Stuart Scott, the ESPN anchor who became a sports media pioneer because of his embrace of his race and unique style of highlight delivery, died Sunday after a long bout with cancer. He was 49.
Scott joined ESPN in 1993 and remained there throughout his career, working his way from a nightly role on ESPN2 to hosting gigs on ESPN’s NBA and NFL programming. But he will be remembered most for his time behind SportsCenter’s anchor desk, a position that made him a celebrity in the sports world and allowed him to leave an enduring mark on both ESPN and the sports media as a whole.
In a media world largely devoid of both African-American faces and, especially, African-American vernacular, Scott’s iconic catchphrases — “Boo-Yeah!”, “Cool as the other side of the pillow,” and “Can I get a witness?” chief among them — brought a style that had been absent from sports and media programming straight to ESPN’s most-watched program and, by virtue, to the living rooms of white and black families alike.
Scott’s popularity, and the appeal of his brand of style, made him an icon for other aspiring African-American broadcasters who hadn’t seen anything like him on TV before.
“He was a trailblazer not only because he was black — obviously black — but because of his style, his demeanor, his presentation,” ESPN anchor Stan Verrett, also black, told ABC News for Scott’s obituary. “He did not shy away from the fact that he was a black man, and that allowed the rest of us who came along to just be ourselves.”
“Yes, he brought hip-hop into the conversation,” Jay Harris, another SportsCenter anchor who followed in Scott’s footsteps, said. “But I would go further than that. He brought in the barber shop, the church, R&B, soul music. Soul period.”
He changed ESPN too. Scott’s style wasn’t immediately popular with ESPN’s audience or even its top brass. According to the ABC obituary, Scott and ESPN received regular hate mail over his “hip-hop style,” and at times, ESPN officials asked him to consider dialing it back. Scott refused, and over time that unwillingness to relent proved right.
While ESPN has been criticized, sometimes rightfully, for cultivating the personalities of its “talent,” its embrace of Scott and a style that hadn’t been welcome on such big-time programming before helped it reach a demographic — young people in general but particularly black males who rarely see themselves and their culture or style represented in the sports media — that it hadn’t connected with before.
“There were successful African-American sportscasters at the time,” ESPN director of news Vince Doria told ABC. “But Stuart spoke a much different language… that appealed to a young demographic, particularly a young African-American demographic.”
Scott’s style and popularity extended beyond the SportsCenter catchphrases, spoken word segments, and the studio. He wrote a regular ESPN The Magazine column, led NBA, NFL, MLB, and Final Four coverage, interviewed some of sports world’s biggest stars, and became a star himself, especially in what became a major role in ESPN’s popular “This Is SportsCenter” commercials.
His popularity stretched beyond black audiences. For a generation of Americans, myself included, Stu Scott was the face of SportsCenter. Growing up, my friends and I, white and black, would repeat Stu’s iconic highlight catchphrases in our own backyard baseball, football, and basketball games. There were millions of other kids doing the same.
Perhaps because he had such widespread reach for ESPN, Scott also heralded an era in which the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports would become an industry leader in diversity on racial and gender lines. In a sports media where the vast majority of editors, anchors, and reporters are still white men, ESPN leads the pack on both racial and gender hiring, and the amount of black talent it puts at the forefront of its products, from SportsCenter and other studio shows to its magazine and news reporting, is unparallelled in the industry. Scott was proof that a more diverse cast of hosts and writers could reach new audiences and expand those that already existed. ESPN has no doubt taken note.
Later, Scott became a role model and an icon not for his style or approach to delivering news and highlights, but for his approach to life. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2007, in 2012, and again in 2013. He remained at work on NFL Countdown and in other roles on ESPN throughout it all, even through as many as 58 chemotherapy treatments and oral medication, as the New York Times’ Richard Sandomir detailed this year. When he could no longer appear on Countdown this fall, he still submitted his nightly picks to win through Suzy Kolber, who took over hosting duties in his absence.
At its annual ESPY awards this summer, ESPN presented Scott with the Jimmy V Perseverance Award, named for the famous college basketball coach who died of cancer the year Scott joined ESPN. As maybe only Stu could, he walked on stage and delivered a moving speech that left everyone in tears.
“When we die, it does not mean that we lose to cancer,” Scott said. “You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live.”
Stu Scott is gone now, too soon and too tragically. But from his unwillingness to bend to critics who didn’t like that he was something different to his refusal to give up even when facing a terrible disease, he left behind a company, a sports media, and a world that is better simply because he was such a major part of it.