Quick: What comes to mind when you think of college football? Millions of fans might say College GameDay — ESPN’s pregame ritual that’s become synonymous with the sport itself. Hosts and commentators like Kirk Herbstreit, Desmond Howard and Lee Corso populate the Saturday morning show, previewing the day’s biggest matchups and engaging in pointed debate, banter and storytelling. It’s a weekly warmup that’s been a fan favorite for 30 years, but there’s a new face in the familiar — and all-male — cast: Her name is Maria Taylor.
“I feel like I’m in the right place, right time, but also the right person,” says Taylor. “There’s a push to bring diversity to the forefront of sports.… I don’t know if it’s a new movement, but I’m riding the wave.”
Taylor was hired by ESPN in 2012; since 2014, she has worked for the SEC Network. This past May, the week she was turning 30, she got the call offering her the job reporting for GameDay and ABC’s Saturday Night Football (she replaced Sam Ponder, who left to host ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown). As the first African-American female reporter to lead ESPN’s premier college football programs, Taylor’s arrival may have seemed sudden, but she’s been in the trenches — and has the chops as a former athlete and seasoned journalist.
“IT’S NOT ABOUT YOUNG GIRLS WANTING TO BE ANALYSTS. IT’S ABOUT GIRLS REALIZING THAT THEY CAN DO ANYTHING.” – JESSICA MENDOZA, ESPN ANALYST AND REPORTER
Taylor graduated in 2009 from the University of Georgia, where she studied broadcasting, played basketball and was a three-time All-SEC star in volleyball. With an offer to play professional volleyball in hand — a move that would’ve suspended her media career — she sought out her coach for advice. “I was going to play professionally in Puerto Rico,” Taylor explains. “But [UGA head coach] Andy Landers encouraged me — actually, he kind of scolded me — not to put my career goals on hold.”
She forged ahead and is now an ESPN rising star, but her network is not without turmoil. Still considered the mother ship for jobs in sports media, ESPN has been accused of political partisanship, is hemorrhaging cable subscribers (13 million lost since 2011) and recently announced its third round of layoffs in two year. One must question Taylor’s long-term future at the network.
Taylor spent the first 10 years of her life in Chicago before moving just outside Atlanta. The 6-foot-2 middle child in a family of giants — her father and her brother are both 6-foot-7 and her younger sister is 6 feet — is quick to claim the title of “most athletic” among her relatives. “It was definitely me,” she says, and, for emphasis: “I was the only one who played all four years of college sports.”
Thanks no doubt to her FBI operative father, Taylor has always been comfortable in front of the camera. “I just figured that my room was bugged,” she tells OZY. “Boys would try to sneak over in high school, and it was like, ‘Uh, I don’t think that’s a good idea.’” Her affinity for the camera was an asset from the start, but her first job after graduation — covering UGA athletics — posed an unexpected challenge. Tasked with interviewing friends and former teammates, Taylor found it “depressing,” she reflects. “I had to redefine myself. The toughest thing was realizing that the story wasn’t about me anymore.”
In 2013, she earned an MBA and then joined SEC, where her roles ranged from hosting SEC Nation to serving as a football reporter alongside Brent Musburger to working volleyball and women’s basketball events. And then she got “the call” and everything changed. But change has been taking place in sports journalism for the better part of a decade. From leading ESPN personalities like Linda Cohn and Jackie MacMullan to current industry favorites Jemele Hill, Katie Nolan and Rachel Nichols, women occupy a growing segment of the field. Still, it’s rare to see an African-American woman prominently featured on a major network. And in today’s highly politicized climate, criticizing ESPN for being partisan has become easy sport for pundits and trolls. Exhibit A: Fox Sports Radio’s Clay Travis, who’s morphed into a outsize media personality largely by poking at ESPN’s perceived liberal bias. “Linda Cohn was suspended for saying that ESPN has gotten too political,” Travis said on HLN’s Across America, referencing Jemele Hill’s September 2017 tweets about Donald Trump. “If you suspend [Cohn], it seems crazy that you wouldn’t suspend somebody for saying that the president of the United States is a white supremacist.”
Taylor acknowledges that “politics has become an intersection that everyone has to cross” — and issues like the NFL protests force reporters to engage politically — “but I know that my role is not to give opinion.” Still, when University of Missouri football players joined race-related protests in 2015, Taylor was one of the first reporters on the scene. “My focus wasn’t just showing what they were doing, but understanding why,” she explains. “I’m going to attack stories a little differently when I’m forced to talk about politics.”
And when the camera’s not rolling? Having benefited from relationships with prominent mentors like ABC’s Robin Roberts and ESPN’s Joe Tessitore, Taylor knew she wanted to help other women with similar goals. In 2015, she co-founded Winning Edge Leadership Academy, a nonprofit aimed at providing educational support and mentorship opportunities for minorities and women seeking careers in sports. “There are so many kids that want to break into sports but don’t know how,” she says. “We’re trying to connect the dots.” As more young women see faces like Taylor’s on their TV screens, the current shift in the industry is bound to continue. And to listen to ESPN’s Jessica Mendoza, the first female analyst in baseball history, that shift signals a much larger movement: “It’s not about young girls wanting to be analysts. It’s about girls realizing that they can do anything.”
So what’s next for Taylor? She definitely wants to branch out beyond sports; for a long time, hosting a morning show — like Roberts — was the ultimate goal. Lately, though, she’s leaning toward original content creation. “The lane I’m in is great,” says Taylor, but she’d love to produce her own projects down the line.
There’s your preview, GameDay fans. Stay tuned for the action.