It’s 2 o’clock on Wednesday afternoon. 32 students have called in on Zoom from their bedrooms standing by (or sitting by, rather), waiting for the chance to listen and speak to Trey Wingo, a fixture on ESPN’s NFL broadcasts for over two decades.
Jane McManus, the director of Marist’s Center for Sports Communications, welcomes students and introduces Wingo. She asks him about his professional experience, what it takes to thrive in the sports media industry, how he shakes off nervousness when he’s on the air and how he prepares for the NFL Draft. Then, she opens the floor for students to ask questions. They inquire about how to obtain experience in sports broadcasting, how to pursue a job, what his favorite job ever was, and more.
Marist students have grown accustomed to hearing from professionals in sports media, as Wingo is the eighth guest to virtually visit Marist students in 2020. For many college students that dream of having a long career in the sports media industry, the chances to pick the brains of sports media stalwarts over Zoom is just about the best way they can learn from professionals in their ideal field of work during a pandemic.
The students have McManus to thank for the opportunity to hear from the people whose articles they read, whose broadcasts they listen to, whose careers they aspire to create for themselves.
In 2018, McManus took the reins of the Center for Sports Communications. The Columbia University graduate and New York Daily News columnist set up numerous in person events since arriving in Poughkeepsie. From a panel of sports journalism figures at Marist’s Manhattan campus to welcoming guests like ESPN radio host Freddie Coleman and reporter/TV correspondent Michele Steele to Poughkeepsie, McManus has found ways to provide students with first-hand advice and insight from a variety of people in sports media.
But, like almost every in-person gathering this year, visits from professionals in the sports media field have transitioned to an online format. When Marist confirmed that it would finish the second half of its spring 2020 semester online, McManus shifted the visitations to Zoom with a new list of guests.
“I thought this is a great time to go for some of the guests that have been trickier to schedule just because getting to Marist and arranging for people to get to Marist can be challenging in finding a time. But obviously, if you’re moving events to Zoom, then it’s a little bit easier to make that happen,” she said.
The calls usually last between 45 and 60 minutes. Roughly the first half of the call consists of McManus asking the guest questions about their academic and professional background, then she opens it up to the students’ questions for the remainder of the time.
ESPN’s Sarah Spain, who used to host a radio show alongside McManus and Kate Fagan, was the first guest. Spain spoke with students on Tuesday, April 21 at 10:30 a.m. Following Spain every week in the same time slot was baseball reporter Marly Rivera and football reporter Dan Graziano of ESPN, media writer Richard Deitsch of The Athletic and freelance writer Adam Zagoria, whose work has been featured in the New York Times, Forbes and NJ.com.
The people McManus reached out to were not just names drawn from a hat. She devised a list of sports media members that offered a diverse set of skills. “It’s important to me that we’re amplifying voices that can tell us different stories,” she said. “So that’s important to me that we have women, we have men, we have people of color, we have older people, we have younger people, we have broadcasters, we have writers. I want people who come from all different backgrounds and have different strengths.”
McManus has “a passing familiarity” with the guests she has digitally hosted. Only Spain is a friend outside of the business to her. “I try very hard not to have it be ‘The Friends of Jane’ speaker series because I want a lot of different kinds of people to be able to come and speak,” McManus said, adding that she focuses on what makes each guest and their job unique. “I don’t want to bring in ten people who tell the same story. I want to bring people who are covering different things, who have different jobs, who approach things differently, who have different responsibilities.”
Each guest McManus enlists for a call possesses a unique attribute that makes them stand out from the others. She cited Spain’s charisma, Rivera being an MLB reporter that is bilingual, Graziano’s experience covering the NFL Draft (which occurred roughly a week before his call), Deitsch’s knowledge about the job market and how the coronavirus has affected it and Zagoria’s career as a freelance writer. The latter two were targeted because their areas of expertise were especially important to graduating seniors.
The slate of speakers for the fall 2020 semester offers a wide spectrum of expertise, too. McManus’ wish list consisted of a diverse roster of potential speakers. She batted 1.000 on her recruiting efforts, receiving an acceptance from every invitation she sent out.
Nancy Armour of USA Today writes opinion pieces about a wide variety of subjects, Bob Costas is Bob Costas, Jemele Hill hosted SportsCenter and was suspended for political tweets, Rhiannon Walker is a beat reporter covering the Washington Football Team who spoke out against sexual harassment she experienced from one of their executieves, Wingo has decades of experience on television, and the Concussion Legacy Foundation offers comprehensive insight on a promient issue in sports.
McManus isn’t flying solo on this endeavor. Flanking her are sports communication lecturer Leander Schaerlaeckens, Donte Botts, ‘21 and Connor Kurpat, ‘22. Schaerlaeckens helps moderate the meetings, Botts prepares some questions and writes recaps of calls and Kurpat manages the RSVP system, filing the attendees’ emails in a Google Sheets document and sending out the link the day of the call.
Teachers in the Sports Communication department have used guest speakers through Zoom as well. McManus brought in Howard Bryant into her class the week before the Wingo call. Schaerlaeckens hosted James Wagner, the New York Times’ beat reporter for the New York Yankees, to speak with his class in August.
Adjunct professors Chris Riviezzo and Michael Smith did the same. Riviezzo, a television producer for ESPN, enlisted some of his colleagues to speak with his class from last spring: Kevin Connors, Maria Taylor, Kevin Neghandi and Julie Foudy. Smith, the former SportsCenter co-anchor, booked longtime basketball reporter Jackie MacMullan to talk to his class. That call featured a surprise visitor that popped in right after McMullan: ESPN host Katie Nolan.
Online visits have their pros and cons. The main pro is convenience. “It’s a lot easier to set up Zoom talks,” McManus said. She cited several facets of hosting guests at Marist that make scheduling them tricky: “the process of getting a hotel if someone needs to overnight, the process of checking our budget to defray train or plane or car costs…finding a date on the calendar, if something comes up in someone’s schedule to work changing that date.”
McManus recalled a story about Steele’s visit in October of 2019. “Since it was in the NFL season,” she said, “there was some question about whether or not something was gonna come up and might’ve made her change her plans.” Steele warned McManus that a sudden schedule change was possible, but none came up. She flew to her next assigned game afterwards, skipping a trip back to her Chicago home, to make the visit work.
The main and obvious con is that Zoom calls can never be as effective as hearing and speaking to someone in person. Despite all the commotion around scheduling in-person visits to Marist, McManus immediately shot down the idea of continuing Zoom meetings when it’s safe for guests to visit.
“There’s an alchemy when people are in the room together, a collaborative nature to that,” McManus said. “I don’t think you can replace it on Zoom.” Though she conceded that the Zoom meetings are valuable, she pointed out that they don’t allow for more personable interactions such as properly introducing oneself to the guest, one-on-one discussions and receiving business cards.
To further explain why she prefers in-person gatherings, McManus cited the interactions following the “State of the Unions” panel, which featured a representative from the NFL, WNBA and USWNT discussing players associations and collective bargaining agreements. She invited Marist graduates and journalists, like Sports Illustrated’s Jenny Vrentas and Charlotte Wilder (the latter now works for FOX Sports) and Bleacher Report’s Lakia Holmes, to the February event.
“They engaged with our students afterwards,” McManus said. “There were, like, big scrums afterwards where people were talking and having conversations. You can’t do that with Zoom, and so it’s not the same. I think the in-person part of the university experience has been proven during this pandemic, so I look forward to having – when we can and when it’s safe for everyone – a big room filled with people who all are thinking about the same issues.”
Since the format of next semester has not yet been formulated, McManus hasn’t reached out to anyone to speak yet. Still, she has some names on her mind: USA Today columnist Christine Brennan, VICE TV podcaster/former ESPN host Cari Champion and FOX & friends host/former ESPN host Will Cain.
McManus also said she is interested in bringing in former athletes who have experience as members of the media. Kurpat suggested ESPN host Pablo Torre and Brandon Tierney, a former Marist baseball player who is now the co-host of CBS Sports Radio’s marquee show “Tiki & Tierney” alongside former All-Pro running back Tiki Barber. Botts suggested ESPN basketball reporters Adrian Wojnarowski and Malika Andrews, as well as reporters who covered the NBA in its Disney World bubble.
When she worked more in the field as a writer, McManus received offers to talk to students. She said she took up the opportunity every time. “I do think that there’s kind of a code of honor when it comes to speaking to younger people,” she said. “Professionals in a field want to help the next generation and pull people up behind them. It’s part of the fun of it – to feel like you have a certain amount of expertise that you can pass along to the next generation.”
Speakers visited McManus’ classroom when she was a graduate student at Columbia – Armen Keteyian, an Emmy-award winning investigative journalist; Sharon Robinson, an author and the daughter of Jacke Robinson; Neill deMause, coauthor of the book Field of Schemes. She remembers how great it felt to receive insight and advice directly from professionals.
“You want to meet young people in the field. It gives you energy to have that back and forth dialogue with people,” McManus said. “It’s not just a burden to come speak to students at Marist, it’s a gift. It’s a way of getting something, also, and of seeing the future. I think people understand that tradeoff and that’s part of the reason why people are so generous with their time.”
McManus heard from professionals in sports media as a student and pays her dues whenever she’s asked to speak. Now, she’s recruiting fellow professionals in the industry to continue the cycle for Marist’s sports communication students, who aspire to reach levels of success that entails them to share their wisdom with a new crop of sports media hopefuls. But let’s hope that by that time, they can advise and inspire students in person, not on Zoom.
Edited by Bridget Reilly & Nicholas Stanziale