Keith Reed Gives A Lesson In How To Keep Hustling In Sports Journalism

By Jeffery Scott / @jeffesquire

There is an oft overlooked subsection of sports culture that is truly integral to making the sports world revolve on its axis. There is a large contingent of folks who not only work around the sports arena, but also make sports work for them. These are the hustlers.

On a warm September day in Bristol, Conn., I was invited by good friend Jemele Hill to a house gathering to watch the early NFL games. Being new to the area, I didn’t know anyone and was definitely in need of good influences. I was introduced to a highly annoyed Steelers fan, who, while he was hilarious in his assessments of his team (the Steelers lost to the Ravens 35-7 that day), emanated wisdom and told it like it was. That fan was Keith Reed. He prides himself on being knowledgeable about many things. That is something Reed attributes to his many mentors along the way, none more important than his mother.

Yvonne Reed was a single parent in a poor part of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Though Keith recalls living in meager accommodations, he explains that his mother was determined not to be there forever.

“She was a striver,” Reed reflects. “When we were young we were on public assistance … welfare … but she didn’t want none of that. She didn’t want anybody’s handouts. She went to school, got her degree in journalism believe it or not. But that’s the type of woman, the type of family that I come from — [one] that refuses to be disadvantaged."

Reed acknowledges that it was his mother who inspired him to be a journalist and tell the stories of the people who looked like him, talked like him and came from the same struggles as he did. After graduating from Coppin State University in Baltimore, Reed had a brief stint in politics working in Washington, D.C. before settling in a job at the Baltimore Business Journal. After a few years he was hired at the Boston Globe, at a time when a lot of talented black writers were employed there. His best friend Greg Lee came from the Washington Post to the Globe. Michael Smith worked the NFL beat. Marc Spears covered the NBA. Jerome Solomon also covered the NFL. But as these men left the Globe to pursue other opportunities, Reed began to wonder about his own situation.

“I was getting restless,” Reed explains. “I kind of felt like nothing was happening with my career. So I wrote this plan for myself that I took to my bosses that basically had me expanding the business beat and doing a lot of TV stuff. They were not in love with it. They wanted me to keep doing what I was doing, and I wasn’t happy with that. So I left.”

Reed worked in Cincinnati for a year for The Business Enterprise, then got a call about an editor-in-chief job at the Catalyst Ohio in Cleveland that had nothing to do with sports or business. But as an young 30-year-old, he was advised to take it. After the magazine went under, Reed was looking for work when the “Worldwide Leader” came calling.

Reed was tapped to be a senior editor at ESPN the Magazine, a job that he embraced and used as a platform not only to cultivate relationships with higher-ups, but also to reach others, especially aspiring journalists and younger employees at ESPN.

Aaron Hilton, current content associate at ESPN, feels Reed helped him not only career-wise, but in life as well.

“With Keith, he's more than a mentor; he's like a big brother,” Hilton explains. “He's not afraid to joke with you, but at the same time, he's always looking out for your best interest as a professional.”

Reed loved what he was doing, but during the summer of 2013 it all changed.

Yvonne Reed was battling an aggressive form of breast cancer and went to the hospital July 5. She passed away the next week. Keith spent a month away from ESPN but was still working on his tour de force, “The Fighting Issue.” He spent the next couple of months trying to cope and get his wits about him, when in November 2013 he received more bad news.

“There was a lot of stuff going on at the magazine, a lot of stuff going on with me,” Reed recounts. “I’m grieving. I’m taking care of my sons, and they’re grieving. Actually about this time last year a couple of my bosses at the magazine came to me and told me I was being laid off. I had just churned out what I thought was my best piece of work done at that level. Losing my mother was like getting kicked in the stomach and in the nuts at the same time, and losing my job was like getting kicked in the face as I tried to pick myself back up off of the floor.”

“You need a bravery. You need a resolve. You need a defiance of negativity. Nothing that has happened to me can beat me."

Reed didn’t talk to many people about it but eventually started the process of looking for what was next in life. When the Donald Sterling recordings dropped, he got a call from a friend in D.C. who worked for the Soul of the South Network.

“A friend called and asked are you allowed to come on and talk some sports topics. They didn’t know I had left ESPN,” Reed says. “Sure, I can do that. So I started posting the videos of myself on these different outlets all on my social media accounts. Good for me we’ve had a lot of misbehaved athletes and executives.”

Reed has spent the better part of the year appearing on shows from CNN To Al-Jazeera. And every hit, every tweet, every post, strengthens his brand.

Even with his newfound television success, Reed knows it's still just part of the journey and there’s no telling where the winding path will lead next. He does know it won’t be easy.

“If you’re going to survive anything, it can’t just be about skill, it cant just be about connections,” Reed offers. “You need a bravery. You need a resolve. You need a defiance of negativity. Nothing that has happened to me can beat me."

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