"Unguarded" premieres tonight at 10:30 p.m. ET on CNN
Rachel Nichols on other women in sports broadcasting: "You really see incredible support"
"I'm an adrenaline junkie," says Nichols
“Unguarded” with Rachel Nichols premieres tonight at 10:30 p.m. ET and CNN’s newest host sat down with CNN Digital to talk about hot-button issues surrounding athletes, her experiences as a woman in sports broadcasting and why “Unguarded” is far from your typical sports show. Below is an edited version of that discussion.
CNN: How is “Unguarded” going to be different? What can the audience expect to see?
Rachel Nichols: There’s all kinds of sports shows and most of them are on sports networks. I did that for a long time so I like that stuff. I am a viewer of those shows. Those shows are geared toward hardcore sports fans who can tell you the third stringer on their favorite teams and every little detail. We want it to be a show for a more general fan that’s looking at sports from the sort of bigger picture perspective. This is not the same show I would be doing on another network. This show is very purposefully on CNN.
CNN: Most people don’t associate CNN with sports coverage. How are you going to make CNN a sports destination?
Rachel Nichols: I like to think of it kind of as opening up a newspaper. I think for a long time news on CNN was politics and hard news. Well that’s the first section of the paper, really. Part of the idea is to have this be the whole newspaper. We’re the sports section. I like the fact that CNN is saying, “Hey, the broader audience is interested in sports, along with their finance and everything else, and we’re going to be that component.”
CNN: You were in China interviewing LeBron James. What was that like?
Rachel Nichols: LeBron James is one of the most documented athletes in the world. Finding something new about LeBron James is not an easy task. However, one thing a lot of people might not be aware of is that every summer LeBron takes a trip for about two weeks to Asia and conducts the business that comes with being a global phenomenon – promoting his sponsorship deals, generally trying to increase his popularity in that half of the globe, promoting basketball, shooting some commercials.
It’s a business trip and it’s a pretty crazy business trip because like a lot of people on business trips away from home, he has to figure out things with the language, he has to eat food he’s not used to, he’s been on a plane and he’s jet lagged; and I liked the idea that there was this crazy superstar having what many of our viewers will recognize as a common experience with the travel and the jet lag and missing your family. LeBron actually invited us. It was the first time he ever allowed cameras on this trip. We had all kinds of exclusive access with him. It was a great example of what “Unguarded” can do.
CNN: Do you feel certain camaraderie with other women in sports broadcasting? I noticed you sent a congratulatory tweet to Sage Steel when she was named host of ESPN’s NBA Countdown.
Rachel Nichols: Absolutely. There’s definitely a “we’re all in this together” feeling about it, at least for me. People love the word “catfight;” they love to pit women against each other. One of the things I love about women in sports broadcasting is that you actually don’t see that. You really see incredible support. I know it doesn’t make for as sexy a story that that’s the case, but it actually is the case and the fact that you see the colleagues that you respect doing so well is really fun and, again, moves the ball forward. The fact that Sage is hosting NBA Countdown is a great example. I don’t think that job would have necessarily gone to a woman 20 years ago.
CNN: Is there a particular sport or major sporting event that you enjoy covering the most?
Rachel Nichols: I’m an adrenaline junkie, so whatever time of the year it is where the sport matters the most, that’s what I’m interested. Right now it’s the World Series. When the NBA Playoffs are going on I’ll tell you it’s the NBA and so on. That makes me a huge bandwagon jumper, I recognize, but that’s the answer. It’s when stuff matters the most.
CNN: What are your thoughts on how the NFL is handling head injuries?
Rachel Nichols: We’ve seen enormous change in the last five years, and we’ll see enormous change continue. I think the overall question is going to be: Is there a point where the information fans are hearing about what happens to these players from playing the game of football, the more stories we see, the more heavy hits there are, at some point does that diminish the ability to enjoy the game as you’re watching it? What we have started to see is more and more parents who are saying to their kids, “You know what? I don’t think I want my kid playing football.” That’s going to have a significant impact. Baseball used to be the national pastime. We have seen the NFL overtake that. There’s no question that our most popular sport is football. That doesn’t mean it’s always gonna be football.
CNN: Does social media impact the way you cover sports?
Rachel Nichols: I pay attention to social media. The biggest impact I would say that it has on me is actually reading the athletes’ social media accounts because the information that they give you is so much more insightful and provides so much more access than we got before social media.
CNN: In the last year we’ve had a few current pro athletes say they’re gay. Do you think we’ll see more prominent athletes coming out in the future?
Rachel Nichols: I do. I think that as we see more people talk about it in society and talk openly in society, we’ll see the same thing reflected in sports and I think that it’s fantastic that people are comfortable talking about who they are as people and the fact that sports is becoming more accepting of that is a terrific thing and something we should celebrate.
CNN: Should college athletes be paid?
Rachel Nichols: It’s complicated. That’s part of the problem. That’s why nobody’s come up with some genius solution. Do you give them a stipend? If you do, where does that money come from? The athletic departments will tell you that the money they use that they get in from this tremendous revenue from football has gone to the women’s lacrosse team or the men’s gymnastics team. If they use some of that money to pay the football players, then the lacrosse team or the gymnastics team doesn’t get equipment or they don’t get funded anymore. Do they pay all athletes? Does the lacrosse team also deserve payment? Is it just the football team because that team earns revenue? That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay these athletes. It doesn’t mean that the answer should just be “we give up,” but I do think that it is more complicated than simply saying “they should get paid.”