Bomani Jones Is More Than Just the Smartest Person in Sports

Once headed for a life in academia, the TV/radio host and Twitter lightning rod is ESPN's voice of reason and most interesting personality.

Photography By Devin Christopher

Bomani Jones likes to talk. Not just in the selfish manner of someone who likes to hear himself, but as someone interested in sharing ideas with anyone who’ll listen. He’s hardly predictable, rarely brief, and full of elongated vowels. His cadence is too quick to diminish as a drawl, yet distinctly relaxed and unmistakably southern. He’s both common and unique; the approachable man with the unattainable intellect. Holding master’s degrees in both politics and economics, he’s regularly called the smartest person in sports media. But "smartest" feels too lofty for someone so grounded, no?

“I have everyman tendencies.” says Jones over the phone while overlooking the pastel glitz of South Beach. “But at this point, talking to you on the balcony of this beachfront condo, it’s very difficult for me to sell that as the everyman experience. That being said, I do feel like the everyman that somehow ended up in a beachfront condo.”

Besides, what is it to be ‘smart’ anyway? Is it retention or comprehension? What value does it have without proper dissemination? What value does that have if it devolves into mere rhetoric? Trite questions, yes, however they matter to anyone looking to amass an audience rooted in sincerity. So Jones asks himself daily, and the numbers for his ESPN radio show, The Right Time, keep growing. Considering his non-traditional background and the fact he was fired four times in five years— including once by ESPN—perhaps we should be calling him the luckiest man in sports?

You see, those four letters fucked a lot of people this year. Through controversy, circumstance, or cord cutting, three of ESPN’s most notable names—Bill Simmons, Colin Cowherd and Jason Whitlock—all departed along with hundreds of full time employees and millions of dollars in subscriptions. But from the quaint little corner of the internet in which many of us reside, only Grantland was mourned. Only Grantland mattered.

ESPN is more than a conglomerate. It’s as intrinsic and inescapable to sports fans as the sky itself. Yet despite compelling documentaries, interviews and reporting, their reliance on hot takes and insipid sound bytes have left us wondering whether the goal is driving discussion or simply drawing attention. Grantland’s existence was a tacit acknowledgement that there was more to be said; that there was more than the bottom line, that the sky rains on the just and the unjust alike. But the last thing they need is another eulogy. We just need another Grantland.

Jones, 35, couldn’t have risen to prominence at a better time. While his style differs greatly from Simmons, or for that matter any of the folks formerly associated with Grantland, he can more than match their level of substance. The Right Time is a forum for deconstructing the complex and celebrating silliness, a place where the message is never compromised and the news is only as mundane as you make it. The power of the written word remains self-evident, however, as we become more connected online and the news cycle turns faster each day, by the time the word is written, the conversation has changed. But radio, the dinosaur of all media technologies, has always allowed the discussion to happen in real time. The Right Time, even. It’s what Jones lives for.

Born in Atlanta and raised in Houston, Jones is the son of professors in economics and political science. Discussion is in his blood. A childhood surrounded by PhDs enriched it. Yet it was only after a bachelor’s from Clark Atlanta University and a master’s from Claremont that—en route a master’s in economics at UNC Chapel Hill under renowned economist Sandy Darity—our protagonist found his calling.

"I’m not going to hide the blackness to make sure that they can relate to me."

A mutual friend shared Jones’ fledgling work with the late Ralph Wiley, who complimented Jones on his writing. A year later, Jones received his first assignment upon Wiley’s recommendation for ESPN. Two years later, he was under contract with the Worldwide Leader. Briefly, that is. The one-year contract was not renewed. But hey, sometimes that’s just the way things work and it was through this turn of events that Jones found the radio. Back in North Carolina, this time at Duke as an adjunct professor on the Black Athlete in America, he was asked by a friend to host a Saturday sports show on 850 The Buzz, in Raleigh. The rest, as they say, is history.

Except, it wasn’t. A year later the station was sold and Jones read of his replacement in a press release. He made a few more stops; Hardcore Sports Radio, The Score, SB Nation, but in the interest of your time and our space, let’s just say he learned two all-important lessons on his way back to ESPN: He would never be afraid to be himself and if he lost a job, it wasn’t the end of the world.

The major breakthrough would be his relationship with Dan Le Batard. Appearances on Outside the Lines and Around the Horn raised Jones’ profile, but it wasn’t until his pairing with Le Batard on Highly Questionable that he hit his stride. Like Jones, Le Batard and his show were smart, honest, and unafraid—albeit with a different style. That “style,” of course, being Gonzalo “Papi” Le Batard, his Cuban immigrant father and co-host. Papi’s uninitiated musings provided comic relief, softening the hard truths Dan was compelled to tell. Together, the three would find instant chemistry, making Highly unquestionably the most fun and thought provoking show in sports television. You can’t tell who’s having the best time, but Dan is certainly the most grateful.

“Because my father doesn’t know very much, I was having trouble without a peer to bounce off of. I was having trouble with the efficiency of the show. I was getting worn out. The television show took twice as long to do,” says Le Batard. “So having a peer who challenged my thinking and made me, and the TV show better and easier, was hugely helpful.”

Lest we be confused that he would’ve been happy with anyone providing him relief, Le Batard clarifies.

“He’s unlike any voice in sports journalism and it’s so hard to be distinctive at the ‘hot take’ trough,” he says. “It’s so hard to be a unique voice and a unique thinker when so many people are gasbagging.”

"Not everybody can afford to do the right thing. All of us are swallowing something every day to keep getting these checks."

Where Jones’ academic background may once have been considered an impediment, it now liberates him to speak with an unmatched ease, though he doesn’t mistake it for authority.

“I know a lot of people think I’m not accepting of opposing views, but I really just enjoy the discussion,” says Jones. “Sometimes there are things I want to change people’s mind on, but the biggest thing is there are logical problems in this stuff to work out. When you get to the bottom of the logic, I think you find the conclusion you should ultimately reach.”

This fierce commitment to logic is what separates Jones from so many other talking heads. When their sound and fury signify nothing, his volume never comes at the cost of his sensibilities. When they feign real talk, he tells us why we shouldn’t trust ‘em. He’s not preaching or performing, he’s empowering, and never more so than when things are at their worst.

Last year, when Donald Sterling made headline news, so did Jones for reminding his peers how little they’d actually accomplished. His impromptu call to Le Batard’s radio show was 11 minutes of humor and indifference as he simmered, before coming to a rolling boil of righteous anger. A YouTube clip of the audio currently has over a million views.

“So when all these guys get on their soapbox, wag their fingers, and start talking about, ‘We won’t tolerate this racism. We won’t tolerate what Donald Sterling said.’ What they’re not tolerating is the fact that what he said was impolite and what he said was gauche,” says Jones. “That’s what their problem is. But when Donald Sterling was out here toying with people’s lives on things that really matter—matters of life and death—the media, the NBA, these sponsors and all these people who now want to get patted on the back for what good people they are, didn’t say a mumbling word. They can all kiss my behind. Every single one of them.”

This season brought more of the same as Thabo Sefolosha’s brutality case with the NYPD went all but ignored while many piled on an easier target in domestic abuser, Greg Hardy. Again, Jones refused to let them slide. It’s a reflex borne not of pride, but perspective.

“I tend to view the media through a more skeptical lens because it was so recently that I began to view myself as a member of the media,” says Jones. “So I’m in a position now where I have enough understanding of the way media works that I know the places where media should be defended that the average person cannot understand. But I also think I’m able to see things about the media where if you’re in it, you can’t see the forest for the trees. Having both of those, I do think puts me in the position where in some cases, I do have to be the person to talk about something, because I have a unique vantage.”

But some wonder if we should be having these conversations at all. Sports have long been an escape from our lives. Why ruin their fun with such grievances? So if addressed, many topics ripe for discussion are often dismissed with a mouthful of platitudes before moving onto the next segment. This isn’t to say that Jones is the only one capable of addressing these issues. But he’s certainly the most comfortable. The question is, how comfortable are people with him?

Some folks just don’t like the man, much less agree with him. To them he’s a racist, vainglorious, rabble-rouser, who hates our great country. Or it could be that he forces them to reconcile their attitudes on race with their enjoyment of sports, or lack thereof. Whatever the case, Jones welcomes the company. Ever since those early days at 850 The Buzz, he realized that people are just as inclined to listen to someone they don’t like, if only to be reminded why. Callers would talk about his racist agenda only to be deconstructed and dismissed. They’d just call in again the next week. These days, anyone who follows him on Twitter knows that some people like to get mad and Jones serves as a compelling foil. Call him what you want, but be prepared to be called out.

“I’m a black man. There’s no way around that. I’m not fighting it. I’m not hiding it. I revel in it in many ways,” says Jones. “I recognize that there are many people who will never be able to see me beyond being a black man. There are a lot of people who will relate to me even more because I’m a black man. I think there are things that people can relate to even if they’re not black. But I’m not going to hide the blackness to make sure that they can relate to me.”

When it comes to matters of race, quite frankly, we’re past the point of bombastic sermonizing anyway. If things can’t be approached with logic or supported with research, smart audiences will tune out and Twitter will tear you apart. Jones knows the terrain well and navigates it deftly.

During October’s mess at the University of Missouri, he turned his attention to the questions that weren’t being asked. Some were humorous, others profound. Perhaps the football team chose not to play after seeing it as a welcome alternative to not eating? What were the group dynamics of deciding to risk their scholarships anyway? What of those black players who identified more with their white teammates? What if some of these kids just couldn’t afford the revolution? “Not everybody can afford to do the right thing,” he said. “All of us are swallowing something every day to keep getting these checks.”

And there it is. Bomani Jones may be the smartest guy in sports. He may be the wittiest. But his defining characteristic is that ability to effortlessly balance that righteous anger with carefree glee, his indelible blackness with the needs of a largely white audience. He has the confidence to be wrong and the charisma to convince you he’s not. He’s simply a man trying to ask the right questions. In an age where these questions can no longer be avoided, it’s arguably made him ESPN’s most valuable talent. And it starts with listening—not to himself, but to what his audience needs to hear.

“Whatever we’re talking about, I can talk about it naturally. I had to learn how teaching economics as a grad student to college freshmen,” says Jones. “The thing with that was, ‘How do you put this into English?’ How do you take all this jargon and make where they’re not getting caught up in what the terms are and just processing the basic ideas? So what I think I can do with radio is—whether it’s an issue large or small—is cut through the noise and very simply explain what is actually going on. I think that’s what makes the show more successful than anything else. Then once you’re having a conversation, you can go through the natural rhythms of conversation. But when you’re always concerned with how you’re going to say something, it’s hard to be natural about what you’re going to say.”

A few pages ago, before starting his winding road through sports media, Jones considered becoming a public intellectual. You know, the Michael Eric Dyson type. If he had the PhD and did the right type of writing, booked the right talk shows, he could’ve been a star, or whatever you call someone who does such things well. While that time has passed, he’s still a man with a sharp intellect and a national audience. Yet he swears isn’t driven by a need to lead or even profit. Well, at least any more than he is now. Yes, some big names have left room for him to advance, but if he’s going to be on the marquee, he believes it will be because the people determined so.

"There are things that you can do and influences you can have once you get to that level that I would love to have,” says Jones. “So I can’t say that I wouldn’t want to get to that level, but I’ve only really thought about doing quality work. Then the quality work goes from there.”

To those who still may want more for or from Jones, Le Batard serves us with a simple reminder.

“He’s got big platforms for his age. There aren’t a lot of precedents for someone his age having these kinds of platforms and there’s no precedent for someone with his path having these kinds of platforms,” says Le Batard. “Usually ESPN gives these platforms to traditional newspaper journalists. I don’t feel like he’s underachieving. I feel like he’s climbing.”

Sports media is changing and whether they wanted to or not, so is ESPN. Which is why we need Bomani Jones right where he is, reminding us that great things can still happen underneath that big sky.

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