American football fans are looking forward to the middle of February, when the sport’s two best teams square off in its biggest game, looking to claim a trophy, rings, and bragging rights. But mid-February is also the heart of Black History Month, when the country celebrates Black excellence through the ages. To honor the convergence between football’s championship game and Black History Month, CÎROC is teaming up with leading sports journalists MJ Acosta-Ruiz and Cari Champion for the latest iteration of #CIROCStands, its community-centric platform and ongoing commitment to celebrate and support the powerful voices and people within the Black community who are depicting excellence and igniting change. This month, CÎROC and Sean “Diddy” Combs are recognizing both MJ and Cari’s accomplishments, while supporting other young Black women aspiring to make it in the industry. To learn more about #CIROCStands and each woman’s views on Black excellence, mentorship, and community, Complex recently spoke with Acosta-Ruiz and Champion. Watch that video here and read more of their thoughts below, then be sure to follow CÎROC on Instagram to get more information on #CIROCStands.
MJ Acosta-Ruiz is at the top of her game. Not only is she the host of professional football’s most important show on its official channel, she’s also a successful sports podcaster and self-described #CurlyHair Advocate. But getting there wasn’t easy, and is a story of perseverance, talent, and Black excellence for the Dominican-American, who identifies as Afro-Latina. Throughout it all, she’s put in plenty of hard work, but she is also quick to acknowledge the backup and guidance she’s received from family, friends, and mentors. To support the next generation while honoring those who helped her along the way, Acosta-Ruiz is an advocate for other Black women coming up in the sports broadcasting and journalism worlds, which is why she’s honored to be highlighted in the #CIROCStands program for Black History Month.
Ahead of Black History Month, Complex got the chance to chat with the proud Afro-Latina to talk about her journey to the top of sports broadcasting, what it means for her to be there, why her work continues, and her advice to other up-and-coming women who want to emulate her career path. Read on to learn more and to see why Acosta-Ruiz wants “to leave a legacy behind that reminds people that you can win.”
MJ on the Power of Her Platform
There’s a difference between living a dream and accomplishing a goal. For me, I’m doing both at the same time. For me to have this platform means everything to me. I never take it lightly, and I never take it for granted because these positions are so few and far between across the industry, let alone for people who look like us. It’s so important to be able to share your platform with others to share their stories and experiences to larger audiences. I appreciate initiatives like #CIROCStands that provide a platform for these voices to be heard.
MJ on Inspiring Others
I want to leave a legacy behind that reminds people that you can win, your bestie can win, the girl you’ve never met can win, the guy down the street can win, everybody can win, and it’s not going to detract from what you are doing. When one of us wins, we all win and I’m proud to have a spotlight through Mr. Diddy’s initiative to continue sharing stories of mentorship that empower others to do the same.
MJ on Mentorship
I believe a lot in peer mentorship. There have been so many other women and other women of color within this space that I really admired because they were in the fight with me, and still are. I get to work alongside them, and we get to not just lift each other up, but learn from one another.
MJ on Going All In on Sports Broadcasting
I chose to go the sports route and to just throw everything into it. There was no other option really. You have to build that credibility, you have to build the reps. It’s an easy choice to make, not an easy path to follow.
MJ on Coming from a Sports Family
Sports have always been such a huge part of my life. My family’s a big sports family. My dad and I for sure have bonded my entire life over sports. Basketball was first, baseball of course, being from the Caribbean was a huge part for us. And then American football, once I got a little older, became my main love. So it’s sort of a perfect full circle now that I cover pro football as my expertise.
MJ on Pro Football
The game’s intricacies, the way that it’s played. I wanted to learn as much about it as possible. And I think the challenge of really understanding the game was something that was appealing to me.
MJ on Pro Football People
One of the aspects of the job that I love the most is meeting the players and the fans and the team personnel in person. I don’t think you can fully appreciate the game or the job without knowing the people that are behind it and the forward facing part of it as well.
MJ on Being a Black Woman in Sports Broadcasting
I think at any level in this career, especially when you come in as a woman, especially when you come in as a Black woman, as a minority, as a person of color, there is no margin for error. Unfortunately, the industry, and even the viewers, are very unforgiving. You have to be on top of your game.
MJ on Challenges & Resilience
As I progress, as I feel more comfortable in my role, I think the challenges that come with it have gotten greater, but one thing about me, I’m resilient if nothing else.
MJ on Authenticity
I think the biggest thing for me is authenticity. And to know that who you are, as you are, does not take away from your credibility or from your ability to do the job.
MJ’s Advice for Black Women in Media
Just step into that space. Take up that space and remember that you’re needed there even if others don’t agree with you.
MJ on Her Afro-Latina Heritage
When I first moved to Southern California specifically, people were so confused. They were like, “Wait a minute, you speak Spanish? You speak Spanish very well.” I’m like,“Yes, it’s my first language.” They’re like, “What? But you’re Black.” Correct. Many things can be true all at once, right? So, I identify as a Black Latina, as an Afro-Latina, especially coming from the Dominican Republic.
MJ on Intersectionality
More people in the Latino community are starting to embrace intersectionality and that huge part of our Black essence and our ancestry. I wear that proudly. It’s a very layered and a very complicated history, and one that I’ve actually really, really enjoyed learning more about and diving deeper into because now I get to share it with my niece. I get to share it with my parents who’ve never even really dug into it. It’s something I wear with a badge of honor.
MJ on Black Excellence
I think Black excellence is across the board, not just in those who are in very forward facing, very public media spaces like myself, but everybody within your own neighborhood, within your own school, within your own office, and certainly within your own family.
MJ on Her Work Never Being Done
I hope people take away the fact that I’m still very much in the fight, as aspirational as it is. And as much as I worked and fought to be in a position like this one, there’s still so much more that I want to do.
Cari Champion doesn’t just strive for greatness, she strives for excellence. Black Excellence to be exact. And her commitment to do so started when she was just a girl growing up in California. She admittedly didn’t know what her ultimate path would look like, but what kid does? Things became clear to her while studying English in college, when a guest speaker in her communications class explained that literature could be a gateway to journalism. The rest is history, literally. The West Coast native was the first Black woman to work a Monday through Friday studio show at the biggest cable network in sports, and is among the first Black women to have a sports TV show in the late-night time slot. Champion is committed to paying that forward, which is why she’s partnered with #CIROCStands Black History Month initiative “to hold the door open” and encourage young Black women pushing to follow in her footsteps.
While preparing for the pro football’s penultimate game, Champion took the time to speak to Complex about the path she’s forged in her career, the importance of telling and listening to Black stories, and why striving for excellence is always a must.
Cari on Supporting Black Journalists
I think #CIROCStands and its involvement with this particular initiative is something special. Over the years, it’s rare that someone with a huge platform like CÎROC and Diddy takes time to say, “We need to do something. We need to be celebrated.” It is starting to happen more and more, but now we are starting to understand that it’s imperative, that if we don’t put people that look like us in places to tell our stories in these big moments, then we’re missing the point of us being successful.
Cari on Uplifting Black Women Journalists
This business in general doesn’t cater to women. But then you have someone saying, “Let’s take a moment and let’s not only see them, but let’s hear them.” And that’s what #CIROCStands is doing. I don’t care who you are or what walk of life you come from, you always want to be seen and heard. And when we can have both, it is such a freeing feeling. It is such an empowering feeling. It’s a feeling that is like none other.
Cari on Black Excellence
In my field, it means that we want to tell the stories that matter. Not on a superficial level, but on a level that really requires us to do the basics of who, what, when, where, and how. It’s self-correcting, aspiring to really hear what the truth is, and speaking truth to power.
Cari on Making Black History
This is interesting, because I have been asked that before. And I don’t know if you’re the same way, but it’s very awkward to be like, “Yeah, of course I’m Black history.” But I know that I am. I know that there is a generation coming up that watched me and were like, “I want to do what she did.” Or I have mentees who tell me that now. I was the first Black woman to work Monday through Friday in a studio show on the preeminent cable sports channel. And that was in 2013, 10 years ago. And I’m like, “Gosh, that’s crazy. It took that long?” But it was still a part of Black history. And to whom, much is given, much is required. And that is the excellence of wanting to be better and tell better and show better for our culture, for our people.
I am always humbled when I get the opportunity to do something like this, to be a part of an initiative that wants to celebrate us. Because we’re still so often overlooked and our contributions are often overlooked. And when we’ve “made it,” sometimes we lose sight of us and we don’t speak boldly about who we are as Black people. I consider myself Black history in the sense that I truly am dedicated to telling our stories. I had a TV show with Jemele Hill, Cari & Jemele (Won’t) Stick to Sports. We were the first Black women to ever have a late night TV show like that, and we talked about what it was, the politics that affect us, affect our lives, the sports that affect our lives. And now I’m grateful I have my own show, The Cari Champion Show—that is Black history! We’ve been given this opportunity—an opportunity to make history. So yes, you’re right, I am part of Black history, and I’m grateful for it.
Cari on Her Following Her Dream
I didn’t know what it would look like, but I think it’s very important to be able to see it and believe it. I was probably in grade school when I saw Oprah, obviously, and then there were other women in local news that I watched, that I really loved, and I always wanted to do what they did. I didn’t quite know how to formulate the words to say it, but it felt important to see someone who looked like family doing something that felt important. When I got to college, I was able to take all these different classes, and really explore what it meant to be a journalist. My dream may have been smaller, because I couldn’t visualize what it would ultimately be, but it was always doing this, telling stories that matter.
Cari on Why Majoring in English Was So Important
If you can learn to express yourself, even just writing it down, that’ll help you tremendously when you’re speaking in front of people. It just changes your whole level of confidence and perspective.
Cari on Embracing Sports Journalism
When you’re a general assignment, local news reporter, you cover what they give you until you figure it out. I started working at a smaller channel, which is where I guess some would say I earned my stripes as a sports journalist. The more I got into the business, the more that I knew that these sports stories—where there were so many of us—weren’t being told. I felt like [certain tennis stars] were being covered unfairly. That’s when I really learned the importance of covering people that look like you, and making sure we’re telling our stories.
Cari on Her Sneaker Game
My closet is crazy. I have so many, it’s disgusting. But the reality is, it makes me feel more like me, even though I’m quick to put on some heels and a little skirt. But the sneaker gives the edge, it makes me feel like this is where I belong. It feels very comfortable, it feels very at home.
Cari on Mentoring
I’m very big and hands-on with mentoring people who are coming behind me. I believe the sole purpose that I have this platform is to hold the door open. That’s why I founded Brown Girls Dream, a non-profit organization where I mentor 50 young women. Brown Girls dream is there to guide high-potential young women of color through the early stages of their careers. We give them support and partner them with media industry veterans to give them advice and help them figure things out.
Cari’s Advice to Young Journalists
The biggest thing is just to listen. I think so many times you want to arrive and be there, and the biggest thing is to listen. Listen to your environment, listen to the people you admire or like in this business. Listen to the people who are around you. It really empowers you. You feel more confident as a journalist, as a reporter, as a Black woman in a world that doesn’t want to listen to you.
Cari on Striving for Greatness
I’ve never not known women of color to not be excellent if they’re at a certain level, because we don’t have the luxury to be mediocre.
Cari on Best Lessons Learned
Learning, listening, elegance. Stuart Scott once said to me… “Sometimes everything doesn’t deserve a response.” Sometimes your best lesson is to ignore it and stay focused on the task at hand.
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