my dues, and I have to work. And I want to put in the work because that's going to help me get to where I eventually want to be.
CHIDEYA: So you did make the big leap to ESPN, and you were there for 15 years, covering the WNBA as well. So did you have this moment where you were, like, oh, I've made it - when you got on to ESPN?
Ms. ROBERTS: I thought I was all that and a bag of chips, you know? I thought you couldn't talk to me. I had, you know, had set this lofty goal for myself. I was the first black woman to be a "Sports Center" anchor at ESPN when I was hired in 1990. That was it. That's - I was doing what I wanted to do. I was covering - went to Wimbledon for six years, the U.S. Open. I covered the Olympics, NBA finals, Super Bowls - you name it, I did it play by play. And as methodical as I was in my climb in sports where I wanted to be, it was just so incredibly - it's serendipitous what happened as far as what's happened for me now in the news division.
CHIDEYA: But let's just back up to your years at ESPN, or your years in broadcasting in general. As you were starting out, were there ever any moments - no matter how much your parents were inspirational - that you thought, wow, okay. I'm a black woman in a white guys world. This is not an optimum situation. I don't know if I can take it.
Ms. ROBERTS: Well, of course, you do. Especially, you know, at the time that was coming along. Now it's no big deal to see women doing sports. When I - you know, back in the '70s when I started this journey and started to do it on TV in the early '80s, it was still pretty much unheard of for a woman. And a woman of color? Yeah. There were times that I really felt that it was going to be difficult, and it was, to get hired, initially. But you know, you alluded to my mother and father.
My father was Tuskegee airman. He had the nerve as a child in the 1930s to dream of flying a plane when blacks in this country had very few rights. And yet, he - that's what his dream was. And you know what? He did it. My mother had very humble beginnings to go on to be the first in her family to go to college at Howard University on a - like a $100 scholarship that she had.
So when you have that kind of reinforcement all the time that you're growing up around, as much as there would be times that I doubted that it was going to happen, I knew it wasn't impossible because I had two people raising me that had overcome some really long odds.
CHIDEYA: When you were listening to people talk about the Don Imus controversy, did it bring you back to any moments where you felt undervalued as an athlete or as a woman?
Ms. ROBERTS: You know what? That's an excellent question. And yes, that's - it certainly did. It brought me back to a really dark time when, you know, being involved in sports back to pre-Title Nine, which was established in 1972, when we were - pretty much, at that time - as women given more rights and taught how to play sports and encourage how to play sports. It became kind of like the law.
We, as women athletes back then - or little girls, - we trying to like, why do you want to play sports? Girls don't do that, you know. What's wrong with you? That's not a feminine thing to do - those kind of things.
And so when I heard that statement and the Rutgers players were labeled as such - which was, first of all, just so wrong. I mean, that's something, of course, we know that. But I heard those words as an athlete first, then as a woman, then as a black woman.
You know, to me, it was such a sexist remark more so than it was a racist remark. And it stung because I'm like, oh, man. Here we go again. Haven't we - it's 2007. Haven't we advanced at all in how we look at women athletes? And thankfully, we really have, Farai. We have. I mean, that was an aberration, what was said.
CHIDEYA: When I read this book, I see a boundless amount of optimism. Who are you trying to reach with this book? What are you trying to give?
Ms. ROBERTS: I'm trying to give that person who picks it up - I want it to be - I don't know where someone is on their journey, if they're beginning or starting. I can't tell you how many people have written me who - men, first of all - who admit that they're like, well, I really didn't think this was for me. My wife bought it, and then I kind of picked it up, and you were speaking to me.
And I think that's - I think it is universal. My journey has been one that if you're, you know, black, white, male, female starting out or not, you can glean something from it because there's just so many different places that we are in our lives. And sometimes, when you are older, it is like you're starting out for the first time.
I know it's graduation season. A lot of people have said they have purchased it for their college grads, and they seem to be excited about it. It gives them, could you - you can remember, Farai. It wasn't that long ago. We were both in that situation and all you're doing is you're rocking in your chair, going, oh man. Am I going to get a job? Is somebody going to hire me? I'm going to be the first person never ever to get a job. And it's just - it's just not so, and to give people something to just kind of lift them up.
CHIDEYA: Absolutely, well…
Ms. ROBERTS: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: I guess, before I let you go, one last question. What is your journalistic dream date? Any person, dead or alive, if you really wanted to talk to them, who would it be?
Ms. ROBERTS: I think Martin Luther King, Jr. I think especially in the light of where we are right now in the world with race relations. And it just goes beyond race. We're at war. We're at odds, this country, with other nations. And I would really want just to sit down with him and talk to him and see - how did he do it? How was he able to peacefully bridge the gap as he did? And I think we need that. We desperately need that. So that would be somebody - Martin Luther King, Jr. - that I would really welcome an opportunity to talk to right now.
CHIDEYA: Well, Robin, this has been great talking to you. And I can't wait to see what you do next.
Ms. ROBERTS: Just rounding first base.
CHIDEYA: Yeah, yeah.
(Soundbite of song, "Natural Blues")
Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Oh, lordy, my troubles so hard. Oh, lordy, my troubles so hard.
CHIDEYA: Robin Roberts is the author of "From the Heart: Seven Rules to Live By." She's also the co-anchor of ABC's "Good Morning America." And you can read all seven of her rules at our Web site, npr.org/newsandnotes.
(Soundbite of song, "Natural Blues")
Unidentified Woman: (Singing) No, nobody know my troubles but God. I went through the valley, and been through this cave. No, nobody knows my troubles but God.
CHIDEYA: That's out show for today, and thanks for sharing your time with us. To listen to this show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Tomorrow, new efforts to regulate payday loans.
(Soundbite of song, "Natural Blues")
Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Oh, lordy, my troubles so hard…
CHIDEYA: I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.
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