ESPN's Maria Taylor on fighting voter suppression with LeBron and using her voice to create change
As an ESPN analyst and host, Maria Taylor is known for breaking down the play-by-play of college football, volleyball and basketball.
After graduating from the University of Georgia in 2009, the 33-year-old got her start in media as a production assistant for her alma mater, before landing a part-time job with ESPN in 2011 covering volleyball matches and women's college basketball. In 2014, she joined ESPN's SEC Network full-time, bringing her skills and knowledge as a sports journalist to the national stage.
Now, after working at ESPN for more than six years, Taylor is using her platform to speak out about more than just sports as she's joined LeBron James' More Than a Vote initiative to fight voter suppression in the country.
"It's almost like every time there's a primary, or really any election, you're going to hear a story about, 'Oh, in the inner city lines were this long.' Or, 'There were some issues with casting ballots.' Or, 'We don't know if everyone was allowed to even vote,'" she tells CNBC Make It. "I know this is an issue in my city specifically and I feel like it actually affects me personally."
As a native of Atlanta, she says she wants the community that she and her family grew up in to "be recognized and have their voices heard."
"And obviously, one way for everyone's voice to be heard is through voting," she adds. "So when you add a name like LeBron James into the mix of trying to fix an injustice there's going to be a lot of attention placed on it. And I just wanted to make sure that my city was going to get some kind of light shined on it, and there would be a way that we could figure out how to fix the issues that exist there before November comes around and we have some of the same issues that we had in our primary."
In a June 22 tweet, James announced the official launch of the More Than A Vote site, thanking "every incredible athlete and artist" who worked with him to pull it together. In addition to Taylor, other athletes and influencers who James partnered with for the initiative include former NFL receiver Andrew Hawkins, Olympic-winning track and field star Allyson Felix, retired NBA star Caron Butler and WNBA stars A'Ja Wilson and Arike Ogunbowale.
Taylor, who recently made headlines for criticizing NFL quarterback Drew Brees over his comments about kneeling during the national anthem, says that using her platform to loudly speak out against social and racial injustices has not always come easy.
"I used to think that as long as I'm doing the work that I didn't have to say anything," she says. "Like my actions would speak louder than words. And so for me, it was having a nonprofit and focusing on diversity. And I was like, if anyone knows who I am personally then they would know what I stand for."
But, she says, after watching George Floyd's death play out on TV, she felt like she could no longer be silent about the work she was doing or her thoughts about racial injustice.
"I always go back to what Jalen Rose said on one of our NBA countdown YouTube shows," she says. "He was just like, 'The Black community needs me more than I need my job or than I need security or than I need to feel comfortable.' And so that's kind of how I feel and that's where I'm operating. It might not be the most comfortable thing for me to do, but at the end of the day my community needs me now more than ever and my voice matters."
Outside of using her platform on ESPN to speak about more than just sports, Taylor is using her influence as a journalist to help diversify the business side of the sports industry. Five years ago, she co-founded the nonprofit, Winning Edge Leadership Academy, to expose student athletes to the many different career opportunities in the sports field.
"It's all about helping minorities and women break into the sports industry," she says. "Our focus is student athletes because I spent a lot of time on campuses with student athletes who work so hard in their field of competition, but when they graduate they're not necessarily given all the tools to be successful in the sports industry. And so that's how you see this kind of lopsided view where there are way more players on the field than we see in an NFL front office or as a general manager for basketball or these other sports that create a lot of money for universities."
Right now, more than 76% of college athletic directors are white men. Of the 32 teams in the NFL, just four have head coaches of color and only two teams have Black general managers. In the NBA, where there are 30 teams in total, just nine teams have Black general managers, eight have Black head coaches, and only 11 have women assistant coaches.
To bridge this gap between student athletes and the business opportunities in sports, Taylor uses her nonprofit organization to hosts various retreats and summits where she has executives and business leaders talk about their career paths in the industry.
"The last two summits have been in Miami and Atlanta and we brought in leaders like Carla Williams, who's the athletic director at the [University of Virginia]," she says. "So she can meet a student that's interested in being an athletic director and that person can see, 'Oh, there's a black female AD at a power five school.'"
In addition to Williams, the more than 150 students who have participated in the Winning Edge Leadership Academy have heard from executives who work for various sports organizations including the Atlanta Braves and NASCAR. They've also gone on site visits to Turner Sports headquarters in Atlanta where Taylor says students were able to see that "yea, you can work in the NBA, but there is also this new industry popping up around video gaming and there's an entire studio here and there are jobs here."
So far, through the Winning Edge Leadership Academy's work, Taylor and her team have been able to link students to sports jobs at various organizations and colleges including CBS News, Texas Christian University and the Miami Dolphins.
When looking at the lack of gender and racial parity in the sports industry today, Taylor says it's clear that there needs to be more focus on closing the opportunity gap for women and minority professionals so that they have equal access to working in the field.
"I think the whole pipeline problem is like complete BS," she says. "That was just created as another hurdle that people could use to put in front of you like, 'Well, we've really been trying to diversify, but we just could not find the candidates.' And that's a lie because if you really do seek them, you will find them."
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