Growing up in Southern California, Cari Champion loved running track and playing basketball and running track.
“That’s how Los Angeles raised me — through basketball,” the ESPN anchor and espnW contributor, 42, tells PEOPLE.
So it caught her by surprise when neither sport ended up being the one to ultimately convince her to turn athletics into a career.
“The Williams sisters,” Champion says. “When I first saw them play tennis, for a young black girl to watch people who look like me playing a sport I had never paid attention to before and excel at it at such a high level, I was drawn to them. I was drawn to the sport. I was drawn to sports in general because of that.”
Following a career in local journalism and stints as an entertainment reporter at The Insider, Hollywood 411 and Starz Entertainment, Champion landed her first sports-focused gig at The Tennis Channel. Then in 2013, the UCLA grad joined ESPN2’s First Take, where she shared the debate table with commentators Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith.
By July 2015 Champion became a SportsCenter anchor, moving to SportsCenter Coast-to-Coast as a coanchor to join David Lloyd in February 2016. Most recently, Champion headed to SportsNation as the third host of ESPN’s afternoon program that tackles both sports and pop culture. And somewhere in there, she found time to launch a podcast, Be Honest with Cari Champion, on espnW.
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“The podcast started one day in a broke down cafeteria on the Bristol campus,” Champion says, referring to ESPN’s Connecticut facility. “It was a makeshift cafeteria. We hadn’t had our new cafeteria built. And I went to the ladies who run espnW and I said, ‘Hey, I want a platform, I want a voice.’ And these ladies said, ‘Absolutely.’ They didn’t think twice.”
She adds of the podcast’s name, “It spoke to my journey of being true to myself and being authentic. Then it translated to more because every time I did an interview, I would really try to reveal more myself in order to make my guests feel more comfortable so they could reveal more of themselves.”
Since Be Honest‘s 2016 inception guests have included athletes Kobe Bryant, Olympic track and field sprinter Allyson Felix and UFC champion Amanda Nunes, as well as actors and musicians like Sheryl Crow, Snoop Dogg and Kevin Hart. Now the podcast will become a salon series on espnW, taping its first installment featuring guests Chloe Kim and Amy Purdy in front of a live audience Tuesday at the ABC studios in New York City.
“It really is something for women, about women, encouraging women, and it’s rare to have that out there; just a touch base,” Champions says. “You say, ‘Okay, she’s going through what I’m going through.’ “
Just like on the air, the Los Angeles Lakers devotee won’t shy away from covering topical subjects such as workplace harassment and gender inequality.
“These issues have been a part of our society and normalized for so long,” Champion laments. “And women especially, we’ve been socialized to be polite. So if someone is making us feel comfortable, we don’t say, ‘Hey you know what? That makes me uncomfortable. Please don’t say that.’ Instead we laugh it off. Tons of times I’ve laughed off an inappropriate comments or a snide remark. Then I realize, wait, hold on that’s not the way it is. We feel for demanding certain things because we don’t want to cause any problems. Again it’s the way we’ve been socialized, which is why you have to have a few agitators in society to say: ‘No, that’s not okay.’ “
Champion recognizes that speaking up in a society where athletes are being told to “shut up and dribble” and former colleagues like Jemele Hill have been reprimanded for criticizing President Donald Trump, expressing an opinion comes with a risk. But it’s one Champion feels she must take.
“I can’t sleep at night. My stomach doesn’t feel right. I can’t be in a world where I ignore things for comfort. That means I’m complicit,” she asserts. “If it bothers me or it moves me, I’m gonna talk about it. That’s the whole point of what we have been given our platforms for.”