Dissecting race, culture, and sports with ESPN’s Jesse Washington ’92 B.A.
When Jesse Washington ’92 B.A. was a student at Yale in the late 1980s, he witnessed African-American men ascending to new positions of power in sports.
Among them was John Thompson Jr., coach of Georgetown University’s basketball team, the first African-American head coach of a major college sport to win a national title. Thompson recruited black players — including future NBA legends Allen Iverson, Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo, and Alonzo Mourning — to what had been an all-white team, transforming Georgetown into a basketball powerhouse, and elevating Thompson to legendary status among black Americans.
Now Washington, a senior writer for ESPN’s race, sports, and culture website The Undefeated, is working with Thompson to write the coach’s autobiography. The book, due out in 2021 from Henry Holt & Co., will be called “I Came As A Shadow.”
“John Thompson was a very complicated figure,” said Washington, who majored in English at Yale and lived in Morse College. “He was both the Martin Luther King and the Malcolm X of American sports. Through his actions and statements and philosophies, he brought more racial equality to sports.”
Even though Thompson brought the Georgetown Hoyas from a dismal record to a 14-year streak of NCAA appearances, including three in the Final Four, the mere fact that he was a black elite college coach with a nearly all-black team drew controversy and racist insults.
For Washington, watching Thompson navigate that world in the public eye was pivotal for him as a young black man growing up in the projects in Poughkeepsie, New York.
“Black people in the ’80s were extremely proud of John Thompson, because of how he carried himself and what he represented,” Washington said. “Here was a black man at the top of his profession. He made it clear it was possible. I shouldn’t be intimidated going into an all-white newsroom or to Yale. And I don’t have to change who I am to succeed.”
An award-winning journalist who has worked for the Poughkeepsie Journal, the Houston Press, the AP, and now ESPN, Washington said he was trained to be skeptical of sources. Absorbing and translating Thompson’s story meant adjusting to a new dynamic built on trust, he said. As they work on the book, the two meet as many as three days a week, several hours at a time, and Washington said he’s come to enjoy “inhabiting” Thompson.
“It’s only hard to write through someone if you don’t believe in who that person is,” he said.
ESPN’s Undefeated website gives Washington a platform to explore topics — including sports, music, culture, and politics — from a black perspective.
A recent series he wrote for Valentine’s Day looked at the dwindling number of love songs in black popular music on the Billboard Hot 100 chart compared to decades past. He wrote a controversial opinion piece on Houston Rockets’ guard James Harden hunting for fouls, and then, when a Twitter backlash erupted, challenged one critic on Twitter to a one-on-one basketball game. And he wrote passionately about the importance of pushing educational opportunities rather than sports as a pathway out of poverty for poor black kids.
“It’s not a popular opinion,” Washington said, “but I care about the black community and there’s a false perception that, if you are poor and struggling, that sports is an easier way out [than academics].”
Washington points out that only a tiny percentage of people have the “God-given ability” to perform at the Division I level (and even fewer at the professional level), “but all of us can apply ourselves academically.” He notes that Yale, like many Ivy league schools, offers generous need-based financial aid. (Families making less than $75,000 pay nothing, while those earning between $75,000 and $200,000 pay on a sliding scale.)
“If you excel academically, colleges want you,” Washington said. “Most care about diversity, including economic diversity.”
Washington is still drawing on lessons learned at Yale. He recalls a class on “Blacks and the Law” taught by Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Flemming L. Norcott Jr. that he took as an undergraduate.
“He made me think about racial justice in a way I had not thought about it,” Washington said. “And I’m still writing about that. It’s particularly relevant in the Black Lives Matter era. He challenged you, and made you do the work and prove your point — and that’s what I do now.”
Washington said he aspires to do work that makes a difference. When he writes about sports, whether for ESPN or the book, it’s about how they intersect with the black community and serve as a mirror for larger cultural and social issues.
“I’m writing about these topics through the lens of sports, and doing something beyond the wins and losses,” he said.