June 17, 2021
As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the 40th in a series of blogs that will be a part of that effort. I hope you will benefit from the conversation.
I have utilized A Conversation on Race to engage with equity leaders — mentors, teammates and dear friends — from all over the country, and I’ve learned so much about them and me in the process.
As we pass the one-year anniversary of George Floyd's murder, it is my hope that the rallying cries for systemic change and our progress on social justice will only accelerate. We are sustaining our voice for change, but we must continue the work.
My 20th guest is Myron Medcalf, a supremely talented and versatile journalist. The Milwaukee native has a fascinating family history, which inspired his passion for storytelling. He earned a degree in Mass Communications at Minnesota State University in Mankato, where he also worked at the student newspaper, rising to become editor-in-chief.
Initially a news reporter with the Star Tribune, Myron transitioned to covering the University of Minnesota men's basketball team, as well as all of college basketball. In October 2011, Myron was hired to cover college basketball at ESPN, though he thankfully has returned to the Star Tribune as a columnist.
And he's tackling tough topics and challenging individuals, including myself. The title of that May column: "Will powerful white Minnesotans live up to promises made after George Floyd's murder?"
After our interview, I was impressed with his thoughtfulness, willingness to listen and, ultimately, the breadth of his column, which compelled me to invite him to join me.
Myron is currently a senior college basketball reporter and nationally syndicated radio host with ESPN. He's a former Star Tribune news and sports reporter.
I hope you'll enjoy Part 2 of my talk with Myron Medcalf. (You can read part one here)
Glen: I actually love your idea of you as hope, your children as hope. And in that, it sounds like you would say there's been progress. Would you tell me more about your personal story? And also, how has racism shown up for you personally?
Myron: That's a good question. So I was a city kid, growing up in Milwaukee when Milwaukee was really changing. In the late 80s, Milwaukee was becoming a place like a lot of inner cities in America. Gangs were moving in. Violence skyrocketed, and it touched my family. A family friend, two blocks away, gets killed for his Jordans. Next door neighbor is coming home from school, around the same time, and he gets jumped by a group of boys. He's nearly killed over a Starter jacket, and it was a huge thing in Milwaukee because it really hadn't happened. We were a place that was like, 'We're not Chicago,' and then, all of a sudden, these things happen. And when my neighbor actually got assaulted, it was on the 5 o'clock news for about two months straight because he was in a coma.
This is how big it was in Milwaukee. I was a kid, and you turn on the TV at 5 o'clock with your parents, and there were updates on our neighbor. So I think my parents felt like, 'We've got three growing boys, and they're in an environment that's changing. Can we risk it? Are we putting ourselves in a tough spot?'
So we moved out to the burbs. So I am the Jeffersons, right? We moved from the all Black neighborhood to a predominantly white neighborhood, and right away, you just saw a sense of, 'Do you belong here?'
We were followed in stores, officers would follow us all the time. Things that would happen where you said, 'Wow, do they want us here? Is it okay that we're here?'
But I saw a lot of it in terms of just how I knew, through my dad, I had to be, with his demeanor. I always remember my dad would come up to the school for meetings, and he was always calm. There were moments I felt like, 'Dad, break out of your shell a little bit.'
But as a Black man in that community, in the late 80s, early 90s, he couldn't. He had to have a certain demeanor.
And I felt that. I got pulled over with some Black friends of mine, 12 squad cars, surrounded at the gas station. Officer gets out, opens the door and says, 'You're all going to jail!'
We're 15 years old. We have no idea what he's talking about. Squad cars are coming from all over the place. We're surrounded, and we're terrified. 'What's going on?' Some man had said that a group of Black guys assaulted him, took his wallet.
We were just having McDonald's. We know nothing about this. I'm 15 years old, and I'm thinking, 'If I get up and run, do I get shot in the back? And if I do, would people think it was worth it? Would they think I deserved it?"
I think about that because I've been in those situations. So the next day, we go to the police station, and I just remember my dad took me there because he wanted to investigate. I saw just how calm he was, and his anger wasn't visible because it couldn't be.
So I've just learned a lot about having to be the composed, articulate, patient Black man in a place that will react differently if I'm not.
I pull up to my white friends’ houses in Minneapolis sometimes, and I'll call them or text them and say, 'Hey, I'm here. I'm out front.' And they go, 'That's so weird, man. Just come in. Why do you have to text that you're here?'
But I need you to know that between my car and your door, something bad could happen. I need you to know that if you don't tell me that you stepped out for a minute to go get a loaf of bread, and I walk into your house and your neighbor sees me, that could put me in danger. So there are just rules and things that I think people who are members of marginalized communities, just understand.
So when you say, 'How have you experienced racism?' I think too often, people want that to look like this incredible display. Something happened to you and changed everything.
I've had a lot of racist hate mail and all that stuff. But more than anything, it's been how to stay alive and the things I do that I don't even realize I do because they're just rules I've learned over the course of my life because I don't want to put myself in a vulnerable position.
In my family, we're a bunch of basketball junkies. My dad was a high school and junior high coach, and we were all fascinated with how quickly this summer and then into the fall, both on the college and the professional side, the activism on the jerseys and some of the really cool statements that the leagues made, the positions that players took.
I'm just curious, with you intimately covering sports, what were your thoughts? Has it moved the needle? One of the things that's been sobering for me, as we've done some of the same with the Y is, some folks defining this as a political statement versus a human dignity approach. So I'm just curious, did it surprise you, did you see these influential organizations were making powerful moves?
Myron: I thought it was powerful. Anytime you're seeing prominent coaches and leaders stand up and say, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ standing with their players, kneeling with their players, showing that solidarity. Because that's how you get away from this false notion that it's a political statement.
I've had conversations with the man in the military (Retired Army Green Beret Nate Boyer) who encouraged Colin Kaepernick to kneel during the National Anthem. I know what their conversations were. It was about saying, 'Hey, we want people to care about our play.' So, for me, these athletes that I know, the ones I've seen, they're doing it to say, 'See us.' And they understand their platforms. They understand their visibility. They understand that when they do it, it makes it okay for others to do it. And now you're seeing that, in the NBA, college, high school. And some of them (in high school) are being punished for it. But you're seeing it.
And I think it's an expression, and it's something that has been surprising, in terms of a lot of coaches who I never thought might have said, 'I'm standing with you.' They're doing it, and there's a risk that comes with that. Everyone doesn't feel a certain way about a coach saying, 'Black Lives Matter.' So I thought to see some of those statements were impactful, and, more importantly, the conversations I know I've had with people across the country, where it's clear they understand that this isn't going away, that this generation of athletes — and I think this generation of young people — don't need permission to express themselves. They can go to Instagram or Snapchat or TikTok and do that. They don't need anyone's platform to tell you how they feel. And I think now institutions and corporations and teams, they're realizing that, and they're understanding that there's value and simply saying, 'I support you.'
Glen: That's an element here that is giving me hope, that generation. I'm even thinking about the influence that those statements — seeing a LeBron James with 'Equality' on his back versus his name, or whatever the example — that's influencing my 16-year-old son, and his pals, and how that's enabling them to develop their own voice around social justice, racial justice, these subjects of humanity. And so I'm encouraged by it, and I hope that we'll see it continue.
And I think you're right that the front-office relationship with the athlete or that coach relationship with the athlete, when we see that come together with some of those white power dynamics are subordinating to what really matters. It feels like there's a turn in that marathon, as you describe it.
You're collaborating with the Hennepin County Library (in Minnesota) on a book club that focuses on themes of race, racism and antiracism. What inspired you to start this book club?
Myron: I'd love to talk about the book club. So I'm the founder of the Mary Ann Key Book Club. Mary Ann Key is my great grandmother. She was a slave in the 1840s and 1850s, purchased for, we believe, $1,000 by the Key family that moved between Alabama and Georgia. The advantage I’ve had in these conversations about race is a rare thing. I didn't understand that a lot of people, non-white folks, don't have the same grasp of their family history like I have. I didn't understand that we were different in my family. My aunt Sarah was a historian, so we can trace our lineage back to Mary Ann Key on that plantation. I've been to this plantation. In the mid-90s, I was at our family reunion in Alabama, and all of a sudden this group of white people walked in. Being a kid, I literally remember being like, 'Did we double-book this convention hall? What's going on?
It turned out they were the descendants of the family that owned Mary Ann Key, and we sat down and everybody talked. And, again, at 19 years old, I thought that was normal for you to meet the descendants of the people who owned your ancestor. We have letters, and we have writings, and we have so many things that have just been passed down. We have a book.
So I knew about Mary Ann Key, who she was, and I just wanted to honor her. And I thought, what better way than to teach through reading and learning, partnering with Hennepin County Library and the Star Tribune, to really launch this. My original idea was actually to put it on a Google doc and tell people to sign up, which I'm glad I didn't do that.
I had no idea what to expect. I do know that Minnesotans love to read, so I figured I had that on my side, but I didn't know. Honestly, I thought to myself, if 50 people joined, that's still a pretty big club. But this has become this incredible thing. I believe we're over 1,300 people who've joined, the largest book club that Hennepin County Library has operated. And we've done that in a matter of months and they're just some incredible people who've gotten behind it.
We had our first panel event on a Tuesday, a couple of weeks back, where more than a thousand people logged on. For so many Minnesotans to do anything on any week night in May, with this little bit of good weather we have, that was really inspiring, as well. But I'm excited for the possibility, I'm excited for the future of it. And I'm excited for other community partners to get involved. I think sometimes these conversations are difficult for people. But what you find is that people will read, they'll read that book, and they may feel more comfortable that way.
And I also think a lot of times these conversations we are having must be based in education. Like we have to be starting somewhere to have this dialogue, and I think that's sometimes the conflict. If I say, 'Hey, slavery was this real thing that affected generations of African-Americans,' but someone doesn't understand that, and doesn't have that background. Of course, they've heard of slavery, but they don't understand the impact because they haven't truly read about it. We're going to be in two different lanes and talking about it.
So I'm just I'm excited for the book club. Our first book was Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson. We'll announce our next book in the fall, but it is it has been overwhelming, to say the least, that people have come aboard and really latched on.
Learn more about Myron by clicking here. Look for Part 3 of our “A Conversation on Race” with Myron next week.