Elle Duncan Interview: Hosting 'SportsCenter' and Shaping Black Futures

2nd Annual espnW Summit NYC
2nd Annual espnW Summit NYC / Getty Images/Getty Images

Elle Duncan recently took some time out of her busy schedule to speak with The Big Lead about FedEx Cares, pineapple pizza, NFL storylines she's sick of and co-hosting SportsCenter with Kevin Negandhi. The mother of two small children also appears on other ESPN shows and co-hosts the First Take, Her Take podcast with Charly Arnolt and Kimberley Martin.

Duncan recently hosted the FedEx Shaping Black Futures Roundtable which featured NASCAR's Bubba Wallace and Denny Hamlin, as well as Tennessee State athletic director Dr. Mikki Allen and Jackson State athletic director Ashley Robinson.

TBL: How did you get involved with FedEx?

Duncan: The reason that I wanted to work with FedEx and why I was excited to partner with them and build this relationship is that I did my research and FedEx has had skin in the game for over 20 years. They had a real commitment to HBCUs for a long time before it was popular. They didn’t rest on their laurels. They decided they were going to recommit themselves. That partnership came about really organically. It's FedEx. It's racing. Bubba Wallace, Denny Hamlin. In my world it's very familiar. When I was asked if I wanted to be involved I jumped at the opportunity.

TBL: Did you have any specific connections to NASCAR outside of just covering sports?

Duncan: Besides having a NASCAR freak of a dad who loves it, no.

TBL: How was the roundtable?

Duncan: What was cool about this was you kind of get these people together and one of these things is not like the other. Why does any of this make sense? And that’s the point. There doesn’t have to be a sticking point or a hook. This is just really about doing what’s right. Obviously with FedEx, Denny Hamlin is synonymous. Everything that he’s done with 23XI. Everything he’s done for Bubba Wallace. I think it was just sort of a natural fit. That’s the beauty of it. You don’t need to know anything about racing or NASCAR or any of those things to get the message that Denny and Bubba and FedEx are trying to put out. 

It’s difficult to get someone to be forthcoming and transparent. Especially when it comes to topics like this. So I had my initial [thought]: how’s Denny going to do? He’s sitting in a roundtable with three Black men who have fought that fight and walked that walk and understand the challenges. I wonder if he would take a backseat in this conversation. If he would be sort of deferential. And he was not. He was so open and honest about how long it took him to come to this realization about why equality and all these measures were important. He talked about his own inefficiencies in that place. He talks about the tipping point for him. He talked about his relationship with Michael Jordan. He was great. Combined with Bubba, who obviously, I personally think was one of the biggest change agents last year. How vocal he was. I’m from the South. Getting Confederate Flags banned from NASCAR, I honestly couldn’t believe this was a thing. And that was because of Bubba.

Denny Hamlin
NASCAR Cup Series Coke Zero Sugar 400 / James Gilbert/Getty Images

TBL: How does the Career Insights Program work?

Duncan: It’s one thing to say we’re going to give $5 million like FedEx said they were going to do, which is great. It’s one thing to have the racecar that talks about shaping black futures. All those things are great and hey’re big splashy moves, but at the end of the day we’re looking for some accountability and real measure. Okay, you’ve recognized that there’s a problem with diversity inclusion, how do we fix it? 

I think the Career Insights Program is really cool because it takes a page from what NASCAR is doing which is trying to, at the very beginning stages, introduce the sport to people who would not normally be interested it. You have to meet people where they’re at. I’m excited because it’s going to give people who have a passion that are at HBCUs who don’t necessarily right now see visibility, that don’t necessarily now see a Black man leading a pit crew. But will have the opportunity to get that kind of exposure. It’s the kind of exposure that Bubba Wallace talks about in that roundtable discussion that has led him to where he’s at.

I think it’s great because it’s intentional. They are going to the HBCUs and saying we want you if you have a passion for sports and you’re willing to have real life experience. We want you to come in and we want to build a network around you, help you, we want to mentor you. We want to give you a baseline on what this industry's like. I think it’s fantastic because that’s how you make change. Foundational change. And that’s what they’re aiming for. 

TBL: So is this the kind of program you would have liked to have when you were in college?

Duncan: Visibility and seeing a career path is really important for anything that you. For me, it was like, OK, I want to be like Robin Roberts. And I loved that I could see Robin Roberts. It told me that there was a path for me. I do find that nowadays a lot of journalists that love sports and want to be involved in sports, they define their sports roles by what they already see. 

I think that for young people in general who want to be involved in sports, but maybe aren’t ever going to be Bubba Wallace or maybe don’t want to be on TV or involved in the broadcasting part, but still love and have a passion for it. To have a chance to dip their toe in the water and see if this is something they want to do. And again, as Denny and Bubba talked about, they’re then going to have a support system around them to help facilitate their growth. That is so key for anyone coming out of college, but in particular for young Black people coming out of HBCUs. They need that kind of backing. They need that kind of support and they’re going to get it through this program. 

Elle Duncan hosting the FedEx Shaping Black Futures Roundtable.
Elle Duncan hosting the FedEx Shaping Black Futures Roundtable. /

Duncan was also very excited about a similar diversity and inclusion program for young interns and young employees at ESPN. Asked about someone shadowing her on the set of SportsCenter, Duncan joked that she would love to as long as they weren't good enough to take her job.

TBL: What's the key to a good SportsCenter?

Duncan: The key to a good 6 p.m. SportsCenter is balance. I’m a bit of a goof. I love the entertainment aspect of what we do. I love making people laugh, I like memorable moments. I like all those things, but the whole point of what we’re doing at 6 p.m. is to make sure that we’re entertaining, but that we’re also educating. That we’re informing. So for us it’s a little bit of everything. Where can we have a fun moment that’s organic and natural? Who are we putting in the show that’s going to give us the yucks? Who are we putting in the show that’s going to bring us real information, good stories, great insight? It’s really, truly about balance. We don’t always strike the right balance. It’s always our aim to make sure we do a little bit of everything and appealing to as many people as we can. 

TBL: Someone you know recently tweeted about pineapple being one of the best pizza toppings.

Duncan: Please tell me that wasn't Dan Orlovsky.

Duncan suggested Orlovsky's ideal pizza might be sauceless with Kraft macaroni slices. It was actually her co-host Charly Arnolt who said this.

Duncan: I don’t understand why the pineapple crowd continues to fight this fight and die on this hill for pizza. I thought it was sort of a joke when I was a kid because the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles used to like pineapple pizza, but now that I’m 38 I realize it’s just not going away. I’m definitely going to have to flame her for that take. 

TBL: What’s the difference between podcasting and hosting SportsCenter and being a guest on something like Around the Horn?

Duncan: I think it’s about stretching different muscles. When I’m doing SportsCenter it's really about leaning on our guests and analysts and people who are much smarter than us and much more informed than us. When I’m doing something like Around the Horn it’s much more opinion-based. I enjoy the idea that SportsCenter is much more treetop and we have to hit 50 topics in one hour, but ATH you can delve a little bit more on something. I like that it challenges you to look for different narratives because you’ve got three other brilliant people who are going to come up with incredible things to say and you have to find a way to add to the conversation. The podcast is great because it’s just talking with a couple friends in front of a microphone. The beauty of ESPN is the range. I love everything and ESPN gives me the chance to do a lot of different things. 

TBL: Are there any storylines that you're sick of?

Duncan: The one thing that all people hate having to do that are in sports media: which is before the NFL season starts having to either pick Tom Brady to win it all and have people call you lazy or not pick Tom Brady and people calling you stupid. I’m pretty over the Aaron Rodgers talk. We spent the summer doing that. I’m pretty over the, 'When will Tom Brady fall off the cliff?' Never. Okay guys? He’s going to walk away at some point and put us out of our misery. 

TBL: What's something people don't know about SportsCenter?

Duncan: I don’t think that they understand how many freaking people make this go. You see SportsCenter and identify it with the great Stu Scott and the legends who have come before us, but there is an entire legion of people that make this go. People don’t understand how much work goes into four minutes of television. Researchers, segment producers, coordinating producers. We don't know the exact show we're going to do like 15 minutes before it. It's wild and it's pieced together because we're reacting to things, but it's quite cool. We've got the best group behind us.