If you’ve watched ESPN at all this week, you’re undoubtedly aware that The Undefeated hosted a town hall meeting at the YMCA on the South Side of Chicago on Thursday. I was in attendance at the event. Jemele Hill did an extraordinary job hosting, leading four different panels that included athletes (Jabari Parker, Rajon Rondo), media members (Michael Wilbon, Clinton Yates), athletes-turned-media members (Isiah Thomas, Doug Glanville), community advocates, and more. She also did a remote interview with Dwyane Wade.
Because the event lasted over three hours in-person and was made into a 90-minute broadcast, it’s a difficult thing to distill into soundbites, or even summarize. It’s advisable to watch the whole thing (cable subscription, or at least your parents’ password, required), if you haven’t done so already. These were a few things that especially stood out for me:
1. The Chicago Police Department agreed to participate at the very last minute.
The first panel consisted of MLB veteran and ESPN analyst Doug Glanville, Pastor Jolinda Wade (Dwyane Wade’s mother), UIC assistant professor of history Elizabeth Todd-Breland, Undefeated senior writer Lonnae O’Neal, and Jabari Parker. This talk centered around the relationship between police and community.
These anecdotes did not make it to the final airing, but Glanville told a story, which he covered in thorough detail in 2014 in The Atlantic, about how he was racially profiled in his own driveway. O’Neal recalled a time, which she wrote about in the Washington Post last year, in which she was in the car when her daughter was pulled over, and had forgotten her learner’s permit. The interaction with the officer … did not go smoothly. At the end of the panel, Jemele Hill said that the Chicago Police Department had been invited to participate in the town hall meeting, but declined.
And so it was a little bit confusing at the taping when, after the panel, Chicago police coordinator Glen Brooks gave this statement:
“We had been trying to get a Chicago Police official – Superintendent Eddie Johnson, or the head of patrol, or anybody that they would send,” Undefeated editor-in-chief Kevin Merida told me after the event. “We had been talking to them for the life of this thing, and there was a place for them on a panel. We were told [on Wednesday] that they could not make anybody available.”
Merida said that the CPD had told him they would have a representative in the audience, but that person wouldn’t speak. “Once we discovered that [Glen Brooks] was in the audience, Jill [Hudson], our roaming reporter went to him and we certainly decided we wanted to have him speak. We didn’t know he was available. We asked him if he was free to speak, and then said, ‘Sure, go ahead.'”
A cynic might wonder whether the Chicago Police Department wanted to give an uninterrupted statement instead of appearing on the panel, where words could theoretically be challenged or the infamous Laquan McDonald cover-up brought up.
“I have no idea,” said Merida, in response to a question about whether this was an intentional tactic. “All we did was respond journalistically, like you would, once we discovered that they were there. You’d like to have police involved. We went and got Marco Johnson, a detective of 28 years who’s now head of the Police Athletic League, to sit in [on the second panel] after the Chicago Police said they couldn’t make anybody available. We were determined to have some perspective from someone who had worn the blue and worn the badge. I don’t associate any motives or anything, we responded to the facts as they were. Once we discovered [Brooks] was there, we [had him speak].”
2. The second panel was very poignant.
The second panel featured Marcellus Wiley, the aforementioned retired police officer Marco Johnson, Derrick Rose’s bodyguard Andre Hamlin, Chicago Sky guard Cappie Pondexter, and Stephanie Brown, whose 13-year-old son was killed playing basketball in 2011. This panel, which is at around the 21-minute mark on the Watch ESPN video, featured very powerful personal stories (and also a bit of comic relief when Hamlin talked about how Rose would frequent the “ratchetest clubs”). Of the four panels, this one felt as though it had the most room to breathe.
This section, where Marcellus Wiley discussed how owning a gun as a young NFL player “changed my entire mental dynamic,” and the impetus for giving it up:
3. Obviously, this town hall meeting will not in and of itself solve anything.
This is not to say that this dialog was not ambitious or edifying, because it was both. However, it was by and large a collection of people who are already well off, ranging from comparatively to absolutely. This reality was hammered home by Dawn Valenti, a crisis responder for Chicago’s Citizen’s for Change:
“I appreciate ESPN coming here,” she said. “We’ve had Diane Sawyer. We’ve had Steve Harvey. We have a lot of town hall meetings. But after these town hall meetings everybody goes back to the comforts of their home, and these children are still in the street and they’re still dying. Not only do we have the children that are dying, we have the siblings of the children who are dying. Nobody gets to see them. Nobody gets to see the 16-year-old who lost her 15-year-old-sister, who now has PTSD so severely she wants to kill herself. Nobody sees the aftermath.”
The grand solution to the cycle of poverty, violence, and mistrusting relationship with the police cannot be solved in a town hall, a write-up of that town hall, or maybe even a lifetime. Valenti’s point, which was echoed at various times Rajon Rondo, and Jabari Parker — and is exemplified by them — is that people need to be there to help. Ideally, this discussion will spur some more of that both locally and nationally.
4. The Undefeated will have the full support of ESPN’s muscles.
Putting an event like this together requires a lot of money and work. Not only do arrangements need to be made for the 20 or so on-air participants, but there’s a lot of work to be done in production, graphic design, PR, and logistics. ESPN carved out 90 minutes of primetime for this special. When the Little League World Series lead-in ran about 40 minutes late, ESPN cut that much time into 11pm SportsCenter, not the Undefeated’s program.
After shuttering Grantland, ESPN poured immense resources into the yet-to-be-launched The Undefeated, by my rough estimate tripling its staff. Unlike specials for Grantland, which as an entity was largely cordoned off on its own due to reasons that have been dissected ad nauseam and do not need to be rehashed here, promotion for this event permeated through every facet of ESPN’s television, radio, and digital channels. This requires more administrative cooperation than most people would reflexively realize, and is an indication that The Undefeated is here for the long haul.