On Tony Reali and Appreciation of Sports Media's Complicated Humanity


ESPN’s Tony Reali delivered a powerful message at the end of yesterday’s Around The Horn, speaking on love and loss. He put his humanity on full display, laying naked a raw vulnerability and peeling back the curtain on an intensely personal situation. The somberness came in stark relief to the usual tenor of his program, which awards make-believe points for arguing the relatively trivial sports issues of the day.

The world is better because Reali did not stick to sports. It is impossible to view his monologue and not, even for a moment, be deeply affected and sensitive to the plight of others. His bravery and honesty are admirable and the supportive response has been overwhelming.

ESPN viewers have been inviting — subliminally or otherwise — Reali into their homes since 2001, when he was 23. They have seen him grow into a more prominent role and as man. From Stat Boy to a father. They’ve seen this because this is what people do. They live life. And Reali is a person, like all the other pundits one sees on television delivering news or opinion.

There is a faction out there who is inconvenienced by that reality. They want their sports people to be less human and more robotic specialists. They want to hear the Reds-Brewers score or why the Sixers are a bad fit for LeBron James without being reminded of the bigness of the world.

“Stick to sports” is the common refrain. And it’s usually couched behind the veneer of not wanting to hear about anything political. An anchor’s home life is a natural cousin. It sounds fair enough until one realizes that everything is political and intensely personal. What it really means is “I want to turn my brain off and live in a synthetic safe space.”

To be clear, it’s perfectly acceptable for consumers to desire such a realm.

I don’t. I’d posit there are plenty out there who share the opinion that the raw humanity and honesty from our sports media personalities is a feature, not a bug. It fosters a deeper understanding of who they are and what they find important in this life.

It’s odd to me that so many would rather not know more about these people we use as the soundtracks to our commutes or narrators to our games. There seems to be a fear that if we find out they have a political opinion or lifestyle we disagree with, then it will contaminate everything they do.

That is small-minded. Existence is too challenging to allow oneself to be so fragile. And it’s way more complicated than to effort separating the real world from bleeding into the sports world. Or to insist that a personality’s personal life not manifest professionally, especially if cathartic.

Perhaps I’m in the minority in the desire to know more about the human behind the sports media figure. The foibles of openness and uncomfortable truths — as well as controversial viewpoints — are painfully obvious from an organizational perspective. A more open ecosystem would be met with intense friction and controversy.

Those facts aren’t lost on me. But I know this: there hasn’t been a situation where I’ve regretted learning more about a pundit. The real stuff. What they actually think, who they love, what they’ve faced, and how all of that has informed their worldview and approach.

This information usually causes me to root for them more, or to walk away with a newfound respect. At the minimum: a better understanding of them as a person. Is it more complicated? Yes. Is there some grappling that goes on? Yes.

But that’s life. That’s humanity.