The intersection of race, sports and culture: Kevin Merida and The Undefeated

Photo courtesy of The Undefeated

On a recent Tuesday, Kevin Merida sat in on a meeting for a project set to launch later this month. He leaned back with one leg crossed over the other, his gray socks peeking out from his leather shoes. He adjusted his glasses as managing editor Raina Kelley led the conversation by phone. “The Wendy Williams Show” was muted on the TV in the background.

The team was trying to come up with a list of the 44 most-influential African Americans in history, pegged to President Obama’s nearing departure from office. “We want this list to be controversial,” Merida reminded them. “It’s got to be Undefeated.”

The site that Merida leads, The Undefeated, has come to occupy an unusual spot in journalism: a sports site that also features stories on culture and politics, through the prism of race. At a time of increased concern about the lack of diversity in major newsrooms — and as the departure of Obama and the arrival of Donald Trump have placed racial tensions at the heart of American political conversation — The Undefeated in general, and Merida in particular, are in the spotlight.

Recent stories have included a piece on why US basketball star Karl-Anthony Towns decided to play for the Dominican Republic in the 2016 Olympics, a story about former Louisiana State University football player Lewis Neal’s move to owning a financial investment firm, and one on Cam Newton’s bold fashion choices.

Since it launched last May, The Undefeated (which is owned by the TV sports giant ESPN), has attracted star writers and celebrities — including Misty Copeland, Common, and Serena Williams — and last year hosted a conversation with Obama at North Carolina A&T State University about race and the need for young people to get engaged.

“I’m proud of what we do and all we’ve been able to accomplish in this time,” Merida said. In November, the site had 922,000 unique visitors, according to ComScore, compared to other  black-focused sites like The Grio and Madame Noire, which had 1,346,000 and 2,952,000 visitors, respectively, but trailing larger organizations like BET Networks and HuffPost Black Voices, which each received over 12 million visitors during the same month.

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When you first meet Merida, it’s like reconnecting with an old friend. As we sat down for lunch a few blocks away from his DC office, he offered to share his side plate of broccoli.

Raised in Washington, Merida, 59, grew up reading The Washington Post. He loved the sports section and particularly admired Shirley Povich’s sports coverage. After graduating from Boston University, where he and a friend created a black student newspaper that was published sporadically, he turned down an internship offer at the Post to go to UC Berkeley for a Maynard Institute program for journalists of color. Those experiences and connections ultimately helped him land his first job at The Milwaukee Journal. From there he went on to work at The Dallas Morning News

He ultimately joined the Post in 1993 as a political correspondent. His first day at the Post was Bill Clinton’s first day as president.

Post writer Eli Saslow first remembers meeting Merida when they were both covering the 2008 Democratic convention. “I remember being super nervous and looking over at Kevin and he was totally cool and low-key next to me,” Saslow says.

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The Undefeated’s editor-in-chief Kevin Merida. Photo by Carlett Spike.

Merida jumped to national editor, then managing editor a few years later, becoming the first African-American to take on the role. Colleagues say bringing diversity to the Post became a key part of Merida’s legacy there. “He was definitely crucial in my hire here,” Post staff writer Wesley Lowery tells CJR. Another writer, Soraya Nadia McDonald, ended up leaving the Post to become a senior culture writer at The Undefeated.

The lack of diversity in newsrooms is an issue dear to Merida. He has made it clear that one of his goals is to support and advance the careers of young journalists of color in any way he can. “This is where I can really have impact,” he says. “As an African American journalist you do have some sense of obligation. When these opportunities come up, you take advantage of them.”

 

The layout of The Undefeated newsroom is traditional. Merida and Kelley have their own  offices, while the majority of the 40-plus staff members work in an open-floor area with cubicles. The site’s black “U” logo is everywhere, on hats, cups, posters, and sweatshirts around the office. Looking around the room, you can’t help but notice that the staggering majority of the staff is black and at least half are women.

“Some people never have that experience working in a majority African American newsroom,” says Merida. “You’ve still got to be good, but there’s a lot of laughter and there’s a lot of play. The familiarities help. People understand how important it is to make [The Undefeated] a success.”

The Undefeated was in the works for about two years before Merida entered the picture. The site was the brainchild of ESPN president John Skipper and writer Jason Whitlock, who saw a demand for a new outlet that channeled the network’s deep connections to the African-American community.

While the idea made sense, the site had a hard time getting off the ground, missing its summer 2015 launch date. Greg Howard wrote in depth about the turmoil while at the sports site Deadspin (an Undefeated competitor), reporting on staff dissatisfaction with Whitlock and his management style.

Whitlock was let go in June of 2015, and the future of the site remained uncertain. He touched on his departure in a blog post. “Why did I fail at The Undefeated? There are numerous reasons, including my foolish belief I could manage like a football coach. I learned there’s an art to corporate politics that I’m not good at.”

For those left behind, whether the site would launch at all began to be an open question. “I left a good job for this,” says Undefeated senior writer, Mike Wise. There was a genuine fear among the few writers hired early on that coming to work for the site was a mistake.

Whitlock did not respond to requests for an interview, but told Sporting News shortly after the official launch that he is happy for The Undefeated and admires the work they are doing. “I desperately want them to be successful and secure. In addition, the site and the launch of the site are a great look for me. The worse thing that could’ve happened is the site not launching,” Whitlock said.

ESPN executive Marie Donoghue was brought in to run the site after Whitlock left, and was tasked with finding a new leader. “Kevin’s name came up more frequently than anybody’s and most people sang his praises,” Donoghue says. “[They] thought we would never get him because he had a wonderful job at The Washington Post.”

Merida signed on after a few months of conversations. “When Kevin Merida took the job, we knew there would be order,” said Wise.

 

At The Undefeated, Merida has brought with him a collegial approach honed at the Post.

Post writer Dan Balz recalls Merida’s persistence in convincing him to stay at the paper, when he was considering leaving in 2011. “He tried to emphasize to me how important he thought I was to the Post and why he thought staying at the Post made the most sense to me journalistically and personally,” Balz remembers. His arguments were convincing, says Balz, and he is thankful to Merida for that.

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The Undefeated’s newsroom. Photo by Carlett Spike.

He would brand each year at the Post, as a way to push and motivate the staff. He dubbed one the year of ambition. “It was inspirational,” says Post writer Paul Farhi. “It was reach higher, do more, do better than what you thought you could do. Be ambitious. It was helpful.”

While there may not be one set motto for his new staff, they say they feel the weight of Merida’s support behind them. “He instills in us if you do work hard, it’ll pay off,” says Undefeated assistant editor Aaron Dodson. “That’s kind of cheesy, but that’s kind of how Kevin operates.”

Now comfortably installed at The Undefeated, nothing seems off limits for Merida. He throws around ideas for projects ranging from poetry and investigative work to launching the site’s own games. He also wants to do more collaborations with other ESPN verticals like FiveThirtyEight.

When asked who he sees as his competition, Merida is blunt: “Nobody …I don’t see anyone out there doing what we are doing.”

If he had not gone into the news business, Merida says he would have tried his luck either at the NBA or something in the arts. But he says he his work at the Undefeated is what keeps him going. “The adventure and the fun. If you live long enough and can get paid for the work you do. That’s a successful life.” 

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Carlett Spike is a freelance writer and former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @CarlettSpike.