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ESPN Site 'The Undefeated' To Explore Intersection Of Sports And Race

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

A new ESPN website goes live tomorrow. It's called The Undefeated, and it's dedicated to the intersection of sports, race, culture and politics. The small staff carries big aspirations, and lots of swagger. But as NPR's David Folkenflik reports, The Undefeated almost lost the game before it started.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Kevin Merida works these days in an abandoned suite of radio offices of the Washington Bureau of ESPN's corporate sibling ABC News. Merida was previously managing editor of The Washington Post, which he announced in October he would be leaving after 22 years.

KEVIN MERIDA: There wasn't a whole lot to lose, right? I mean, I felt like I had done a lot. And so I had either reported on or supervised, you know, seven presidential campaigns, so this would have been the eighth.

FOLKENFLIK: Merida's now editor-in-chief of The Undefeated. Some of his newspaper colleagues were incredulous. But Merida, a sports fan, proved open to a very different path.

MERIDA: When I began to think about this and I took the job, it was like my brain's on fire, you know? I'm thinking of all kinds of things, different ideas and different things to create.

FOLKENFLIK: As one example, Merida points to the threat of a boycott by black football players at the University of Missouri that toppled their campus' president.

MERIDA: It's certainly a story that African-Americans in this country know very well. The history of struggle is one of just incredible overcoming of obstacles and people doubting you and thinking you're not as smart as you are, as special as you are.

FOLKENFLIK: In recent years, ESPN has encouraged a lot of reporting that deviates from pure sports coverage. The Undefeated's newsroom now includes a former White House reporter for The Washington Post, a former BuzzFeed editor to cover entertainment, a fashion and style writer, too. The death of Prince - yeah, that would be a story for The Undefeated or this...

MERIDA: The discussion around Serena Williams. Amazingly, there's more discussion about her body, and she's the greatest tennis player in the history of the world and one of the greatest athletes. She would have an argument to be the greatest athlete in the history of the world.

FOLKENFLIK: Initially, the site's name could've been the Vanquished. The Undefeated had been the brainchild of the fiery former ESPN commentator Jason Whitlock. Whitlock had never managed a newsroom. Staff rebelled. He was ultimately fired last summer.

RAINA KELLEY: I didn't want to do it.

FOLKENFLIK: Raina Kelley had a job she liked. She was, until recently, senior editor at ESPN The Magazine. As an an African-American journalist, Kelley watched The Undefeated closely, but kept her distance.

KELLEY: Everything was in a black box, so there was no real information about what the future was going to be.

FOLKENFLIK: Kelley is now managing editor at The Undefeated, and when she speaks of her aspirations, she's unvarnished, thanks in large part to the hiring of Merida.

KELLEY: We get along so well. We thought so similarly about what we wanted the project to be that I knew we were going to be able to do it and kick it's [expletive].

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE UNDEFEATED")

DEE-1: (Rapping) Black is beautiful. Beauty is black. Our blemishes apparent, but the beauty intact.

FOLKENFLIK: The site has its own anthem by the New Orleans rapper Dee-1.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE UNDEFEATED")

DEE-1: (Rapping) Sports, music, struggle, it's all in the black experience.

FOLKENFLIK: ESPN's television shows have a disproportionately large African-American following compared to the population at large. It's black digital leadership by contrast is disproportionately small, according to the network. Senior executives say ESPN is especially pursuing male African-American readers between 18 and 34 years old.

As Merida and I talk, he glances through a studio window at Aaron Dotson, a new African-American colleague at the outset of his career.

MERIDA: And we have some young people that are really just in the beginning. And to help them develop, you know, I often get emotional about that just, you know, kind of seeing the young people.

FOLKENFLIK: You're getting emotional right now.

MERIDA: Yeah because whether it's him or Justin Tinsley or...

FOLKENFLIK: Here, Merida is weeping unabashedly. I ask him why this project means so much to him.

MERIDA: It's run by journalists of color, you know? And to be able to do that that hasn't happened a lot - right? - in big places. People really think about that. And hey, you know, I'm just, you know - particularly when you're looking at people who - they still have so much of their career ahead of them, so you want to, you know, be part of helping them achieve what they want to achieve.

FOLKENFLIK: Merida's not so secret hope is to land an exit interview with the nation's first black president, like Merida, an ESPN fan. David Folkenflik, NPR News, Washington, D.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.