On Wednesday, October 7, Rhiannon Walker joined Marist students over Zoom as she adds to the long list of guest speakers that the Center of Sports Communications will host this semester.
Walker, who currently writes for The Athletic, is a beat writer for the Washington Football Team. Prior to landing at the publication, Walker spent more than two seasons with ESPN at The Undefeated. During her time with ESPN, she wrote profiles, features, and covered all major sports for the company.
The Zoom with Walker opened at noon, but the introduction did not go as planned. Walker was forced to join the meeting on her phone from her car after major news within the organization broke that morning.
“I think this is good for everyone to see what’s happening,” said Jane McManus, head of Marist’s Sports Communication’s department. “That way you all have a better understanding of how crazy it can be being a beat writer or working in sports,”
Walker was not supposed to be at the Washington facility today, but the team announced the benching of former first round pick quarterback Dwayne Haskins for backup Kyle Allen. Haskins was also pushed back to third string, behind current backup Alex Smith.
“I apologize for being late, it’s been a crazy morning, I didn’t even expect to go into the facility today,” Walker said. “I fully expected to be working at home on Zoom, but in this industry, this happens a lot. It’s always on the go.”
Walker further explained the challenges of what it is like working in the business. This NFL season is taking place during unprecedented times due to COVID-19 and she mentioned how things are constantly changing. This is in part due to head coach Ron Rivera, who was diagnosed with cancer before the season started.
“We don’t even have a set schedule anymore because we don’t know when [the] coach is going to have his treatments,” Walker said. “This is just another element of being ready whenever in the day to do my job.”
Covering the Washington Football Team has been more difficult recently given the recent name change and negative headlines that has had the team in the news the past two decades. The team has had many sexual harassment allegations against them from women working for the team. This offseason, many of those women have come forward to discuss this issue, including Walker.
“I had some fear when I stepped forward to speak on this. I think under the old coaching staff I would have been more concerned. I was not very close with that coaching staff, in the fundamental element,” Walker said. “With Ron Rivera, it’s different, I trust him immensely…I know Ron is a very serious guy and he doesn’t let those things slide. These weren’t his issues, he didn’t create this culture or allow these things to happen.”
The conversation transitioned into Walker covering the team itself and how to handle athletes when they are visibly upset, such as Haskins was this morning following the news that he would be benched.
“I never take it personally when someone is upset with me when I ask them a question. On the human level, I get that he showed his raw emotions and it is really hard on him. I get both sides of it,” Walker said. “We don’t have to be robots. We can use that empathy to have that conversation. I found the way to straddle the line of, ‘I have to ask you that question.’ I don’t take pleasure in it. It’s just my job.”
Working in sports, especially covering teams, may be a coveted job for most, but sometimes can become a struggle with a losing franchise. Washington has not had a winning season since 2016 and haven’t made it past the Wild Card round of the playoffs since 2005.
“When things are really bad and there’s nothing to write about, it’s no bueno. Even for a team that was 3-13 last year, they do have a lot of appeal which is great for the journalistic side because I do have a lot of substantial content to write about,” Walker said. “Covering bad teams that do a lot of different things is not a bad thing, but covering a bad team that does nothing, there is nothing fun about that.”
Although there are struggles in this business, Walker strives to find the bright side.
“I love my job, there’s nothing about it that is routine or the same. It’s interesting and fascinating, there’s so many personalities and so much going on,” Walker stated.
The Sports Communication Department intends to continue this fall speaker series with ESPN host and anchor, Trey Wingo later this month.
Edited by Bridget Reilly and David Connelly