Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame: Robin Roberts, the Inspiration at the Anchor Desk
SVG is profiling this year’s 10 Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame inductees in the weeks leading up to the ceremony on Dec. 13 at the New York Hilton. For more information, visit sportsbroadcastinghalloffame.org.
Robin Roberts truly is one of a kind. Not only did she achieve the rare feat of finding as much — if not more — success in her second act as she did in her first, but she has navigated her Hall of Fame career with grace, courage, resilience, and the kind of effortless warmth, charisma, and down-to-earth demeanor that makes everyone, from colleagues to viewers, feel like a friend.
“Robin is a national treasure, and working with her was a career highlight for me,” says ESPN’s Bob Ley, who co-anchored SportsCenter with her in the 1990s. “Her skill and poise, her class, her values: they’re all self-evident. And then there’s her sense of responsibility to those who look up to her. That’s a large part of who she is.”
Born in Tuskegee, AL, Roberts grew up in Pass Christian, MI, where her passion for sports broadcasting began simply as a passion for sports.
“I wanted to be a professional athlete, but there’s that little thing called ability,” she laughs. “I had the heart and the desire, but, after college, that was pretty much going to be it for me. But, I had already realized in high school my senior year that, you know what, I’m not going to make it to Wimbledon as a tennis player, but maybe I could get there as a broadcaster.”
Roberts played basketball and tennis throughout her four years at Southeastern Louisiana University, but her primary focus was on being a communications major and jumpstarting a career in sports broadcasting. After graduating in 1983, she pursued her ambition at TV stations across the South — from Hattiesburg, MS; to Biloxi, MS; to Nashville; to Atlanta — with one goal in mind: to eventually work at ESPN.
“I remember when ESPN came on the air, and I was, like, I’m going to work for ESPN one day,” she recalls. “People were, like, First of all, no, because you’re a woman, and second of all, it’s not going to be around that long.”
But she was prepared to wait until she felt ready to join the sports network. After deferring an initial job offer in 1987, she accepted an offer made by then-Executive Editor John A. Walsh in 1990. And she never looked back: “It was everything I hoped and dreamed.”
Roberts spent 15 years with ESPN, beginning as an anchor on the 2:30 a.m. ET edition of SportsCenter and working her way up to the coveted position of co-anchor on the 6 p.m. SportsCenter alongside Ley and Charley Steiner, whom she still considers close friends.
“Robin is an elegant, graceful, and dignified woman, who happens to be really, really nice,” says Steiner, now the radio play-by-play voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers. “The years working with Robin and Bob Ley I will always cherish. She is so smart and so natural. She illuminates the television screen in the same way she does when she walks into a room.”
In addition to SportsCenter, Roberts’s tenure at ESPN also produced a number of career highlights: covering the Original Dream Team at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, witnessing the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team’s World Cup Victory in 1999, and, yes, making it to Wimbledon as a broadcaster.
“I cried because it was a goal I had set for myself,” she remembers. “I didn’t have a tennis racket in my hands, I had a microphone, but it was like Wimbledon, check.”
She may not have become a professional athlete, but Roberts tapped into her years of playing basketball and love for the game to help shape ESPN’s coverage of women’s college basketball.
“One of the things that became apparent to all of us at ESPN was that she always wanted to get better,” says Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer George Bodenheimer, former president of ESPN. “And she had an aura about her that demonstrated her desire to learn, which is an interesting and not altogether common trait and one of the things that sets her apart.
“She put a stamp on our coverage of women’s college basketball and particularly the tournament,” he continues. “Here she was, an ex-player, an expert in college basketball, and a very high-profile prominent person to help put women’s college basketball — at least, the TV coverage of it — on the map.”
In 2002, Roberts began contributing to ABC’s Good Morning America in addition to her role at ESPN. After three years and a promotion to full-time co-anchor on the successful morning show, she decided it was time to leave sports broadcasting behind. But her love of sports — and ESPN — remains firmly intact: “Sports in general, ESPN in particular will always be a part of my DNA.”
Roberts’s star shines just as brightly as it did in the 1990s and early 2000s, and she continues to be beloved by those who have worked with her.
“I was fortunate, for a brief period, to share a corner office with Robin many years ago,” says SportsCenter anchor Steve Levy, “hoping that some of her wit, smarts, charm, and charisma would rub off on me. Never happened. Robin exhibits class and the high road in everything she does. … Everyone on television is referred to as ‘talent,’ but she is just that: skilled in everything she does, making the difficult look easy.”
In 2012, Roberts took a leave of absence from GMA to undergo treatment for myelodysplastic syndrome, a disease of the blood and bone marrow that she contracted as a result of treatment for breast cancer in 2005. She returned to GMA in 2013 and, later that year, was honored with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs.
“She was an inspiration for me,” says SportsCenter anchor Linda Cohn. “She never doubted herself. When I asked her once where does that inner confidence come from, knowing you are talking sports in a man’s world, she replied, ‘You have to believe you are the best at what you do, and that’s where it comes from.’”
Today, she continues to co-anchor GMA alongside George Stephanopoulos, pursue insightful and in-depth interviews, and advocate for cancer research and bone-marrow donation. As for her next act? Roberts recently formed her own production company, Rock’n Robin Productions, to create programming that she hopes will both entertain and educate viewers.
“I’m so grateful that I’m no longer the story of my health issues and actually put the focus back on others and learn [their stories], learn that we all have loss and we all have these challenges,” she says. “It’s what we learn from that time, not to help ourselves but to be a lesson for others, and that’s what I want to continue to do.”