Cari Champion is laughing out loud, maybe more intensely than her television audience is accustomed to witnessing. The host of popular ESPN program First Take is trying to remember the last time she danced down a Soul Train line, and what song was playing. The thought really gets her going. “You know what,” she begins, still laughing, “I’ve come down many a Soul Train line! I want to say during the US Open last year in New York at a little house party gathering, I remember doing a Soul Train line! It’s just universal! The song was probably whatever was popular at the moment.”
Champion, a native of Pasadena, CA and graduate of UCLA, aggressively pursued her moment to become a professional journalist and reporter, eventually landing a role as court-side reporter for the Tennis Channel. With her serve perfected Champion took a swing at sports television juggernaut ESPN, proving to be a perfect match for the First Take set.
In this exclusive conversation she discusses handling sensitive subject matter, setting a good example, and being honest and fair.
SoulTrain.com: From your perspective as a professional broadcast journalist, Cari, give your opinion of Don Cornelius’ impact on television history.
Cari Champion: I’m going to tell you a story. Jody Watley is my next door neighbor in Los Angeles.
SoulTrain.com: Wait! Stop! Seriously?
Cari Champion: Yep! True story!
Soul Train.com: Wow!
Cari Champion: But it’s not like I can just go knock on her door and say, “Hey Jody, it’s Cari; let’s go hang out!” I don’t know her like that. I live in Connecticut now, but when I was there I’d see her. I’d walk my dog, she had a dog; we’d say “Hi”. When I knew Don Cornelius passed away, I just happened to see her. I thought to myself, ‘This is history.’ If I don’t take a moment just to talk to her, and tell her what it meant to me and hear what it meant for her…
SoulTrain.com: What an opportunity! What did she say to you?
Cari Champion: She sat there and told me about the history and what it meant. When she was growing up there was no place to go and listen to music where they could perform their art. I’m paraphrasing. She made such perfect sense because growing up, whether you watched it or not, no matter who was the host, watching Soul Train was truly a rite of passage! What Don did was illogical. You don’t think about it until it’s gone; it’s one of those things you don’t appreciate until it’s gone.
SoulTrain.com: You sound like you appreciate it a great deal.
Cari Champion: I do! That was the first time I saw some of the groups I loved. That was my first affinity for wanting to go see Bobby Brown perform. When Don Cornelius passed away, I sadly thought, ‘I wonder how many people really know about who he was. Do they know what he’s provided for generations to come with the doors he opened?’
SoulTrain.com: Entertainment aside, what was it Don Cornelius provided for you?
Cari Champion: Questlove said in the article he wrote, when he turned on Soul Train he saw that Black was beautiful. I thought that, too! You saw all these images that are relatable, that are beautiful, that are accepted and that are on television. So it made it okay. I also feel that privilege sitting in front of a camera, being an African American woman. I know that it’s saying something! It’s opening doors, opening eyes. People are looking and saying, “I can do that, too!” That’s what Don Cornelius did. It was amazing. His legacy and what he’s done, I don’t think it should be forgotten. I remember Jody being sad but she was still like, “If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be here.” It was a wonderful moment. It gave me chills.
SoulTrain.com: Cari, when people see you on TV, does it matter to you who and what they are? Does it matter if they’re black or white or whatever their beliefs are?
Cari Champion: No, no, no! I want to pave the way! I want to do what Pam Oliver did; I want to do what Oprah has done, I want to do what Barbara Walters has done! I’m well aware of my image. I want you to watch me, I want you to listen. I want you to enjoy me for who I am. I’m standing on the shoulders of women who came before me. If you turn on the television, and you identify with me no matter who or what you are, girl or boy, and I made an impact on you, then my job is done!
SoulTrain.com: You appear to have a great job. You all touch on some sensitive topics on First Take, especially when the topic is death. When a sports figure passes away, whether their life and career has been positive or negative, how you do portray it honestly but respectfully in that live setting, and without trying to offend anyone?
Cari Champion: That makes me remember the passing of [Los Angeles Lakers owner] Jerry Buss. It was more so what he’s done and what will happen, total–what he did with the organization and franchise, and then what will happen now. What’s the next chapter for the Buss family, Laker Nation, and everyone else? How we portray it? You have to be honest. You have to say what they’ve done.
SoulTrain.com: So what about Buss was negative?
Cari Champion: For Jerry Buss, in my opinion, there was nothing we could say that was negative. We were very honest about what he did and where he came from. He literally rose from nothing and became something. He turned that organization into a winning franchise that has a legacy. He passes it on to his children who are clearly embattled, the whole franchise became gray, and you have to portray all of that! That’s honest and fair. What our show does well is approach those topics.
SoulTrain.com: Taking on any touchy topic has to be a difficult thing to do, right?
Cari Champion: It’s not easy to talk about something so layered and make it understandable and fair. When Ray Lewis announced his retirement, I thought, ‘What a great guy,’ and so did others without mentioning what happened to him in Atlanta. When Ray Lewis came up as a topic on our show, you have to incorporate the good and the bad. You heard about him being a tremendous leader, but we had to talk about everything because if we didn’t that’s not fair or honest. When you’re being honest and your tone is right, in my opinion it’s not what you say it’s how you say it. If what you’re saying is fact, great, but it’s still how you say it. It’s the honesty in your voice, the humility, the truth, the toughness. We’re all just drawing on facts and history.
SoulTrain.com: First Take made some music history. How well does the new theme created by producer Amadeus represent what the show is now?
Cari Champion: You know, I don’t know. That’s a good question. We had Wale on the show, too, talking about it! I know I truly, truly enjoy it. I think it’s fun, I like the beat; I like the words and the beat. The beat is very catchy and you remember it. It’s fun, it’s light, and it’s a part of the show. I think the theme sets the tone for what’s about to happen. We talk about serious topics, but we also laugh. It truly is infotainment. It’s hard to get that every single day, so sit back and enjoy it!
SoulTrain.com: Apparently people enjoy sitting back watching your First Take show mates–stars Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith–bicker back and forth with one another. Are there times when you feel their discussions get too heated?
Cari Champion: There are situations that are awkward and uncomfortable. This is live television. But it’s the energy that you feel. It’s hard to describe unless you’ve sat on that set. You know by the way you look at them, or the way they look at one another, that this may be a time to step in and interject. Sometimes I agree with Skip, sometimes I agree with Stephen A., but my job is not to take sides. I always just try to remember to be the voice of reason.
SoulTrain.com: So in that role, is it more important for you to be viewed as professional or classy?
Cari Champion: I hope both! I hope that I’m both, because if I’m not…that’s unfortunate. I think I’m trying to be professional. I’m trying to remain in the moment, trying to be true to myself and who I am. I’m listening well and paying attention. When things don’t go your way, as a professional journalist you want to always have things under control. I never want to panic. I always want to relax. When viewers are watching me they feel that. If that comes across as professional and classy, that’s great.
SoulTrain.com: Okay Cari, tell us about a time growing up where you found yourself in the middle of a conflict you had to defuse.
Cari Champion: I went to a lot of schools that were racially diverse, lots of different backgrounds. And there were a lot of stereotypes. So when I was in high school there was this one time right around the time the Rodney King incident happened. People were wondering what was going to happen, why did the riots happen, and it became a really big argument on our campus. We all decided we had to talk about what it meant for African Americans to see Rodney King be treated the way he was, what it meant to white people, to Asian people, what it meant for justice in general. I found myself defusing a lot of arguments involving a lot of myths. That’s when I decided I wanted to run for some type of class office, whether it be class president, or treasurer, or anything like that. Some place where I can find myself in the midst of debate, an argument, anything where I could set the record straight with a tone of humility and some sense of wisdom.
–Mr. Joe walker
“The Word Heavyweight Champion” Mr. Joe Walker, a senior contributor for SoulTrain.com, staff writer for Muskegon Tribune Newspaper, and feature writer for City Locs, is an award-winning entertainment and news journalist and columnist published thousands of times regionally, nationally, internationally, and online. Former Editor In Chief of XPOZ Magazine, his work has graced the pages and covers of Notion Magazine, Kalamazoo Gazette Newspaper, Real Detroit Weekly, and MLive.com. He loves to create, loves that you read. Follow him on Twitter @mrjoewalker, connect with him on Facebook, and also visit ByMrJoeWalker.blogspot.com.