Robert 'Scoop' Jackson’s gift with writing and wide-ranging cultural vantage point has set him on a path not typically traveled by a journalist—such as writing two books for Nike. Scoop was born and raised in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood and still resides there today. Throughout his 30-plus year writing career Scoop has maintained an authentic voice and an open heart, paving the way for those that look like him.
“The space has gotten a lot darker,” says Scoop. “And that's a beautiful thing, to see brothers and sisters come in this game and feel that they don't have to compromise who they are in their own storytelling.”
Scoop’s work has opened doors not just for others to follow in his footsteps, but for more inclusive coverage, as well. While writing for SLAM Magazine, he’d be the one to advocate for Allen Iverson to be featured in his early college days. He saw something before many did. He’d help build SLAM to be the magazine we see today, and after eleven years there, was recruited by ESPN to bring his voice in basketball to sports at large. 16 years later, Scoop is still a regular ESPN contributor and also SportsCenter.
A few weeks ago I sat down with Scoop to talk about high school recruits attending HBCUs versus traditional programs, the women that made him the journalist he is, and how we can uplift women in such a male-dominated industry.
Robert 'Scoop' Jackson
When did you know you wanted to write for a career?
There’s two answers to that. I knew in high school that I wanted to be involved in writing because my best friend and I always talked about having our own magazine. We would read Rolling Stone, NME, niche magazines out at the time, Sports Illustrated, of course. But we need to be on some black storytelling stuff, so we needed to have our own magazine.
I was also in a bad car accident and almost died. I thought that there was a reason I survived this accident and I wanted to find out what it was. I was working for the city at the time of the accident, so, I saved my money and was able to go to grad school. Applying to grad school, you have to write a letter of interest as to why you want to go there. My letter of interest to Howard, according to them, was so real, they waved the GMAT. They were like, "You're in,” just based on the letter I wrote them on why I wanted to go. That was the first time I really realized that my writing can maybe or at least has the ability to move people.
What made you want to go to Howard?
It was considered the Mecca. I just believe in Black education because I don't believe in those that treated us wrong are going to teach us right, and I’ve always felt that way. I went to Xavier University—Black school, Black education. I went to Howard because my mom went there. I wanted to know what that was like. My mom was special. She was ridiculous. Black militant, fist up, Black Panther. And she has two Master's degrees from Howard. My mother was no fucking joke. My father left in second grade so watching my mother do what she did, become who she became, and stay rooted and stay so committed to us as Black folks and knowing what her educational path was, is why I wanted to go to Howard.
Your voice in sports has always been an authentic one. What made you choose that lane?
It wasn't a choice. Never was a choice. Bryan Burwell, he used to write for USA Today. He’s one of the OGs of Black journalism, and he told me a long time ago, "Always put some of yourself in your writing." I always keep that in mind, but I believed in that long before that because I've always believed in our story. And one of the things that happens is our stories don't get told. They aren't told enough by us and when they do get told by us, we tend to compromise who we are, and who our people are, and what our story is, and what our culture is when it comes to what we decide to create for a larger audience. What I've tried to do is present my storytelling, my art in a way that makes you accept it because of the quality. It’s like this shoe. It’s the quality of what they did with it that makes you respect it, love it, covet it, embrace it, connect to it, and purchase it. I view myself the exact same way. I’m not so worried about what not to say. I can say whatever the hell I want to say, what I feel is important to say, as long as I know that it's done at this level. I just have to make sure I'm consistently doing things at this level because people can hate it, but they'll respect the fact that the quality is great. But I'm not going to compromise this, from a storytelling standpoint to make it swallowable for a certain amount of people. No, this is our thing so you need to get past your own biases and accept it. And that's what I've always tried to do.
She was ridiculous. Black militant, fist up, Black Panther. And she has two Master's degrees from Howard. My mother was no fucking joke.
Last March, your third book, The Game is Not a Game: The Power, Protest and Politics of American Sports, came out. What were you trying to portray in this book?
I've been at ESPN for 16 years. Being there I was able to expand beyond writing about basketball. With ESPN I really got a chance to be a national columnist and cover a wide range of sports. When I switched over to SportsCenter, from columnist to senior writer, the storytelling I was doing became more compact. It was no longer 1500-word columns or long-form features I was doing, they were more 400-word scripts, telling stories that way. So, my thought was, "Why don't I just act like I'm still doing columns but turn would-be columns into chapters?" I'm looking at the columns that people are writing, I'm looking at the stories people are telling, I'm seeing what I would've done if I still had space to do columns, what I'd attack, what void I'd fill—there are always holes that could be filled, and for four years I’ watched a lot of those holes not being filled.
In the book you touch on how we take women athletes and their greatness for granted. Could you explain that a bit?
It's just a societal thing, man. We live in this toxic male society and we see it at all levels, all the time. And even when it's not egregious, you see it if you're paying attention. The thing that made me really look at it as far as the chapter was concerned was the argument of Nike removing or blocking out the word “female” when talking about Serena being the greatest. The fact that they felt that they had to do that and that we as a society made that a conversation point, that lets you know that there's still an issue there. We just can't accept women in sports as equals.
What I've tried to do is present my storytelling, my art in a way that makes you accept it because of the quality. It’s like this shoe. It’s the quality of what they did with it that makes you respect it, love it, covet it, embrace it, connect to it, and purchase it.
What can we do to uplift women in such a male-dominated world?
Just respect them more. It’s really simple. To realize, for the most part, they are smarter than us and are just as unique and special in all facets of life as we are and have been. With that respect has to come opportunity though. I mean, sports and music do a decent—not great—job of not only having spaces for women to elevate but also to be themselves without all of the time being reminded that they are women in those spaces, but we can’t say the same about most other areas in life: government, politics, science, media, IT, software, engineering, architecture, construction, design, film, advertising, law, analytics, financial advisory, Wall Street, whatever. Hell, the fashion and sneaker industries are no better than any of the aforementioned fields I just mentioned. Also, as men, we gotta to find a way to stop objectifying and belittling women. Which is directly linked to the whole power thing we like to feel we have over women. And to me, that power dynamic—I call it insecurity—is one of the most dangerous and damaging things we have in society.
Throughout your time with ESPN and SLAM, who’s been your favorite athlete to cover and why?
With SLAM, Allen Iverson. And that's one of the reasons I hate to say I had to leave SLAM, because I had been there 11 years. With ESPN it's probably been either Kobe or Lebron. I also hold dear the coverage I was able to do of Kobe while at SLAM because it was much more personal. ESPN didn't allow you to get as personal because it's a different time, you're writing columns, it's very news-driven. But for everything that happened with Kobe on the back end of his career, post-career and now post-life, the things I've been able to do for him and cover him since then, as sad as they can be, they're still enjoyable because you get to speak about him, and I was able to speak about him in many ways. And then Lebron—I think it's a tie. I also say Lebron because I think he’s probably the most unfairly celebrated athlete of our time, but he's also the most unfairly victimized athlete of our time.
You’ve worked with Nike in many different capacities. What’s been the most memorable thing you’ve done with them thus far?
The book, Sole Provider. You hate the most memorable thing to be the first thing that you did, but the way it came along, what it meant, the fact that it's still to this day a lot of people consider it the bible of sneaker culture. You can still look at that book now and I'll hold up against any book, not because of my writing but because of the layout, because of the design, because of Ray Butts' genius in putting that whole thing together. People have also never mentioned that it’s actually a Black book—I'm the writer and Ray Butts is the conceptualizer, designer, and photographer of that book. That's it. Two brothers. We just did some super quality shit that stood the test of time, and to me that's a sign of beauty of that project.
The space has gotten a lot darker. And that's a beautiful thing. To see brothers and sisters come in this game and feel that they don't have to compromise who they are in their own storytelling.
How have the women in your life shaped the person we see today?
Between my grandmother, my mother, and my wife it’s very easy to acknowledge and admit that I would honestly be a pretty fucked up person without them and you might be interviewing me for a whole different reason. They instilled the values that I try everyday to operate from and build my life around. Now, while they are primary, there are so many other women who have played significant roles in shaping who I am. Women I know, women I don’t. My Aunties, all of the women I call “Mom” who’ve adopted me and played roles in raising me, teachers like Ms. Reasonover in 7th grade, Dr. Rochon at Xavier and especially Dr. Cummings in graduate school at Howard, who is probably just as responsible as anyone for me having the career I’ve been blessed enough to have. Then there are the ones who throughout my life have simply been inspirations: the Harriet Tubmans and Rosa Parkses, to the Gladyses, and Arethas, and Anitas, to the Nancy Gibbses and Laura Hillenbrands, to the Oprahs and Kathy Hugheses, to Julie Dash and Ava Duvernay, to Dawn Staley and Maya Moore. I could go on and on. Women I don’t even know but have been outside guides I’ve looked to to navigate my way through life and my career.
You’ve been writing about sports for 30-plus years. What has been the biggest change you’ve seen from your start to now?
In the words of Rick Telander, “how much darker the room has got.” More Black people have come into this sports space and he's attributing that to me. I don't necessarily agree with that, but I'm not naïve enough to say I don't notice that since I've been in the game, the room has gotten a lot darker. The space has gotten a lot darker. And that's a beautiful thing. To see brothers and sisters come in this game and feel that they don't have to compromise who they are in their own storytelling. Going into locker rooms, going into meeting rooms, going into board rooms, going into press junkets, looking around and seeing more of us represented. Now, understand what I'm saying: I did not say being given more opportunity. A lot of brothers and sisters are doing this on their own and a lot of that is because of the digital space that's allowed us to do things on our own. We don't have to rely on some white-owned company to hire us or give us chances. I have my own blog now and my blog is either respected by this organization or I have so-and-so many followers. The room is darker because we've entered the room. I just hope it continues to happen. I'd like to see it on a higher level, where it's not just us at the ground level telling the stories—which is always important—but further up the food chain. I want to see us make the room darker but I also want us to see the building ownership be dark.