This story is part six of Boardroom’s Women’s History Month series highlighting bold figures forging distinctive paths in the worlds of sports, business, culture, and entertainment.
Part I: Morgan DeBaun | Part II: Valentina Shevchenko | Part III: Dany Garcia |
Part IV: Gina Prince-Bythewood | Part V: Carla Banks-Waddles
The hooper and ESPN personality Monica McNutt talks breaking into sports media, building equity and dignity for women in the industry, and the base of support that powers her forward.
Few media personalities have the ability in such short order to have audiences wondering, ‘hey, where has this breath of fresh air been hiding?’ And if Monica McNutt still isn’t a household name to you, Boardroom is here to introduce you to the dynamic and whip-smart ESPN analyst.
An all-around basketball lifer, McNutt got her start on local television in the Washington, DC area, where she additionally played college hoops at Georgetown. The Maryland native’s compelling commentary — coupled with her stunning ensembles, it must be said! — has earned her frequent appearances across SportsCenter, Around the Horn, Debatable, and NBA Today, as well as a WNBA studio host role.
Her eventual ascent into the top tier of sports media was perhaps always expected, but she’s more than just your favorite athlete’s favorite journalist — for Boardroom’s ongoing Women’s History Month series, McNutt opened up about her unorthodox gap year before entering into the industry, the importance of aligning oneself with other successful women and the most teachable moment in her career thus far.
VINCIANE NGOMSI: How did you make the transition from college basketball star at Georgetown to on-air analyst at ESPN, and what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned along the way?
MONICA MCNUTT: I would say that step one is just advocating for yourself and letting people know what you want to do and what you believe you’re capable of accomplishing. That’s super pie-in-the-sky, but I definitely think that’s step one. And then with that, I ran into people that had my back and were willing to help me navigate this path.
After I left Georgetown, I took a year off. I was a kindergarten aide, then I went to grad school at the University of Maryland, networked with my professors, and then started working from there. I had stints at Prince George’s community television, WJLA, the ABC affiliate in DC, then onto a sports network that no longer exists, then back to DC learning how to freelance, working for CBS Sports, Fox Sports. ‘Have checked, will work’ was the mindset, really. I was just kind of grinding it out year after year until ESPN decided to swipe me up, so to speak.
VN: I want to talk about your time as a kindergarten aide. There is something to be said about just constantly grinding and hoping for your big break — while serving in that role, was there a moment in which you thought you might be stuck there, or did it just motivate you to get where you are now?
MM: You know, that’s a great question. I remember very vividly because it was my first job out of school. By comparison, it wasn’t great money, but it was steady money. I still lived at home. It was easy and I was saving, but I remember it was the week before spring break and there was a professional development seminar, and the principal was bringing in a woman. I can’t even remember what she was going to lead the professional development day on, but she was big in teaching. She had taught for years and had this whole curriculum that other teachers and school districts subscribed to. And something clicked for me as we were preparing and I remember telling my principal at the time, ‘You know, I appreciate this opportunity so much, but this professional development day has reminded me that if you’re going to be something in your field, you have to start.’ Instead of operating on this borrowed time because it’s convenient, I want to go and put my all efforts into moving into my field so that maybe one day, I would be leading my own professional development seminar in media.
She was sad to see me go, but she kind of understood where I was coming from. So, I did not finish out that school year; I got heavy into freelancing after spring break and decided to really work my way back into media in an earnest way.
VN: What does earnestness mean to you?
MM: A full-time focus. I knew I was trying to go to grad school, but I also could have been using the time to get real-life experience in journalism. As cool as degrees are in journalism, it’s one of those fields that if you’ve done it, that equates just as much. The ease of my 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. days and helping coach varsity girls basketball, all those things served a purpose in my life. It was a very valuable career detour, but as opposed to getting comfortable collecting those checks and kicking it with the kids, I could also have been pouring myself into journalism or whatever that looked like in terms of my future career. So, in a way, I got the best of both worlds being able to do that for almost a full school year.
VN: Let’s pivot to the present. ESPN’s healthy presence of female reporters is impressive and refreshing — how do you differentiate the sort of focus through which you discuss the game, especially as a former athlete?
MM: I try to remember that as a commentator, there are some details that you get to peel the curtain back for our audiences, but I think there are also some details that you need to be respectful of and mindful [of] having been there as a collegiate athlete. Like, you talk about these guys and the hours they pour into their craft and the sacrifices that not only they make, that their families make, and so for me, it’s very important that I have conversations that are respectful. I always say, you got to have a healthy relationship with no — that is, to use it and to receive it. So, I would like to believe that for the most part, these guys and women have thick enough skin to know they are in a career that is gonna be discussed by the masses.
But at the same time, even when I disagree with a decision, a play, or even some stuff that happens off the court, I always try to handle it respectfully, because we are all humans. We’re all on this journey. Nobody nails it 100% of the time. I’ll also add: ESPN has been really cool because I’ve been given these opportunities and I’m sort of building out a digital thing. We’re calling “Run It Back,” where we just have a chance to talk to some of these role players. Everybody wants to get interviews or one-on-one with all the all-stars, but there are so many people in the NBA and WNBA that are important to winning but aren’t necessarily in the spotlight, so having the opportunity to have some conversations with them, work through tape with them, see what they see from their roles has been really cool.
VN: Sometimes, it can be difficult to feel seen or taken seriously as women. Is there a particular time that stands out for you in which you weren’t taken seriously, and how did you channel it into a teachable moment?
MM: I used to do a podcast with Clinton Portis. Clinton is great. He’s still a friend to this day, but football is not my primary sport. It wasn’t asking me to get into Xs and O’s. And so I remember — I usually don’t do this — but I remember going back to the comments on one episode on YouTube and somebody was like, ‘Please get somebody that knows football.’ In that moment, I didn’t feel taken seriously, but I also felt challenged: I don’t know football the way I know basketball because I didn’t play it.
I think for me, the way to overcome that has been my preparation and my rapport with the people that I have the opportunity to work with on a regular basis. Somebody always wants to have something to say, but I am living my dream. You don’t knock it out all the time, but I’m always thinking, ‘How can I learn and move forward so I really try hard not to get stuck?’
VN: What is the best part about working with some of sports’ most intelligent women, both on-camera and behind the scenes?
MM: How unselfish they are, particularly for so many of the women behind the scenes, at least in my experience. And I am not going to be naive and act as if my experience is singular, but when I look at how many women behind the scenes are stars in their roles and may or may not get the credit that they deserve, you want to go out there and support them, make sure they know that you see them and their efforts are not in vain. There are truly so many people that make this sports media thing turn that I think folks may never know about.
VN: You’ve got a personal team of women helping your career soar, too. Talk to me about the thought process that went into aligning yourself with them.
MM: It’s important for me to work with like-minded people. And that is not always gender specific, it just happens to be those two business relationships between my agent, Kristin Bredes LaFemina, and publicist, LaTonya Story, that are very important. I appreciate the relationship with my agent because I know she’s working for herself, but I also know she’s working hard for me, and also there’s that symmetry in terms of being go-getters and hustlers. Kristin knows I had a gazillion jobs before I whittled down to just ESPN and MSG Networks. Kristen has that same kind of energy and is well-respected.
LaTonya was recommended to me by a friend. And that has been a relationship that has exceeded past business, because again, this is a woman who lives her life on purpose and passion. She works hard and she’s well-respected, and again, I think your healthy relationship with ‘no’ is so important. Everybody’s experience of you may not be the same. We’re not all going to get along, and that’s okay, but as far as I’m concerned, these women have added to my life and I hoped that I’ve added to their lives. They understand that I’m not one that’s greedy. Now, do I want to work? Absolutely. But if it doesn’t work out for me, what other women can we help put on? Like, how can we continue to move this thing forward? Because I truly am a woman that believes that there’s room for all the girls — period.
VN: Which strides do you think we still need to make within media to ensure that women’s voices are not only heard, but at the forefront of conversations that involve us?
MM: I’m actually working with some students at the University of Maryland on this kind of project around March Madness and marketing women’s sports. I think I
sometimes have to take a step back because I am a woman, I support women, and cover women’s sports. Like, it’s easy to find my bubble of people that do that, that get that they want to hear from more women, they respect women, but I think we have to look at the big, big picture and we still have a ways to go.
I think equality is a surface thing when it comes to women’s voices being heard. Like, okay, we got five men writers, we need five women writers. That’s the very surface of it, but I think society, employers, media, corporations, marketers, all that need to dig a little bit deeper and really understand what equity actually looks like in terms of supporting those women. Whether it be if they want to become moms and however that journey might look like, giving them the resources to help them find equal footing, etc. That takes us all being a little bit more introspective in terms of the privileges of the male species. When I think of how we can move media forward and give women more voices, it starts with the opportunities. And then second, I think it would be the support.
VN: Final question, and I try to ask this to everyone I interview: What’s one important thing most fans probably don’t know about you?
MM: I think people might be a little bit surprised that I’m a little bit of a homebody. I don’t know if I give that [impression] on television. I am very diligent on cultivating a space of peace. I very much believe in the butterfly effect when it comes to being outside — like, y’all will see me, we’re taking a couple pictures, do a little dance, then I’m out.
But I’m grateful. Knicks fans in New York have embraced me. Fans of ESPN have embraced me. It’s been incredible. But as of late, more and more I find myself enjoying the off switch.
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