From Sports to Social Justice: An Interview with LZ Granderson

 /  Sept. 29, 2015, 4:53 p.m.


Last spring, Interviews Editor Liz Stark sat down with longtime journalist and Institute of Politics Fellow LZ Granderson. Since the 1990s, Mr. Granderson has written on a wide array of topics, from politics to sports, for several publications, and currently works as a contributor for ABC News. Here’s what he had to say:

The Gate: How did you get started as a journalist?

LZ Granderson: I was always a writer. I was into storytelling, but I also did poetry. I wrote plays. I did not think about journalism as a profession until maybe I was a sophomore in college. But all through elementary, middle, and high school, writing came very naturally to me, and I was aware of it, but never appreciated it until I got to college. I saw classmates struggling through a three-to-five-page paper, and I was like, “Come on, I can do that in half an hour.” So that was when I realized I had a particular gift for writing. Then in college, I realized it could actually be monetized. Not only could I have a job, but I could also do some social justice stuff with writing and reporting as well. College is when it kind of clicked. I got an internship at a newspaper that is no longer around. My first full time newspaper jobthat building has now been demolished. As for my second big job at the Atlanta Journal Constitution, that newspaper has moved out of the building that I used to work in. So my legacy is on the run, if you will. Which is interesting because I always, in my career and in my life, have tried to keep it moving, keep it fresh, keep reinventing myself, and keep pushing myself and the limits of my skillset. It seems like I am doing that for personal reasons, but as I look in the wake, it has kind of worked out career-wise too . . . I have covered basically everything at one point in my career: pop culture critic, restaurant critic, movie theater critic, concert critic. I covered cops, dealt with a lot of death and politics. [I also covered] education, and sports, obviously.

Gate: How did you make the transitions between each field?

Granderson: Usually there was either a switch in location, [or] which employer I was working for, or I was getting antsy and asked for a change. What has been great about my career is that, because I’ve always been curious and antsy, I now find myself at this stage in my career having insight into a lot of different things, which has worked in my favor in terms of television and radio. People are like, “Wow you’ve covered that? You know about this?” Yeah, because I have always kept working, and I have always been curious. I have always gone out and learned and tried to push myself. I did not set out to be a “know-it-all” or anything like that. I was just curious. But I was not just curious for work purposes. I am just a curious person.

Gate: What is the key to becoming a “know-it-all” or expert in a new subject area?

Granderson: Admitting that I know nothing. Embracing my ignorance. It has been my experience, and I have gotten through a lot of beats brand-new. The people who are geniuses at what they do, the people who have institutional wisdom, the historians of their fields, they know very quickly whether you are a lightweight or not. The point of entering a new beat is not to appear as if you are an expert. It is to appear as if you are cognizant of what an expert looks like and that you are able to tap into what they know. Be humble enough to accept that. And yet, still be cynical enough to question their institutional wisdom to make sure it is not just their perspective on how things unfolded but is also factually correct. For instance, I did home design writing. When I moved, I knew nothing about home design. In fact, I was really really bad at home design. I mean, my place looked like sh*t. But I was a home design writer all of a sudden. So the first thing I did, I read up on all the people who were designing in Atlanta and then I went out and met them. I visited their showrooms, and I listened to all their stories about how they got started. I just absorbed all of it. Then one day, I was in a conversation, and I was actually in the conversation because I had done all the reporting beforehand.

Gate: Take us through an instance when you challenged the authority and institutional wisdom in your professionhow did you go about doing it? What were the outcomes?

Granderson: (Laughs) How many examples do you want?

Gate: What is your proudest accomplishment from challenging authority?

Granderson: My proudest achievement was definitely getting The Grand Rapids Press to run a story about how it was not offering benefits for same-sex partners. It is my proudest because prior to that, maybe a month or less before that story ran, I had done a series of stories about how the largest school in the area was about to offer benefits for same-sex partners, and then the school recanted on that. I did all of these follow-up stories as to why these donors decided to pull out, the lies that the president’s administration was telling about pulling out and things of that nature. Most of these stories, if not all of them, ran on the front page. And so then I found out later that the parent company that owned my newspaper was offering benefits to same-sex partners, and every newspaper was doing it except the one I worked for. My paper did not want to run that story. I went all the way up to the publisher and said that it was unconscionable to berate this university for bowing to the pressures of the community while trying to pretend as if we were not doing the same. I thought I would be fired because it was the ‘90s and back then, you could definitely lose your job [for something like that]. Well, you can still lose your job in some states for being openly LGBT . . . So I do not think I was a prick to them, necessarily, but I definitely was dogmatic. They eventually ran it. But they buried it on like A18 or A17, somewhere way in the back with car ads. But the fact is, they ran it. That taught me that there are people who believe in the integrity of journalism and sticking your neck out for what you believe in. There are benefits to that.

Gate: I was reading through some of your old stories and found one that was particularly powerful. It was from June 2012 and called “No Contradiction, I’m Black and Gay”. What was your inspiration for writing that piece?

Granderson: Sure, that was shortly after President Obama had said that he supported same-sex marriage. There was this narrative that the black community was suddenly going to make room for the LGBT community, that they would embrace this community now. This sort of narrative was being shaped by the national media. And there were some people in the black community, some so-called leaders, who also were also characterizing it in that way, as if the two communities were always separate entities. As if we had not had this long history of remarkable African Americans who were also LGBT, whether they were inventors or artists or political and civil rights leaders. One of the most powerful, least talked about men is Bayard Rustin, who was openly gay in [the] 1950s. He was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s mentor and taught him about the nonviolence movement. Bayard Rustin met Dr. King, who was still being guarded with guns at the time. Bayard Rustin, the black gay guy, is the one who taught Dr. King about Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolence philosophy that transformed the civil rights movement and the entire country. So this conversation that the gay community was now being embraced by the black community was just mischaracterized. We have always been intertwined, in every community, for millennia.

Gate: How was your piece received?

Granderson: By and large, it was overwhelmingly positive. The negative came from people who thought I was trying to make some sort of correlation by equating the LGBT and gay rights movement with the civil rights movement. I was not doing that. Because I am very much aware of the differences, both from policies that are in place, to social pressures, to just the benefit of being able to hide your sexuality in a way you can’t always hide your skin color. There were African Americans who tried to “pass” as white, and they did not admit that they had a parent who was black. Many of them were able to sort of pass as white. They were completely comfortable living lifestyles as a white person in greater society. They were hiding, but they were able to live without the level of persecution. As LGBT people, many of us have that similar ability to hide. Most of us actually have that ability to hide. If you never tell anyone that you are gay, lesbian, or bisexual, you certainly could live within the confines of safe heterosexuality. I never want to say that I was equating the civil rights movement, where you could not hide if you were black, with the gay rights movement. But what is important is pointing out that there are some similarities because at the end of the day, all this comes from the same base, and that is ignorance and fear.

Gate: As someone who is constantly in the public eye, what is it like to try to fight that ignorance?

Granderson: It has been fun, for the most part. It has been fun because I think I have been tried by fire, just as I give the example of being a cub reporter in the ‘90s and challenging my bosses all the way up to the publisher and demanding that the stories run, risking my immediate job and future career. I have been accused of not being gay enough by the gay community and of being too gay by the black community. I have been accused of being incapable of being a good parent and incapable of covering sports because I am gay. Being able to persevere throughout my twenty-year career, I have pretty thick skin, and I am battle-tested. At this point, the hate on Twitter, Facebook, or any other social media outlet, the challenges I face when I am debating someone on air, there is very little anyone can say to me that will shock me or move me in any significant way because I have seen it and done it all.

Gate: And gotten through it

Granderson: Well yeah, what are you going to say? Call me a “f*ggot”? Call me the n-word? Okay, heard that before. I had people on Twitter saying they were going to kill me. Okay well, this is where I work, so come find me. I have gotten the hate letters, when people still wrote letters. At this point, it is sort of fun because when you are a student of history, you realize that these threats and this level of animosity are in direct response to the fact that they are losing, that the moon does not howl at the wolf.

Gate: Switching to sports, your seminars dealt with the intersection of politics and the sports industry. What really caught me was when you were talking about how Jackie Robinson was integrated into Major League Baseball before President Truman desegregated the military. In some respects, it seems like sports can be very progressive. On the other hand, the sports industry can also be very hostile to members of the LGBTQ community; there are issues of domestic violence in the NFL; and finally, some say there is an overall attitude of sexism by not allowing women to participate fully in sports. How do you reconcile those two seemingly conflicting situations?

Granderson: They are not opposed as long as we are careful in the way that we frame the conversation. Sometimes when we talk about how sports has led to change, we phrase [that conversation to make] it sound like sports has gotten over the hump or made it to the finish line. Certainly, when I make that comparison, that is not what I am trying to say . . . We continue to see instances of sexism, homophobia, racism, and classism in sports. The question is, in society as a whole, is sports still somewhat further along? That is where you can say yes, yes it is. That is not to say it has gotten to the mountaintop. In some places, sports is lagging behind our greater society. There are openly LGBT people in basically every aspect of life, except in the top professional sports. So in that case, it certainly is lacking. And when it comes to corporate leadership, whether it is in banks, the automotive industry, or technology sectors, women are not just in lower-ranked positions of middle managementthey are actually CEOs, COOs, and CIOs. Sports is lacking in that area as well. What sports has been able to do, though, is be the great example setter. What I mean by that is, once you saw Jackie Robinson being integrated, you realized that the water fountains did not all turn black when you drank from them, you know? He was just as skilled, if not better than, his white contemporaries. Major League Baseball as a whole did not fall to pieces because there was a black guy playing . . . So sports has been able to be that barometer for us, and it is leading [in] many ways. But none of us, no aspect of life has fully crossed over yet to the finish line.

Gate: Take the controversial Mayweather-Pacquiao fight,* for example, in which people are strongly opposed to what an athlete does off the field, but fans still tune in, they still watch, and they still show up to the games. How do you navigate situations like that?

*On May 2, 2015, boxing champions Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao faced off for a match in Las Vegas that many commentators dubbed “The Fight of the Century.” Fans largely ignored Mayweather’s record of domestic abuse, and the fight became the most-watched, highest-grossing event in boxing history. Mayweather won, continuing his 48-0 undefeated streak.

Granderson: Well I try to remember that all of us in certain ways make sacrifices in order to make it through the day. I call it the “fear of paralysis of obligation,” which is, there are so many things we are obligated to do to make the world a better place that we become frozen and do not do anything because we are overwhelmed by it all. For example, I do not think you will find very many people, certainly not in this country, who think it is a bad idea to let the homeless find a place to live and get them off the streets. And yet, on a daily basis, what do we do as independent individuals? Nothing. Nothing. Many of us are too afraid to even look at a homeless person as we walk down the street. But if you ask them, in a social setting, do you think we should do something about homelessness? They would say, “Absolutely.” That does not make those people bad people. We sometimes are overwhelmed by the largeness of the issue. We are not quite sure what to do, but we know something needs to be done. As another example, take domestic violence. Do you think domestic violence is a good thing? Do you think the average person would say no? What are you willing to do to address domestic violence? That’s where the rubber meets the road. And we all have these areas in our lives where we come up a little bit short. So I like to be a little more understanding and forgiving of us for falling short, because there are a lot of really, really large issues that we, in our hearts, genuinely want to see change for the better. Sometimes we do not know what to do about it to make things better, and that is a process: [by not acting,] we continue to contribute to the problem itself. So as we look at Mayweather and Pacquiao, we ask ourselves, do we support domestic violence? No. Do we know if our bosses are involved in domestic violence? No. Do we know what the mailmen or mailwomen who deliver our mail are doing in their homes? No. Even if you found out, would you call the Department of Postal Services and demand that you get a new mail person? No. So we have managed to find a way to exist in this world without being overwhelmed by all of the issues that there are. It is up to every individual to figure out where his or her line is located for [participating in] each conversation. For me, I decided not to watch the fight, and I did not see any highlights of the fight. I avoided as many stories about the fight as possible because that was my line. I just do not want to get caught up in that hype because I am so disgusted by what he does to both his children and the women in his life. But I still support the Detroit Lions; I still engage in covering football. You mentioned the NFL’s domestic violence problemswell my line for football is obviously different from my line for this one boxing match. That is manageable for me, right? I will not watch this one boxing match because of one fighter of whom I disapprove. [That’s a] totally different line than [I have for] this league that puts on a production which a third of the country’s televisions are tuned in for every February, [and has] sixteen games that are the highest-rated television-watching events every year. What do we do? We become paralyzed and end up not doing anything. So as we talk about this issue, I like to be forgiving of ourselves. I mean, I do not know where my shoes are from but I am pretty sure they were not put together in the same working conditions that we deem to be sensible here in the United States. And yet, I still wear these shoes.

Gate: One last question. You talked about the World Cup and human rights violations in one of your seminars, and then late last night, news broke about the arrest of FIFA officials on corruption charges . . . What is your reaction to this new development in the FIFA organization?

Granderson: Well first of all, we have to ask ourselves, do we really need the Department of Justice to come in with this swooping indictment of all these officials to recognize the corruption? It was a running joke. We all knew. Everyone in every major nation that cares about football knew that this organization and this governing body was corrupt. They were so brazen in their corruption, they were almost doing it in our faces. And yet, because of our love of football on this planet and what the World Cup means and how much we care about our team winning, we griped about it, but as I said before, a line was nowhere to be found. I think it is tremendous that this three-year-long investigation has produced this body of work and makes it now more than just whispers and rumors but concrete solidified evidence that everyone in the nation can see and condemn. We cannot turn a blind eye to this. Whereas before, we were overwhelmed with this notion that they are corrupt but no one really knew you could prove it, so we just went along with it. Now it is blatantly in our faces, and we have to deal with the facts. It is good to see how the nations kind of rally around and do that. I am particularly excited for the US Attorney General, Loretta Lynch. People like to say that, “Oh she came in and this fell in her lap.” But no, she actually was overseeing the investigation in Brooklyn before it even made it [to this point]. So it is great to see a qualified and accomplished woman lead this global change. It is absolutely brilliant. It is fantastic. So as for the investigation itself, regardless of who led the charge, I am happy to finally see some concrete information to support all of the whispers that were going around. But then, from a historical perspective, you have this woman, this black woman, come in and change the world. That is pretty badass.

Liz Stark