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Rachel Nichols Doesn’t Think Asking Tough Questions Is Scary at All

Nichols is known for grilling guys with names like Goodell and Mayweather. On Thursday, the sports anchor returns to ESPN with her own NBA show, The Jump.

It's a late afternoon in Los Angeles, and Rachel Nichols has been quieted. It's not due to the wishes of a Roger Goodell, or some other powerful sports figurehead who might wish she'd stop asking questions. It's simply due to the overstressed cell towers in the city, and she is driving around trying to find a spot where she can actually get her phone to the requisite bars so we can finish our conversation. Eventually, her connection is strong enough that we’re able to talk, but for a brief few minutes, the unreliable phone signal managed to accomplish what a lot of influential men in sports haven't been able to do.

You might remember Nichols from the hard questions she lobbed at Goodell in the wake of the Ray Rice domestic-violence case and, perhaps more notably, her grilling of Floyd Mayweather, which elevated her into the national conversation. After 16 years in New York, Nichols, her husband, and their four-year-old twins recently relocated to Los Angeles, where she’ll be returning to ESPN after spending the last three years at CNN and Turner Sports. It's here in L.A. that she'll debut her new daily NBA show, The Jump, this Thursday. The format is still being worked out, but Rachel promises it will be conversational, and wants it to be a canvas for big-picture topics such as: Jason Collins and the larger conversation about what it means to be a gay professional athlete; NBA players wearing “I Can’t Breathe” tees after the Eric Garner verdict; and what sorts of social responsibilities come with being a famous athlete in the spotlight...

Inevitably, the Mayweather interview comes up. You know the one. It was on CNN, when Rachel pressed the champion repeatedly about his history of domestic violence, asking him why fans should even root for him, countering his denials with facts from police reports, and sharing those details with a national audience who might have been unaware of Floyd's past.

Rachel claims the boxer’s public-relations camp never told her before the interview what was or wasn’t on the table. And many people would point to it as a defining moment for her career so far…

Did you know the interview was going to become a national discussion about Mayweather and his past?

I thought it was certainly possible it would become contentious. To me, you could not talk to Floyd Mayweather and not talk about the fact he had multiple convictions for beating people in his life. If I was going to get a chance to interview him, that’s what I wanted to talk about. He did a whole press tour that day. I don’t know what other people wanted to ask him, but I know what I wanted to ask him.

What was the reaction like from other reporters and writers?

Frankly, there was a lot about Mayweather’s history and background that people didn’t know. They were like, “Wait, what? Wow, okay.” I think the visibility of the interview changed the conversation about Floyd Mayweather from then on. I think that was important. Look. He’s a whole person, but this is part of who he’s shown himself to be. I think it’s important for people giving him money to know that, and then they can make their own decisions. I’m not here to tell anyone they can’t be a boxing fan. Just know what you’re getting into.

Was that a defining moment of your career, or the first time an interview you had done generated that type of reaction?

No. Every interview is different. When I was at ESPN, I interviewed LeBron James after his first season in Miami when they lost to Dallas in the Finals. It had been a bumpy year for him. After the lockout, the next season was about to start, and we sat down to do an interview, and he really talked through his decision to leave Cleveland and said he didn’t want to be a villain anymore. That was a seminal turnaround for him, and that got a huge reaction.

Rachel doesn't say it outright, but I get the sense she realizes the magnitude of the Mayweather interview but would prefer to not hold it up as some defining moment in her career. It would almost minimize the impact of all the work she’s put into her career before that interview: from her nine years at The Washington Post, where she started at 22 and worked alongside Michael Wilbon, Tony Kornheiser, Sally Jenkins, and Jeanne McManus; or choosing to leave the newspaper industry to be on TV with ESPN because “frankly, it seemed like the hardest thing”; or joining Turner and hosting Unguarded with Rachel Nichols, which ran as a weekly show for a year before cost-cutting measures at Turner, which led to the show's cancellation in 2014. During its short-lived tenure, it was critically acclaimed and received a Gracie award for “Outstanding On-Air Talent: Sports Program.”

“I’m probably supposed to order a salad,” she jokes. Aren’t all GQ interviews done through a salad? It’s always in the third paragraph, she points out.

She tells me about the time at Northwestern University when she wrote an entire case essay and spoke with the dean because the internship program wouldn't allow journalism students to work for the sports sections of local newspapers; they were required to work in more "serious" beats. Rachel didn’t understand why she should go into politics or something that wasn’t, in the school's estimation, a waste of time.

As with most people, her love for sports started early, as she grew up watching the Bullets and Capitals. Growing up in Potomac, Maryland, Rachel knew that she wanted to become a reporter. Sports, she says, was a live storybook happening in front of you, a movie with heroes and villains but an ending that’s not written. After speaking with the dean, the school relented and allowed her to intern at the sports section of several newspapers. The entire journey is probably a greater accomplishment for Rachel than any one interview that had everybody talking.

You mentioned once in a speech at Northwestern that one of the most important things in life is to always fight for what you want to do. Do you feel like you’re still doing that today?

I think every day is an opportunity to make a choice. I understand that sounds like a motivational quote on one of those posters. But I think doing things on purpose is a very good way to live your life, as opposed to just being a passenger and letting life happen. Making your own choices and being a driver of your life won’t get everything you want, but it will get you more interesting scenery out the window.

Do you feel and embrace the responsibility of being in this spotlight as an example for women who are getting into sports and journalism, as they see you as inspiration for removing the limitations of what a female sports reporter can be?

Absolutely. Being the host of an NBA show is going to let me have a voice again in the discussion, as someone who is bringing up topics each day and giving context and the bigger picture to NBA issues. That voice is something I have at this job, and I do feel a responsibility to maintain that. I think there are plenty of women out there with something to say. You see networks trot out their employees when there’s, say, a domestic-violence issue. And that’s great, you don’t just want a bunch of men talking about that. But those women can talk about other things, too. Again, I think it’s important, if I’m someone who is in a position to be able to talk about these things, that young women can see what is open to them.

Here's a confession: It's tough interviewing a professional reporter. They've been on the other side. They already know how all of this works. During our conversation, Rachel at times apologizes for not having one big shining example or quote for me, or points out exactly what I’m trying to get at in my line of questioning. All of this is fine. People who are less media savvy are more likely to give you a sensational quote. But Rachel being aware of what this interview is about also allows her to be honest in her responses, even if she has to be guarded or careful in her wording. Sensationalism is something that is common in sports media today. But when you get elevated to the national level, how much policing of the rest of the media landscape can you do?

So do you care about what other paths female journalists take to become successful, whether it is saying controversial things, or selling their looks in a particular way, and how that might impact the standard that have been set?

Man, the day my own house is in enough order that I can sit there and worry about someone else’s will be a good day! I mean that would be a level of organization for me that’s not happened [laughs]. I can’t even begin to sit here and worry about someone else or tell them how to do things.

You call your interview subjects out on their bullshit, or maybe a better term is you want to get to the truth of things. What about other sports reporters in the national conversation who say things that are sensational and often not based on fact just to get attention? Does it ever cross your mind to call them out?

I think it depends on what it is. I’m aware that there are people who are talking just for the ratings of it. In which case, it’s harder for me to get worked up about that, because if it’s not genuine in the first place, how am I supposed to get genuinely outraged if I know they’re not that serious about it?

What do you see as an ideal future of sports television?

I think diversity of thought. I’m not even talking about how people look on screen, although with a more diverse group of people on the screen you tend to get diversity of thought.

It’s a frigid All-Star Weekend in Toronto. Rachel and I find an hour to catch up as she’s running around conducting one-on-one interviews with Allen Iverson, Stephen Curry, and other A-list NBA personalities in preparation for the launch of her show. “I’m probably supposed to order a salad,” she jokes. Aren’t all GQ interviews done through a salad? It’s always in the third paragraph, she points out. We order flatbread with roasted wild mushrooms, roast garlic, mascarpone, and truffle pecorino to share.

"If you’re asking a question that’s fair, and you’re trying to get information, and you know your facts and you’re using them, there isn’t a question that you ever have to be afraid to ask. A tough fair question is a good question. There’s nothing scary about it."

When we chatted earlier in the week, Rachel had told me she was an adrenaline junkie, but didn’t elaborate further. I wanted to know whether she was into skydiving, or any of the daredevil activities that people participate in to chase that rush. No, it turns out, Rachel gets all of that from her work. In fact, she believes turning in a game story for a newspaper with a midnight deadline as the minutes are ticking down is more of a thrill than jumping out of a plane with a parachute on your back. Rachel clearly loves her work.

I want to get her opinion on a few more topics, like moving from New York to Los Angeles after almost two decades on the East Coast (“having my kids outside playing in 80 degree weather in February is nice.”), or if she had any hesitation about how ESPN would treat her as a media personality after the high-profile departures of Bill Simmons, Jason Whitlock, and Colin Cowherd, or if she’s run into the issue of trading access for coverage (“I’m always upfront about what I want to ask, and sometimes the interview gets cancelled, so be it.”), but mostly I just want to know how Rachel views her own career, and people’s perception of her as this hard-nosed, no-nonsense reporter?

And suddenly, I find my foot in my mouth.

I’m not discrediting your career…

[interrupts] That’s always a great start. “I’m not discrediting you as a person, a human being.” [laughs]

You are really good at what you do, but does a part of you feel lucky to be here?

I think you have to be both. I could have run into different people. There might not have been a job open. All that stuff is luck. What you do once you get there is work. What’s the impression, luck plus work equals…. [pauses]... I’m going to get it wrong, you can look up that cliche.

I think I have to include in my profile that Rachel Nichols loves dropping motivational quotes.

Rachel Nichols loves almost dropping motivational quotes that aren’t quite right. That could be my thing. The book of almost motivational quotes. It will get you halfway off your couch.

People have described you as fearless, is that how you see yourself?

How am I supposed to answer that? [laughs]

I don’t know, I like to toss out questions towards the end of interviews just to see what happens.

I’ve said this when I give talks to journalism classes, you’re accountable to yourself for being fair. It’s really important for me to not purposely be putting someone in a bad light with your questions as opposed to caring about what the answers are. If you’re asking a question that’s fair, and you’re trying to get information, and you know your facts and you’re using them, there isn’t a question that you ever have to be afraid to ask. A tough fair question is a good question. There’s nothing scary about it.

By Alex Wong

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