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Winter 2023

Purple Press

From the studio to the sidelines, these sports media all-stars all have one thing in common. By Joshua Rosenblat

Clockwise from top, Cassidy Hubbarth, Michael Wilbon, Christine Brennan and Mike GreenbergImage: Brennan: Courtesy Of Christine Brennan; Wilbon: Fennell Photography

If you tune in to ESPN most weekday mornings, you’ll see Get Up host Mike Greenberg in front of a framed Wildcats football jersey. Check back later to catch Michael Wilbon on Pardon the Interruption and you’ll spot a football helmet emblazoned with the Northwestern “N.”

Greenberg ’89 and Wilbon ’80 are two titans of the sports media world who are unapologetically proud of their purple roots.

Sometimes, though, their shared alma mater bleeds into their work. During the 2021–22 NBA season, Greenberg and Wilbon teamed up on ESPN’s NBA Countdown, offering pregame and halftime analysis for some of the league’s biggest matchups. But during their off-camera breaks, the Wildcats took priority. 

“On NBA nights, we’d sit on set and watch the Northwestern basketball games,” Greenberg confides. And that’s not new. Greenberg recalls the Wildcats’ thrilling run in the 2017 NCAA men’s basketball tournament, when he and Wilbon “held each other like small children watching those games.”

The two ESPN legends are part of a loud and proud network of Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications alumni in sports journalism. From coast to coast, you can find Medill grads on sidelines and in press boxes, breaking down the big plays in studio and digging beneath the surface to get the inside story.

They report, analyze, illustrate and contextualize. Their work exposes injustices, inspires change and unearths history. Some of them have more social media followers than the athletes they cover — Wilbon and Greenberg together have nearly 6 million Twitter followers.

We talked with several prominent and up-and-coming sports media stars about how serendipitous timing put them in the right place to do groundbreaking reporting — and how sports reporting helps us understand broader societal issues.

Sports Reflect Society

After her sophomore year at Northwestern, Christine Brennan returned to her hometown in summer 1978 to intern at The Toledo Blade city desk. She covered county fairs, wrote obituaries and reported heartwarming features. Between assignments, though, Brennan would venture back to the sports desk. “Those were my heroes,” she says, “so I’d sneak back and say hi.”

The next summer, The Blade asked her to intern with the sports section, making her the first woman to work full time in that department.

Brennan ’80, ’81 MS has gone on to become a bestselling author, award-winning sports columnist for USA Today and frequent CNN and ABC News commentator. Her canon of work provides a broad view of the last 40 years of sports history. But the term “stick to sports” isn’t part of her vocabulary, she says, because it’s such a narrow view of sports’ impact on the world. “Sports take us to important national conversations that we would not be having otherwise,” Brennan says. “Yes, we love sports. We live and die with sports. But the world of sports is so much more than fun and games.”

Even people who aren’t interested in professional golf couldn’t ignore the conversations that arose when Brennan started writing columns in 1999 that drew attention to Augusta National Golf Club’s archaic policy regarding women members. Her columns helped spur the club, home of the Masters Tournament, to finally admit women in 2012.

Her reporting has also revealed scandals at multiple Olympic Games. She notably broke the stories of the 2002 Winter Olympics scandal in Salt Lake City, where a judge from France was pressured to fix the results for pairs figure skating; the Russian judging scandal at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia; and the Kamila Valieva doping scandal at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Brennan’s ability to illustrate how sports are representative of social, cultural, economic and political issues comes in part from her time at Northwestern.

“There’s an old line about the sports section being the toy department at the paper. Well, it’s not the toy department anymore, and it hasn’t been for years,” says Brennan, who in 1981 became the first woman sports reporter at The Miami Herald. In 1985 she also became the first woman to cover the Washington, D.C., NFL team at The Washington Post, where she sat next to Michael Wilbon for 10 years.

“In my career, I’ve always looked at myself — from my first internships to my first days at The Miami Herald — as being a journalist who was covering sports, not necessarily as a sports journalist,” says Brennan, who is a professor of practice at Northwestern as well as a University trustee. “That comes from Medill.”

Kevin Blackistone ’81, Washington Post columnist and University of Maryland journalism professor of the practice, shares Brennan’s mentality. For Blackistone, reporting on issues of equity, racism, poverty and fair compensation go hand in hand with sports coverage.

Kevin Blackistone

Blackistone didn’t begin his career covering sports. He worked the city desk at The Boston Globe, then investigated social justice issues at The Chicago Reporter. By 1986 Blackistone had moved to The Dallas Morning News, where he covered business and the economy. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that he started writing a sports column in Dallas.

“Writing about race and social justice is the reason I’m in journalism,” says Blackistone. “So it’s through that lens that I generally look at every topic that I write about. It was also the one area that I knew I had gravitas in and knew would be newsworthy one way or another, because historically there were very few sports columnists who dealt with [race and social justice], despite the fact that those issues have been rampant in sports from day one.”

Blackistone recently served as a producer of Imagining the Indian: The Fight Against Native American Mascoting. The feature-length documentary, which premiered in 2022, focuses on the movement to eliminate the use of Native American slurs and names in logos, images and gestures that represent sports teams. “For journalists of color and women,” he adds, “if we don’t bring those perspectives to our journalism, then we’re really doing journalism a disservice.”

Getting The Big Break

Sometimes it pays to be the last one in the office.

In fall 2019 Lyndsey Armacost ’18 had been working as a production assistant with ESPN’s Outside the Lines investigative series. She was in the office late one day when the phone rang.

Lyndsey Armacost. Credit: Kelly Backus / ESPN Images

“It was a coordinating producer who said, ‘We have a story that might break tonight. We need you in edit, and we don’t know when you’re going to leave.’ I ended up in edit for 15 to 20 hours a day for four days, assisting on the Tyler Skaggs breaking news project,” Armacost says.

Skaggs, who pitched for the Los Angeles Angels, died on July 1, 2019. His death revealed a drug trade involving an Angels employee who was supplying Skaggs and other players with oxycodone and other drugs. 

The Outside the Lines report on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration investigation won first place for breaking news in the Associated Press Sports Editors 2019 contest. (The former Angels employee was sentenced to 22 years in prison in October 2022.) 

Armacost continued to assist the investigative and news enterprise unit at ESPN until she moved into a full-time role with the team in April 2022. She is now an associate producer there.

Being in the right place at the right time can be key for anyone. But in the fast-moving world of sports media, it can create make-or-break career opportunities.

Coley Harvey

In June 2016, Coley Harvey ’07 was wrapping up a three-year stint as the Cincinnati Bengals beat reporter at ESPN. He had planned to drive to Atlanta to visit family, but a broken toe prevented him from making the six-hour drive. Sitting on his couch in Cincinnati on the night of June 3, Harvey started seeing news alerts that boxing legend Muhammad Ali had died. 

“It dawned on me that I was only an hour and a half from Louisville, which is where Ali was born and raised,” Harvey says. “I emailed some of the TV-side producers and said, ‘Hey, I know I’m covering the Bengals and was just a digital reporter, but if you guys need any help in Louisville this weekend, because I know it’s going to be crazy, let me know.’ They called me back at 2 a.m. and asked if I could be in Louisville by 8 a.m. I said, ‘Yes!’”

Harvey anticipated staying in Louisville for a couple days at most. But he became ESPN’s reporter on the ground for that entire week leading up to the memorial service.

“It ended up being a game-changing moment in my career, because a week or two later I got a phone call from the head of SportsCenter at the time,” says Harvey, now a national reporter at ESPN. “That’s how I got on TV, just by raising my hand for what was arguably the biggest story I’ve covered.”

Decisions to cover certain stories don’t always come easily. An ESPN studio host for most of her career, Cassidy Hubbarth ’07 had started working sidelines for NBA games in 2014. “The biggest part of the job was being out on the road and getting to know not just the players but also the coaches and general managers within the NBA,” says Hubbarth.

In 2020 the NBA moved to a COVID-19 bubble at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., to complete its regular season and playoffs. “I had a 1-year-old, so it was hard — really hard — to be away for six weeks,” says Hubbarth, now a reporter with ESPN.

But those six weeks in Orlando gave her an incredible opportunity. “The bubble really ingrained me into the fabric of the NBA,” she says. “Those players saw me every day, and it was such an intimate experience.”

The Next Generation

J.A. Adande ’92, a former Los Angeles Times columnist, is the first director of sports journalism at Medill, an opportunity that emerged when he returned to Northwestern as the Homecoming grand marshal for his 20-year reunion in 2012. 

J.A. Adande. Credit: Michael Goss

Brad Hamm, then the Medill dean, gathered a group of sports media alumni and “challenged us to think about our connection with Northwestern and how we were connecting with current students,” Adande says. “It stirred something within me.”

Adande accepted a formal offer to teach at Northwestern in 2016 while still doing contract work as a columnist and reporter at ESPN. He joined Medill full time in 2017.

He’s proud of the direction that the sports media program — and Medill more broadly — has taken, away from a print-first focus. “Now it would simply be negligent to not help students develop a broader array of skills,” he says. “You should be able to write a story and host a podcast about the subject. You should be able to do a television hit and reformat your story as a video. You need to be able to do all those things.”

The sports media curriculum starts with a focus on the fundamentals of journalism and builds from there, allowing students to concentrate on developing their own voices.

One of the hallmarks of the graduate-level sports media specialization is being able to visit and attend major events, such as NBA All-Star Weekend, the Super Bowl and the Kentucky Derby. Students also report live on game days, gaining real-world experience of covering sports on deadline. And at those events, students are sure to see a friendly Medill face.

“You can always find a Medill grad in a press box,” says Adande.

Mike Greenberg, for one, relishes the idea of inspiring the next generation of sports media stars.

“I am delighted to see the emphasis that J.A. Adande and Dean Charles Whitaker [’80, ’81 MS] have placed on our sports concentration,” he says. “When I got accepted to Medill, my first thought was, ‘I’m following in the footsteps of Brent Musburger ’61.’ I hope that the [current and recent graduates] feel that same connection and inspiration.”

Joshua Rosenblat ’17 is newsletter editor for Sports Illustrated. He lives in Chicago.

Illustrations by Sean McCabe

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Reader Responses

  • I think that you made a serious omission in the article "Purple Press" in the winter 2023 copy of Northwestern Magazine. You did not mention Cynthia Frelund '15 MBA, '19 MS of the NFL Network who received an MBA from NU's Kellogg School of Management in finance, entrepreneurship and innovation in 2015 and went on to earn a master's degree in predictive analytics, also from Kellogg. Cynthia's contributions to TV media are at least as important if not more important than the contributions of the Medill alumni. She deserved a mention of some kind in the article.

    Henry J. Klayman ’70 MBA, Schaumburg, Ill., via Northwestern Magazine

  • I am enjoying the winter 2023 edition of Northwestern magazine, especially the profiles of Northwestern alumni working in sports media.

    However, I think it should be noted that Dave Revsine '91 has had a very successful run at ESPN (10 years, including anchoring SportsCenter and ESPN News) and more recently at the Big Ten Network (lead host for Big Ten Tonight and Football Saturday). Dave also authored a critically acclaimed account of the early years of college football ("The Opening Kickoff: The Tumultuous Birth of a Football Nation").

    Although Dave is not a graduate of Medill, he represents Northwestern's finest in sports journalism.

    Bela Barner ’89 Chicago, via Northwestern Magazine

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