Acclaimed ESPN journalist shares stories

by Carl Setterlund / Beacon Staff • March 20, 2014

Carole Simpson (left) interviewing her cousin Michael Wilbon of ESPN.
Carole Simpson (left) interviewing her cousin Michael Wilbon of ESPN.

Journalism professor Carole Simpson said she has been trying for six years to get her cousin to come for a visit to the Emerson campus, but he’s just been too busy with work.

Simpson, herself a prominent national news anchor for several decades, wasn’t the only member of her family who was a natural on television. Her overachieving cousin happens to be newsman-turned-columnist-turned-commentator Michael Wilbon, co-host of the popular ESPN sports debate show Pardon The Interruption, often referred to as PTI.

“He finally saw a day that he could come,” said Simpson, whom Wilbon called a mentor. “I wasn’t sure he was going to come until he called me from the airport to say he was here.”

After having to initially reschedule and push the event back a week, Simpson finally landed her interview, getting Wilbon to join her from 3 to 5 p.m. at the Tufte Building’s Semel Theater last Friday. Simpson opened the discussion with Wilbon before turning the forum over to the 26 students in attendance, which was littered with male and female student-athletes.

“PTI has been a huge influence on what made me want to be a journalism major,” said men’s soccer goalie Carter Bowers, who engaged Wilbon, a Chicago native, on his friendship with NBA legend Michael Jordan, who won six championships with the Chicago Bulls in the ‘90s.

“There was a showmanship [about Jordan] that you could only do once,” Wilbon said.

Wilbon’s transparency and quick-witted banter with his longtime friend Tony Kornheiser turned PTI into an unlikely hit when it debuted in October 2001. On Friday, 55-year-old Wilbon addressed the crowd with the same open-book gregariousness that thrust him into notoriety.

“I knew he was a really good guy from watching the show,” Bowers said, “but you saw he’s sincere, too, in that he’d give up his time to talk to a bunch of aspiring young journalists.”

Wilbon covered topics ranging from his views on social media (he used to get too carried away on Twitter) to current hot-button discussion items such as a movement to ban the n-word in NFL football and the potential of gay athlete Michael Sam joining the NFL.

“He enjoyed it immensely,” Simpson said. “We went out afterwards for dinner with my family, and he was saying he thought the students’ questions were extremely insightful.”

Wilbon was, however, caught unaware by the number of Emerson alumni prominently involved in professional sports. 

That list includes 1968 graduate Al Jaffe, who has been ESPN’s vice president of talent negotiation and production recruitment since 1996, serving an instrumental role in the station’s rise  to sports programming dominance.

Wilbon, said he’s known Jaffe since before PTI when Jaffe recruited him to take part in the Sunday morning discussion The Sports Reporters, although Wilbon said Pardon the Interruption was developed by former ESPN executive Mark Shapiro, whom he collaborated with in the SportsCentury documentary series.

“This was 1998, and Mark Shapiro says ‘When I become somebody I’m going to put this on television,’ and we were like ‘What are you talking about?’” Wilbon said, growing animated. “I remember Tony saying ‘That’s nice, now shut up and get me another cup of coffee.’”

Former ESPN SportsCenter anchor Steve Berthiaume is another Emerson graduate, while journalism professor Janet Kolodzy, one of several faculty in attendance, reminded Wilbon that NBA general managers Sam Presti and Rob Hennigan are both former Lion athletes.

Kolodzy and Wilbon share the same alma mater, as she graduated a few years ahead of him at from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.

“He’s a well-known Medill alum, so it was nice to finally get to meet him,” said Kolodzy.

It’s a small world, though, as Kolodzy said Wilbon knows her college roommate, Helene Elliott, the prominent Los Angeles Times writer who owns the distinction of being the first female media member to be inducted into the NHL Hall of Fame.

Wilbon knows a little bit about being a voice for an underrepresented sect of the sports media population as well. He spoke openly about the lack of African-American sports columnists during the 1990s; however, he said the situation has since improved.

“He talks, and talks freely and openly and honestly and candidly, and doesn’t care what anyone thinks about it, so it’s very easy for him to do what he does,” Simpson said.