Interview: ESPN’s Bomani Jones And Pablo Torre On Race And Representation

New York, NY - June 8, 2018 - South Street Seaport Pier 17: Bomani Jones and Pablo Torres on the set of High Noon
(Photo by Allen Kee / ESPN Images)

Interview: ESPN’s Bomani Jones And Pablo Torre On Race And Representation

For the hosts of "High Noon," having a show is a win in itself, but they’re not satisfied.

Published 2 weeks ago

Written by Jarod Hector

It’s a Monday afternoon in New York City, and ESPN’s High Noon is about to tape at the worldwide leader’s swanky Seaport District Studios. Into the studio walks one of the two men whose names appear on the marquee. 

Bomani Jones strides confidently, says hello to the small group (of which I am one) on hand to watch, and the production crew. He takes his seat on the set and scrolls through his phone nonchalantly as he awaits his co-host. 

Pablo Torre emerges a few moments later, with a noticeable pep in his step and enthusiastically says hello and gets right to his seat. A few minutes later he tells us, “feel free to laugh if anything is funny.”

Jones quipped, “he means laugh at his jokes.”

That’s the dynamic of these two friends, that for over a year (the show debuted June 4th 2018) have led one of the most talked about ESPN studio shows in recent memory.  

When the show debuted, it was a tense time for the company. The “stick to sports” mantra was trumpeted by ESPN’s harshest critics. You know, those right-wing bloggers that said the company had become too consumed with “politics.” 

SC6, the re-imagined SportsCenter starring Jemele Hill and Michael Smith, had ended earlier that year (March 2018) amid a belief by some that too much air time was spent on protesting NFL players and not enough on the actual games on the field. 

A studio show with Jones and Torre as the headliners was just what those critics needed to continue their misguided outrage. 

Before the show aired it was being labeled. 

Will it be the “smart” show? The “woke show”? Or the “non-sports sports show”? 

In an interview with The Ringer, High Noon’s coordinating producer Matt Kelliher joked the show should be called Bomani and Pablo Talk Down to You. 

To be fair, Jones and Torre are smart. But not because they have degrees from prestigious schools. 

There is a level of intuitiveness and understanding both men possess that make them who they are, which in turn makes High Noon what it is. 

Put plainly, they get it. 

They are able to convey information and opinions about sports in a style that is their own, but in a way that any audience can receive it. 

That’s the most important component to making good television, and make no mistake, that’s what Jones and Torre want to do first and foremost. 

“It doesn’t matter if you can talk about sports in ways other people can’t, if the people that are listening can’t hear it. You know?” Jones told BET.  “Relaying this stuff to the audience is of far greater importance than whatever idea of difference you have about yourself.”

Following the taping of the show we retreat to one of the offices inside the ESPN building and talk about their experiences as television show hosts: What it means to have minority representation in media. And what the future of the media business could end up being, if we’re not careful.

  1. You’ve said before that the win for you was just getting a TV show. But now that you’ve done that and it’s been going on for more than a year. Is the show going in a direction you thought it was going to go? What are your aspirations vis à vis we are different and we want to put something different out there?

     

    Jones: “Well for me going forward, you just try to make the best show that you can. Is it going the way we thought it would? Probably not. In large part because we started off doing a one hour show at noon and it moved on to being a half hour taped show at 4 o’clock. There’s a lot of differences you are going to have in terms of how a show is built and structured and the audience it has to serve and all of those things. So we definitely have to go about it differently than we initially had planned. 

    But the game at this point is to make the show better. At every point you are just trying to make this into as good of a show as it can be. And I don’t know if there will ever be a point, in terms of how I’m wired, where I’m like ‘yeah that’s good enough.’ That’s probably not going to be it.” 

    Torre: “Yeah, I agree with the whole we are constantly trying to be better and evolve. But I will say, something that I’ve hoped for and has been delivered is the reality that we are saying things and having conversations that I don’t hear on television period. Let alone on sports television. I’m deeply proud of that dynamic that we have where we tackle subjects that I just don’t hear otherwise.”

    It is their perspectives on issues around race and the societal impact of sports that both men handle with aplomb that sets them apart from others. There is a way they think and react to the game within the game, and what is at the core of many sports stories. 

    There is obviously a perspective they share as members of an “other” or racialized minority. But for Jones and Torre it’s more than that. Their brains seem predisposed or conditioned to parse through clutter and noise and get to the elements that allow for an elevated discussion. 

    “It’s both of our brains colliding as you saw today, and producing stuff that tends to be at it’s best, when it’s spontaneous and really energized,” Torre said. “That’s been the great gift for me, is that we get to do that. So it’s not having theTVt on mute and saying ‘look what they’re doing, look at what they look like.’ It’s, these guys are saying stuff that other people aren’t saying.”

    Still, two men of color leading a show on linear television is not common and something they are aware of. 

    It’s been more than a year doing High Noon. What has that meant to you guys, in terms of being minorities having your own show and how it has been received?

    Jones: “I don’t know if I’ve really thought of it so much in that particular context. I suppose there are certain representation issues, and this is a show that looks a little different than most shows you’re going to see on television. But the biggest reason we got this show, at least I’d like to think so, is we’re pretty good at what we’re doing. So that for me has always been the primary thing. Is that for a long grind of trying to figure this out, to even be in a position to do this at all. There are but so many slots for anybody to do this, regardless of other circumstances.There aren’t many people with two feet that have something like this.” 

    Torre: “I will say for me it’s all kind of novel. This is my first, five day a week co-hosting job and I get told a lot, and I feel it a lot that it means something for me to be an Asian dude. To be an Asian anything because that doesn’t really exist in many of these five day a week slots. So I have been enjoying what that is because that is something I have not felt acutely until now. When you realize ‘oh shit yeah’, that’s kind of different.”

    You said it’s more important that we have a show more so than the minority led element. But, there aren’t many people that look like us and have their own show with their names on the marquee. Sports that are mostly dominated by people of color, have an overwhelming majority of White people who are the authors of their history. Is it important to have people who look like the athletes talking about it?

    Jones: “Oh yeah. One thing about this industry, is that there are plenty of Black men who are in it. Overwhelmingly they are former players, so basically what you wind up with is those guys come on because they have an experience that is very particular. But then it becomes we can just find some White dude to talk about this other stuff. That’s what seems to be conveyed in that message. 

    But it is necessary, generally, to have a broad range of insights on these matters because all of us in our personal experiences will give us insight that allow us to see things differently than perhaps the next person can. So, there’s going to be a lot of topics where in part because of my background, I’ll have insight on. 

    But another reason why I’ve got the insight on those things is because I put in a lot of work to know and understand what those things are. So, it is not simply to me about the value of having somebody that looks like me or has the experiences there it’s having the insight that is particular to the experiences of those people. It just so happens that you are more likely to have that, if you’re a member of that group, because in all likelihood that is what has moved you to pay more attention to the matters that are there.” 

    Torre: “It’s also crucial to have credibility in the world of sports. Bomani has a long resumé that goes beyond sports. But he also knows sports history as much as any human being that I have ever met. He was a columnist on ESPN’s Page 2, in the era of David Halberstam and Ralph Wiley. I come from Sports Illustrated where I learned magazines and was a reporter. For us, it’s as much about having the credibility and the resumé and then synthesizing that through the particular perspectives that we have, and that’s why you land on a show that actually is doing stuff that may feel kind of new and different.” 

     

  2. In discussing the importance of representation in sports media, Jones look back at what has historically been the paradigm within sports talk radio.

    “It becomes important to have Black people in these spaces because what we don’t want is what the history of sports talk radio has basically been, which is White dudes complaining about Black dudes on the radio, right? If you listen to who the hosts are, and it trickles down to who the callers are and it becomes this circular thing, and this same set of people are hammering this other group of people. That brings out the worst very often in the people that are doing it. It is very important to have people who have more in common with the athletes there because otherwise this could turn into something we don’t want it to be.” 

    There is an allure to sports that is hard to resist. For most people, the chances of playing professional sports is infinitesimal. If you are a person of color the chances of becoming a member of the sports media, while not as small, aren’t that great either. 

    The push by heads of media platforms to produce more and more quantitative based sports content is on the rise. You see it in the way, football, basketball and baseball are covered. Not having a quantitative background could be a huge barrier for people of color. 

    Black and Latino students are less likely to pass Algebra I and less likely to attend schools that offer advanced math classes than their White and Asian peers according to data. 

    If math isn’t going so well for you in middle school and high school, what are the chances you decide to pursue an undergraduate degree in a math related field?

    “The problem that is at play there is not one that the [media] industry is equipped to fix. The industry can help in some ways. But the industry can’t change the fact that education in this country by and large has discouraged non-White males, with the obvious glaring exception of Asians. Everybody else is being discouraged from engaging in mathematical type of stuff,” said Jones. 

    “I do worry about a wall of access being denied because of the quantitative stuff. But the quantitative stuff is symptom. The disease...if it ain’t that, it’s going to be something else.”

    “But there’s a wrinkle to the quantitative stuff,” Torre retorted. “So one irony I think, and one correction. I don’t think anyone is encouraging Asians to get into math outside of their own families.”

    “Yes, just nobody’s keeping them out!” Jones remarked. 

    The cameras have long been turned off and we’ve been talking for almost 30 minutes. That’s the kind of authentic banter both men would engage in if they were having brunch on a Sunday, or while watching a game, or on the set of their show. 

    “As much as I agree with the broad strokes. Something that is true about the quantitative analytics thing, is that it enables certain people who also never had access to this stuff. That’s the other side of the coin,” Torre said. “There is a disease here. But I think it’s also important to note there is complexity within said disease, in terms of the trickle down to all the people who may or may not be getting jobs in general.” 

    Jones and Torre took different paths to arrive at the same destination. No one path better or easier to navigate than the other. But they know what they’ve done is largely not replicable. 

    However, acquiring the knowledge and having the diligence to go beyond the surface can give you the opportunity to make it in this business.

    “Learn how to write and report as a basic skill set,” said Torre. “Develop taste. Know what you like and why you like it. Know what the person you like is doing, so that you can break it down structurally.”

    “Knowing what you’re talking about matters more than anything else,” Jones said. “They’re tuning in to find out about sports. If they think you’re opinions about sports are compelling, you got a chance to stick around. If you don’t know the sports, you have no chance.” 

  3. Jarod Hector is a New York City born-and-raised sports and pop culture enthusiast. A multimedia content creator & host who enjoys nuanced discussions of the intersection between sports, culture, and society. He believes My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the greatest album of the past 20 years, and says if you root for billionaire owners over millionaire athletes you're part of the problem. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @jshector.

Photo: Sean Mathis/Getty Images for SXSW and

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